I take a look at the third iteration on the Serious Sam franchise.
Serious Sam 3 is, in many ways, a refinement of the previous games. Nevertheless, it shows a sophistication in Croteam that you rarely see in even AAA titles today. I hope the finances agree, but in my opinion SS3 lays waste to the idea that AA titles are going extinct. Where most AAA titles are most interested in reducing risk, a game like SS3 can come in with some solid game design and polished aesthetics, and be a thoroughly entertaining ride.
SS3 takes some pains to wedge a story into the ridiculous narrative forced by the level design, but paints it just thinly enough that it comes off as satire of the current medium, yet liberally enough that the game’s pacing is unperturbed from a modern shooter. I see this as going to a lot of effort to offer affordances to the player that they’re used to from AAA titles.
Serious Sam 3, if you haven’t played the previous games, is an FPS with a very distinct pattern. It’s known for it’s massive hordes of enemies, but the game actually has a “classical” difficulty curve. You fight a single new monster, or a small number of new monsters, then the number of monsters increases until you can hardly handle them any more, and then you get a new gun which makes handling them easier. Rinse and repeat with a new monster, and combinations thereof.
This game is no different. In fact, even the setting, the monsters, and to a lesser extent the level design has striking similarities to older Serious Sam games. The thing that sets this game and its predecessors apart from the herd is the detailed attention to game design basics. The monsters, for example, have excellent signalling, whether it’s their distinct silhouettes, or “wake-up” and “identify” noises (which are used to tell the player that a particular type of monster is in the area, and that they’ve identified the player), to the now signature distant scream of the beheaded kamikaze.
It’s the interplay of the elements which make this series, and this iteration has drawn the lines in a clearer and more pristine way than its predecessors, whilst still maintaining the variety and chaos. The weapons and monsters laid out on a bed of the playing field — the levels. Each of these things are simple, but together they create something wonderful.
On the monsters front, all monsters have a relatively trivial behaviour. There’s no “AI” to speak of. They also have a singular strength and some weaknesses, and its up to you to find out. Luckily, the levels will dole the monsters out at a pace at which you can “figure out” how to deal with each monster without much trouble. It’s when different types of monsters are added that the complexity ramps up.
For example, there is the Gnaar, the first monster you encounter in the game. This large one-eyed beast will simply run towards you at medium pace and do a melee attack. In the beginning you have only a pistol, and killing these is stressful. By contrast, there are beheaded rocketeers, who will simply stand there and shoot slow moving rockets at you. These are easy to dodge, and the pistol is ideal for taking them out.
However, soon you will get a shotgun, which makes the Gnaar easier to kill, but the rocketeers slightly harder, in that you have to close the distance. Mix the two enemy types together and things get more complicated still. If you only have the pistol (or run out of shotgun shells, something which can happen in the early game), and you add more Gnaar, then the situation quickly gets out of hand. Add a combination of Gnaar and rocketeers in large numbers, and you can begin to see the genius of this game: It doles out challenges in small doses, and can ramp them to a fever pitch.
I haven’t even talked about the level design in this equation. Some levels are large, open areas, where a large number of rocketeers can be deadly. Others are labyrinthine, and turning a corner to find a Gnaar can be a shock. The game is already taxing on the mind at 2 monsters and two level types and 2 guns, and there are close to 20 monsters in the game and nearly as many guns. These monsters range from the fast moving bombs that are the Headless Kamikaze, to the flying Harpies, to the minigun wielding Adult Arachnoid.
The guns, too, might seem a boon — they will make short work of a monster you were struggling with moments ago. For example, a single Arachnoid is used as a boss in a level where you only have a shotgun, but you soon get an Assault Rifle and can make short work of them, and they appear in large quantities as ordinary monsters in the next level. However, adding a new weapon adds another variable, and the levels and ammo mean you need to keep shifting between weapons, and the more guns, the more difficult it is to switch and keep track of them all.
The end result is that you get increasingly complex challenges expertly thrown at you as the game slowly ramps up its difficulty, and defeating those challenges makes you feel like a badarse, like the old days of gaming. I like that they “introduce” each new monster with some fanfare: the Adult Arachnoid is a level boss; the Harpies will attack you in a large number, but without other monsters, in an area specifically designed for that encounter. It sets up the challenge, declares it as challenging, yet gives you plenty of leeway in solving it — there’s nothing muddying the water.
Then they muddy the waters. You won’t even notice as you pick up a new weapon, even though it is an occasion, and the game gives you an immediate use for it, the weapon is simply a shorthand for “I've mastered that skill”, and then the next challenge is dealing with the monster alongside others with a conflicting strategy or weapon requirement or level layout. There’s a small amount of chaos which culminates in the next level boss, who is more difficult, but the situation becomes less chaotic.
And again, as you get these new weapons constantly managing them is a slow ramp of tension and difficulty throughout the game, as the game will throw an increasing variety of monsters and level combinations at you and expect you to keep up with the weapons.
You also don’t have full health for the first few levels of the game. They literally make full use of that health bar. That’s not something I’ve seen before, but it acts as the parmesan cheese to a great pasta dish. Bellissimo!
This entire flow is controlled masterfully by the level design. From the placement of the monsters to the mix of monsters, weapons, and ammo, to the the varying level types — claustrophobic, sprawling, open, all connected with skill and a deft touch. What’s lovely about it all is that this appears to scale perfectly as extra players are added — there are no extra monsters but there’s also no extra ammo or health. It may be the most well balanced co-operative game I’ve ever seen, and it’s co-operative for many players.
On the one hand, Serious Sam 3 is an excellent critique of what gaming has become. The game starts by aping some design aspects modern AAA shooters, and then annihilates that style with classical game design fundamentals — there are even achievements for playing the game without sprinting or reloading manually. However, the core of the game is the same great Serious Sam trifecta of expertly managing the difficulty curve and the interplay between monsters, weapons, and levels. You haven’t lived until you’ve played this thing co-op with some friends.