Sam Stone has made his name in video games by taking on relentless hordes of aggressive enemies and laying them all low with big guns and snarky quips. In Serious Sam 3: BFE, the legions of enemies and deadly arsenal return, but the novelty of Sam's run-and-gun-and-run-some-more style is long gone. This time around, the pace has slowed down and Sam's macho shtick has grown wearisome, draining much of the energy that once fueled this manic shooter series. Serious Sam 3 is a good-looking game that can still deliver some excitement, but the joy of annihilating crazy aliens is disappointingly diminished.
The Earth has been in a rough spot for quite some time in Sam Stone's world, though BFE actually takes place before Serious Sam: The First Encounter. The place in the timeline hardly matters, however, because Sam's objectives to locate downed crewmembers or gain entry to underground temples merely serve as waypoints on his ceaseless crusade to destroy the invading aliens. In previous games, Sam's brash attitude provided some amusement along the way, but his hypermasculine wisecracks come off as trite and predictable in Serious Sam 3.
This leaves the burden of entertainment squarely on the shooting. From a humble sledgehammer, you build your arsenal throughout the campaign to encompass a variety of guns that spew bullets, lasers, explosives, and even oversized cannonballs. The double-barreled shotgun is a deadly standout, as is the ammo-devouring minigun. Given the outlandish nature of Sam's foes, it's disappointing that the guns aren't more inventive, but they all fire with a solid sense of impact, thanks to good sound effects and sharp visual design. The environments also sport a lot of nice details, from rubble-strewn streets to crystal-clear water, though despite their technical prowess, they feel a bit bland. Apart from some claustrophobic sections, most levels give you plenty of room to maneuver as you gun down your foes, and each map hides a bevy of secrets that reward diligent explorers with health, armor, ammunition, keys to other secrets, or even new weapons.
The more guns you acquire, the better, because there are seemingly endless hordes of aliens to kill. Lurching robo-humans, sprinting skeletons, one-eyed monsters, and chittering arthropods are the most prevalent threats early on, but later levels bring charging bulls, shrieking harpies, and a variety of unpleasant flesh-metal hybrids. Different weapons are better at killing certain types of enemies than others, so as you run around, it behooves you to actively switch guns to outmaneuver your foes. Fast, ferocious, and numerous are the classic characteristics of enemies in Serious Sam, but it takes a while before things really get hectic. The adrenaline-inducing panic of being vastly outnumbered doesn't come often until the later levels, which makes the first few levels feel like an uncharacteristically slow start.
When the action finally heats up, blasting your way clear of danger can be a satisfying feeling. Driving rock music often complements your efforts nicely, and the calm after the storm is a welcome reprieve. But even at its best, the pleasures in Serious Sam 3 are relatively tame. Even though you spend most of the game sprinting, Sam's top speed has a detached feeling that makes it seem like you are using cruise control. The guns fire with gusto and the enemies die horribly, but you kill so many of them that they start to feel like boxes you are checking off as opposed to threats you are eliminating. Even when things get quite difficult toward the latter half of the game, you still feel like you're thinning a herd rather than decimating deadly foes. The campaign lasts significantly longer than most modern first-person shooters, but the thrills grow stale even as the enemies grow crazier and larger in number.
You can spice things up by joining other players in cooperative play. Up to four players can play via split-screen (with three USB gamepads) or 16 players online can blast the demonic hordes in levels from the campaign or in three survival maps. Having friendlier guns adds an enjoyable camaraderie to the action, and other players can help you discover secrets you might have otherwise missed. Given the campaign's slow start, however, it's best if you crank up the difficulty when playing with others. There's also a variety of competitive modes that involve killing other players or killing AI aliens quickly so that you can kill other players. The fast-paced play can be exciting, but very few people are playing online as of this review, which makes competitive play a less reliable way to enjoy the game.
There is some solid enjoyment to be had in Serious Sam 3: BFE, but the game rarely achieves the hectic joy of its better predecessors. Sprinting around and blasting through thousands of enemies feels more like cleanup than combat, and the good audiovisual presentation can only add so much. Serious Sam 3 can still pack a punch, but this boisterous shooter series has seen better days.