Your jaw drops as you’re thrust into a gigantic earth-war. Thousands upon thousands of alien troops surge towards you beneath a blackened sky. Giant Hell Knight-looking things stalk towards you as you blaze away with a massive chaingun in a futile attempt to drill-through the legions of invaders.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? A reward to the long-term fans, upholding a promise to fling as many baddies as feasibly possible into the meat grinder. You’ll be disappointed, then, to learn this is but a preface to the main game. After just a few moments you’re kicked back 92 hours into the past, to show where the seeds of this war-to-end-all-wars were sown.
As you’d expect, it’s not exactly as thrilling as participating in a planetary-scaled super-battle. Much like its forebears, your gravel-voiced avatar cracks wise and fights smaller (but still reasonably impressive) groups of invaders in massive arenas.
Grist to the mill are a collection of Sam-specific enemies like the charging bomb blokes (I’m not bothering to find out their proper names), skeletal horse things and bounding cyclopses. Then there’s the complete rip-offs of DOOM’s beasts like Mancubi, Cacodemons and the aforementioned Hell Knight-looking mother-effers.
Their appearance doesn’t make a lot of difference to how the game plays, truth be told. Whether floating, teleporting, running or flying they just have to be shot. Over and over and over again. Assisting you in this are a big pile of weapons, ranging from the ordinary shotguns, rocket launchers, assault & sniper rifles to the more exotic (and frankly daft) likes of the black hole grenades and ship’s cannon. Yep, seriously.
New to this game is a reload system that feels a little unnecessary. I’m not sure pausing to slip in another mag fits with the ‘gun down everything with a pulse that’s charging at you’ milieu. Moving away from the DOOM/Quake/Duke idea of spray and pray until you click dry drags it dangerously close to modern FPS cover shooter territory; a place where this sort of game doesn’t belong. Melee is also horrible: context sensitive and not activating until an enemy is a specific distance away. There’s also a skill tree that’s almost completely pointless. You’ll only use it to unlock dual-wielding anyway.
It’s all a load of hokum that wills itself to be silly and tongue in cheek, but feels very forced for the most part. It’s kind of like Duke Nukem 3D ….or, at least, is trying very very hard to be. The problem is that Duke was unreconstructed sexism and cheese, whereas SS4 is modernised. The misogyny is gone, the jiggling and the poop jokes consigned to history. All you’re left with is the swaggering machismo and a few lame one-liners that mostly fall on deaf ears.
The shooting pretty much holds up, although the stars have to align juuuust right to get the balance of arena, enemy types and ammo in the same place at the same time to make the combat exhilarating. At points it can (and does) work really well, but there are a few fairly serious bumps in the road. Technical bumps, as it were.
You see, SS4 feels unfinished. At time of writing there have been a good few bug fixes and patches, but even so the experience is still far from polished. Some of the glitches I kept rubbing up against included: the right stick locking-up after using the weapon wheel, music winding down then restarting mid-stage, enemies getting stuck in walls and very long load times.
Despite a testosterone-charged return to the million-man battlefield right near the end, Sam’s once lusty swagger is looking a little tired these days. Its blend of old and new would have had more chance to grip had the bugs not been so prevalent, the presentation so limited and the ambition so reigned-in. Although not terrible, and some excellent – though unfortunately embryonic – ideas, this feels like a Serious Sam for the Serious fan only.