"Dumb fun" is easy to take for granted. There's a natural tendency to assume that any game which favours action over depth is working at this level, but that underestimates just how smart game design has to be in order to successfully work as dumb fun.
Throwing mayhem at the screen isn't enough. It has to be orchestrated, paced and balanced so that while the player feels thrillingly overwhelmed, there's always a method behind the madness, a symphony of slaughter that keeps the game in constant motion.
Croteam, the small indie studio responsible for the Serious Sam games, understands how smart you need to be to play dumb. The Sam series is rightfully feted for its manic gameplay, a juggling act of impossible odds and cathartic excess that rises and falls in pitch at just the right times.
Key to this success is the bestiary of creatures ranged against Sam, our barrel-chested, gravel-voiced hero who saves the world from alien hordes clad only in t-shirt and jeans. They're a bizarre bunch, drawn straight from the surreal arcade playbook. Skeletal horse things shoot ball-and-chains at you. Cyclopean ape-things try to smush you into paste. Decapitated humanoids with bombs for hands run at you, screaming, in suicidal waves, while screeching harpies swoop from above.
Each has a distinct timbre in Croteam's composition, and the developer knows just which instrument to deploy, and when, in order to change the tempo, forcing the player to hastily adapt to each new threat in different ways.
That's why Serious Sam works where so many other throwback FPS games fail. It not only plays the right notes, but plays them in the right order. At its best, Serious Sam 3 is a worthy movement in that symphony, a nostalgic swoon of circle-strafing, weapon-switching, monster-gibbing fun. For anyone tired of brown military shooters with heavy, realistic movements and strict weapon limits, it's incredibly refreshing.
Nostalgia only gets you so far, however. With the sliders all the way to the top, the game looks better than any previous Sam game, though it won't trouble the benchmark titles, for obvious reasons. The Serious Engine is designed for maximum enemy population and high draw distance, but it still struggles with basic things. Scenery snags and clipping are common, both for Sam and his foes, while any movement beyond the traditional horizontal axis tends to throw out glitches and hiccups.
The game has also inherited some of the less favourable aspects of old-school FPS design. Campaign maps too often become repetitive mazes, and with no map or radar you can spend fruitless minutes scampering around empty halls and corridors in search of the way forward. There are even a few keycard doors and some basic lever puzzles, but they're not too taxing.
Single-player balancing throws up problems of its own. Played on Normal difficulty, the game is pretty tough. Not only does Sam's health vanish in hefty chunks, but ammo and armour are in short supply, forcing you to back-pedal away from waves of enemies until you find a doorway bottleneck where you can pick them off without being sideswiped or backstabbed out of the blue.
This is compounded in the early stages of the game, where you're stuck with a pistol, weak shotgun and melee sledgehammer combo for too many encounters. Toss in some poor checkpoints and a limit to how many quicksaves you can use, and progress can become a headbanging trial of patience.
The game boasts of its throwback heritage, harking back to a time when "cover was for amateurs" - but by making its tough-guy hero so fragile and limiting his arsenal so ruthlessly, it often steers you into positions where a bit of cover might not be a bad idea. You want to let rip in true Serious Sam style, mowing down dozens of enemies with a hail of bullets, but the difficulty settings make that impossible.
Ironically, if you want to enjoy the game in the old style you need to knock the difficulty down to Easy or the even-simpler Tourist setting. Here your ammo can be counted in hundreds rather than tens, and Sam is able to withstand enough punishment to make standing battles against the horde feasible. FPS veterans, however, will find the game is far too easy at this level - with recharging health, no less. Visceral thrills with no challenge, or tougher gameplay with limited opportunities for mayhem? There's no balance to strike between the two, and Serious Sam's signature thrills often get lost in the gap.
If you have friends online then these problems tend to evaporate, as Croteam has gone above and beyond in its service to multiplayer. The entire campaign is playable in co-op with up to 16 players, the number of enemies scaling depending on the size of the lobby. You can also play four-player in split-screen, an option that was welcome in previous Sam games but is downright charitable in 2011.
Traditional competitive modes also return, with deathmatches and flag-capturing joined by old Serious favourites such as Beast Hunt (where you earn points by killing monsters, then trade in those points for the chance to kill another player) and My Burden (which increases your score only while you're weighed down by the burden of the title).
The jewel in the crown, however, is the survival mode, where Sam's brand of ultraviolence really comes into its own. Again playable with up to 15 companions, it's perhaps the purest distillation of the "dumb fun" ethos you'll find this side of 1995. It's here that you get to play with the most explosive weaponry straight away, and where the onslaught of the game's rhythm makes the most sense. It's a shame, therefore, that there are only two maps on which to play this mode.
Tweaks and customisations abound elsewhere; it seems that Croteam has taken every possible request an FPS player could have and ensured there's a response in the options menu. Blood can be set to red or German-friendly green, or replaced with hippy flowers or sparkling stars. You can opt to remove the bobbing motion from Sam's gun for the true retro experience, and the multiplayer skins feature not only Sam and other characters, but a cowboy, a pirate and a disco dude with an afro of heroic proportions.
Fun, you see. Dumb fun. And on that basis, Serious Sam 3 is a definite success, its rough edges smoothed out by a charming desire to please. It's just a pity that Croteam has been so devoted to recreating the past that they've neglected to include much that's new.
The weapon set is predictable, relying almost exclusively on tried and trusted favourites with only the Sirian Mutilator leash bringing something new to the table. Enemies are the same, with the most common foes already familiar from the previous games. What new creatures have been added to the mix rarely deviate from the "gruesome monster with weapons for hands" template. Even the locations are second-hand, as the series has done Egyptian ruins before, while the demolished city streets could be drawn from the sort of second-tier military shooter the game sets out to mock.
Nostalgia and surprise rarely make for comfortable bedfellows, but that doesn't fully excuse the absence of progress. The addition of a robust physics model, for example, would make the carnage all the more entertaining. Ragdoll those beasts, Painkiller style, rather than making them fall over in the same scripted animations time and again. Add some real scenery destruction, rather than the timid and limited demolition here that allows certain enemies to crash through certain surfaces, but not others. This level of action with tech like GeoMod or Frostbite would be something to behold. Mechanically speaking, there's a sense of a series clinging to the past rather than honouring it.
Serious Sam 3 does what it set out to do and nothing more. A faithful and heartfelt ode to old-school FPS carnage, it certainly delivers the dumb fun that Duke Nukem Forever so dismally failed to recapture - and that, for many retro-heads, will be more than enough. With robust HD remakes of the previous two games already available, however, Serious Sam 3 risks making itself redundant through a slavish adherence to the past.