Serious Sam 3: BFE Review
Fans of old-school first-person shooters will find plenty to enjoy here despite technical issues.
In 2001, the original Serious Sam was already late to the first-person shooter party id Software started, but its gameplay was still familiar because id's classics such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake were still fresh memories. In 2012, Serious Sam 3: BFE is a complete anomaly, following neither the artsy nor military styles which now pervade the genre.
By its own description, BFE is “a glorious throwback to the golden age of first-person shooters where men were men, cover was for amateurs, and pulling the trigger made things go boom.”
For the most part, that’s true.
BFE is about the eponymous Sam Stone, a one-man army who fights through alien-occupied Egypt to recover ancient technology for the purpose of going back in time to stop the invasion (BFE stands for Before First Encounter, referring to the alien invasion central to the plot).
Despite playing from start to finish, I got more information about the plot from Wikipedia than from the game itself, which doesn't say a whole lot for its storytelling. In fact, it spends more time alluding to the story than actually telling it, and it often references things it never bothers to explain. I suspect the plot may be more meaningful to someone who played the first two games. For me, it was functional enough to support the gameplay objectives but was otherwise forgettable.
Speaking of gameplay objectives, the primary one is to kill things. Occasionally you'll also locate keys, platform, and solve simple puzzles. Additionally, hidden rooms scattered throughout the game offer an incentive to explore and award armor/health bonuses and weapons. These objectives add a little bit of variety to the gameplay but are limited and always secondary to killing things. Fortunately, killing things is a blast.
While you navigate the large maps, you constantly trigger a barrage of enemies and projectiles coming toward you like an avalanche. Survival requires dodging multiple threats from multiple directions while determining kill priority, maintaining a safe distance from your target, and choosing the best weapon and strategy for eliminating the large variety of enemy types.
To add to the challenge, you'll also be making these decisions very quickly. You’ve got a kleer barreling toward you. Do you risk damage by allowing it to get close so you can kill it with a single shotgun blast? Or do you shoot it with your assault rifle from a safer distance but use more ammo and valuable time while a kamikaze gets closer? For the uninitiated, the kamikaze is a headless humanoid which screams all the way across the map while running toward you with bombs which explode on impact. It's both endlessly hilarious and a useful strategic tool. Waiting for it to get close to other enemies and then shooting it can be an effective way to deal damage while conserving ammo.
The heavy metal soundtrack which punctuates these frantic scenarios is the icing on the cake. It's chaos; addictive, brutal, fun chaos. Objectives may be limited, but the action is never boring. While it's still basically the same thing first-person shooters were doing 20 years ago, it's well executed and far enough removed from its roots to be a refreshing change of pace.
Perhaps needless to say, the game is quite difficult. I played on easy and still spent a fair amount of time eating dirt. To its credit, the difficulty is partly offset by the ability to instantly save anywhere, which was a welcome feature whenever I remembered to use it.
BFE is certainly fun to play, but it’s hard to ignore how it could be even better.
The Xbox 360 port suffers from extremely frequent dropped frames, screen tearing, and texture pop-in. In a curious move for a console version of a game, the options menu allows you to display the frame rate so you can always see exactly how poorly the game is performing. The bad performance is especially surprising considering how mediocre the graphics are.
The environments are very large, open, and similar-looking, so navigation can be difficult without a map or discernible points of reference. Even if you knew where you were going originally, you’ll likely end up backtracking almost to the beginning of the area by the time you've killed all the enemies, so it's easy to lose your sense of direction and fumble around trying to get back on track.
One other issue is poor hit detection. I noticed several instances of my reticule being way off target and my bullets hitting anyway. It's at least in the player's favor (arguably it'd be more frustrating if it caused you to get damaged unfairly), but successfully killing an enemy is less satisfying if it doesn't even require aiming straight.
And finally, Sam says a lot of stupid things with a rough voice which, in my opinion, doesn’t quite match the character design. His comments earned an occasional laugh from me, but the humor could stand to be improved overall considering it's a staple of the series.
BFE isn’t for everyone, but it’s honest about its identity and doesn’t promise to be anything it isn’t. If you like the old style of first-person shooters, then it’s easy to recommend for the modest $15 asking price. It offers a lot of fun and play time for not a lot of cash (although if the competitive multiplayer interests you, it's a separate download which also costs $15).