Publisher:Devolver Digital Platform:PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 Release Date: TBA 2011
At first it feels like there's something missing from Serious Sam 3 - something foggy and hard to name, but vital and defining. The first level of our preview build felt especially lacking in that regard, like some of the colour had been let out of the world since the last, super-cartoony instalment.
Those were just our initial impressions, however. As we played and replayed our three-mission preview we found ourselves coming to a different conclusion: Sam isn't missing anything at all, it's just that his core charms have been buried under new priorities. Serious Sam 3 is the first chapter in the long-running, oft-repeated, series that actually seems to take its story seriously, with such unwieldy and difficult things as narrative and characters.
How big that story is or how it unfolds is hard to tell from the random assortment of levels we've played, but the method behind it is visible enough - phone calls from supporting units, intelligence officers decrypting enemy signals. It's a far cry from the blitzkrieg focus of the first two games, not just because Netrisca, Sam's AI ally against the alien invasion seems to have had her personality removed too.
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Suddenly, Serious Sam is about more than just huge arenas and clusters of screaming, charging enemies. Not much more, but enough to be a distraction. Those arenas and hordes are still there and Serious Sam is still tense enough to make your swallow your stool with your glute-cheeks [I hope you meant 'chair' - Ed], but what used to be direct is now a little more gated. The first level we dropped into, Summer in Cairo, had Sam fighting through a modern-day ruined city and initially had the look and feel of a Battlefield 3 trailer.
Well, until the aliens showed up at least. They come in dribs and drabs at first, charging gnaars that need their eyeballs tearing out, then pulsing rushes of headless rocketeers who are easily tackled with naught but a pistol. Then....arrrggggghhh! The sound that all Serious Sam fans love to fear - the call of kamikazes rushing towards their own destruction.
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It's here, in the thick of it, that Serious Sam recovers ground and the distractions that previously clouded the way are pushed away by a rush of warm, cordite-scented air. Croteam's new Serious Engine 3 is as capable as ever of creating vast environments that teem with enemies and options for grisly murder on a mass scale.
The best thing about the new engine, however, is that none of the little touches have been lost in the transition. You can still set it so enemies bleed flowers through the 'Hippie' option in the game settings, while rocket blasts will still reduce targets to blood-red smears across the sand; every little joy has been carefully preserved.
In fact, many have been expanded too. The Serious Engine isn't just gorgeous and faithful, it's also competitive when it comes to the scale and interactivity of its environments. There isn't a full destruction engine in play, but stray or carefully placed explosions are still capable of knocking bits of the world apart, collapsing pillars or destroying weakened walls. In itself and on paper that's not enough to get most people excited, but it lends an extra layer to violence that's already fantastically, deliriously frenetic.