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The Rhythm, the Stick, and Serious Sam 3: BFE


A couple of days ago, Serious Sam 3 was on sale. So I bought it. The following piece I wrote about it may look and sound and feel and walk around and pick its nose a lot like a Review™ does, but I assure you, it isn't one! Nobody likes those! I simply found a few neat things about its general design which I thought would make for interesting reflection and analysis, but the words did end up sounding real important- and official-like, so I think I'm trying to say sorry about that if that is indeed the case

It is easy to look Serious Sam 3 as exactly what your mom envisions the first person shooter to be: A puerile and gratuitously gory rampage in which the player is tasked with annihilating as much as possible as quickly as possible, whose killing fields are strung together by thin wires of clichés, caricatures and nauseating one-liners.

It is easy because it is true.

There is something the game is not, though, and that is "mindless." When one thinks of more cerebral entries in the genre, their thoughts might turn toward the Far Cry or Crysis series, whose open-ended encounters and fiendish AI provide for and require thoughtful, out-of-the-box approaches; or perhaps something like SWAT or Rainbow Six, in which well-planned and well-executed tactics trump basic mechanics every time.

In a way, I found that the same concept applied to Serious Sam 3. The game did not "rely" on good aim and fast fingers, because it assumed I already had them. Its (admittedly lengthy) introductory levels dipped straight into parody - tiny smatterings of enemies, appearing in groups no greater than four or five, spawn in predictable nooks inside narrow, artificial corridors; the starting pistol comes with an utterly superfluous iron-sight feature; a military chopper crashes - but, crucially, served as a covert tutorial, slowly introducing what enemies do what and what weapons kill what best - the hammer can clear out groups of charging cyclops-things, the double shotgun works best against skeleton monsters, and so on.

In the "average" shooter, pointing and killing is the "end" - how speedily and efficiently the player can transport bullets into enemies' heads is what constitutes the measure of their performance. In Serious Sam 3, it is merely the means - of course I will be holding S and Mouse1, but the real challenge lies in figuring out how I'm going to take the tools I have and use them to carve my way through the hundred-strong wall of aliens standing between me and the other side of this arena.

Pull out the Assault Rifle. Pick off some of the kamikazes. Double shotgun - wait until the skeleton thing is right in front of me and fire. Another one - dodge to the side, turn around, repeat. Pull the Rifle back out, do a 180, and strafe to the right, mowing down more infantry. Hear the mechanical sound of a walker to my left - pull out the rocket launcher, hit it in the face. Do another 180 - another skeleton thing is coming right at me. Quick dodge, hit it with a rocket as it flies past. See a thin area in the horde. Quickly dash the crosshair between infantry, popping off two shotgunners here, three kamikazes there; I'm on the other side, and ready to shave off another sliver of extraterrestrial flesh.

The above is a transcription of a little less than 13 seconds of gameplay. Again, the "point" isn't the aiming and firing - doing that flawlessly is simply a fundamental requirement. Instead, the meat of the combat is an almost rhythmic dance of dodging and weapon-switching; it reminds me of a cross between Batman: Arkham Asylum's wide palette of counters and counter-counters, Geometry Wars' need for constant movement and the occasional mad charge into the thick of it, and what I like to call the "Bullet Hell Inversion," where the goal is not so much to dodge projectiles and hostiles as it is to occupy the tiny fraction of space where there aren't any.

After it finishes toying around and takes the training wheels off, Serious Sam 3 ends up requiring a level of mental agility and acuity that'd send Brain Age stumbling for some Advil. The 13 seconds I wrote about above are just that - a fraction of a fraction of one encounter, each requiring a rapid mix of assessments. How quiet is that kamikaze scream? Is that enough time to rocket a walker firing at me? I just killed a scorpion-thing with my double-shotgun; will the reload be finished quickly enough to take down the skeleton monster coming at me from behind?

Looking at the dozens of things that pass through my mind during a firefight highlights the intricate, brilliant design work that at first is masked by the horrendous animation, glitchy shadows, awful dialogue, and general roughness on the game's surface. The detail went into mechanical things - each enemy has a distinctive spawn and movement sound, from the trademark "AAAAAAAAAAAA" of the kamikaze to the thunderous stomping of the raging bull. Their AI and movement is straightforward and predictable out of necessity, not laziness - precise timings and rhythms are drilled into my head, to be called upon (along with each highly distinctive but equally useful weapon) as notes and flourishes in the destructive symphony that I must flawlessly improvise during each battle.

Where, say, Bulletstorm drives the player to pull off awesome stunts through the carrot of points and upgrades, Serious Sam 3 punishes doing anything else with the stick of swift death. Where nailing a sick riff in Guitar Hero rewards you with a sky-high score multiplier, stringing together flawless rocket hits and dodges rewards you with a precious two seconds to collect yourself and prepare to do it three more times. Survival isn't the minimum line - it's the only one.

It could be said that this line of thinking is archaic, a relic of the days when video games were intended for nobody but children and neurotic obsessives - where even completing a game was a privilege to be enjoyed by the skillful few. I would have to agree with this, and concede that it's probably for the better that most games aren't designed with the same philosophy. But as the one-off throwback that it is, I can't help but be impressed at Serious Sam 3's big noggin, and how sneakily it hides it behind the gore and explosions - it's something I found myself missing dearly in the modern era of shooters. I can only hope it finds its way back.
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About Altum Videturone of us since 11:44 PM on 11.04.2011

My earilest memory is of playing a PC port of Pac-Man on my dad's computer. My next earliest memory is of playing a PC port of Tetris on my mom's computer. I've been happily and hopelessly into video games and everything to do with them since, and while I have my favorites - pretty much the entire Metroid series (except, you know, that one) - there are very few good games I haven't played and enjoyed.

Now that I've been here for a few months I guess something else should go here, so: I've set upon myself a personal goal to write and post a blog at least once per week. Sometimes, meeting this deadline means that those articles are not up to the standards I would like, and I'll simply shove them away unpublished and try again next week. More rarely, they turn out great, and up they go. Even more rarely, I'll actually feel very satisfied and accomplished, and will get all excited for the loads of attention I won't be receiving. The following blog entries are ones that I believe fit into the latter category, preserved here in order of appearance for my (but quite possibly also your!) amusement and enrichement:

Battlefield 3: On Scale, Freedom, and Wookies
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - David Sarif
Bigger, Longer, also Harder - A Counter-Case for Longer Games
Location: Darkest Africa
How About a Mass Effect 3 Article with No Ending Controversy (Spoiler-free!)
Quest for Blood: How Seeking Ultraviolence Showed Me the Best Side of Videogames

Also, I mantain the monthly Cblog Analytics series, which tallies up a bunch of statistics and presents them in a simple and organized format. The results are always interesting and often surprising - all the math is done on my end, so no matter how number-phobic you might be, it's worth checking out! This year's entries are listed here: