Serious Sam is a shooter franchise that is all about firing as many bullets as you possibly can while constantly running at full speed, in hopes of killing your enemies before they can catch you. So how does this translate to what is ostensibly another VR shooting gallery? Surprisingly well, as it turns out.
Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope is out now on Steam Early Access, playable on the HTC Vive. At first glance, the game doesn’t appear to be much more than most other shooting games available on the headset. You stand in a single spot (although you can move to dodge attacks, this isn’t a room scale experience) and you shoot at waves of enemies that come at you from either the front, left, or right. If you have tried several of these games in VR already — and there are a lot of them — this may not sound very interesting. And more than that, you may think it’s not worth the time or money since there are already high quality shooting gallery style games on the Vive that have proven their worth. However, a few minor but clever changes to the traditional wave-based shooting format make Serious Sam VR a frantic, challenging, and unique experience that stands out from its peers.
Just like the other VR shooting games, the premise is quite simple: enemies will spawn, they will either run at you or shoot at you, and you need to kill them before they kill you. There is a large arsenal of weapons to choose from, ranging from chainsaws to shotguns to laser rifles, all of which should be familiar to Serious Sam fans since they are pulled straight from the previous games. You can dual wield any combination of weapons, or use two of the same weapon. You could also just use one if you really want to, as the game doesn’t force to you select a weapon in both hands. The guns are enormous, almost ridiculously so, but there is definitely something to be said about pulling out a rocket launcher that is larger than your own body and blasting away a giant alien with it.
How you earn more guns is one of the areas where Serious Sam VR strays from the crowd. The game has a run-based flair to it, in that your progress carries over from level to level, but only until you complete a ‘world.’ Rather than choosing one level at a time, you are sent to different worlds where you will complete a set number of levels. So far the Early Access version has two worlds available to play, the first with three levels and the second with four.
When you start a world, during the first level you will have only pistols. Then, based on how well you performed in that level, you will earn money that can be spent on weapons, ammo, and health before you start the next. No weapons are locked away from this point on; as long as you have the money for it then you can buy it. After completing a world, all of your money and guns are taken away, and you have to start fresh when you select a new world (even if it is the same one). So far this is the only type of progression in the game, with no permanent unlocks beyond the worlds themselves. Achieving a higher score on the leaderboard is the only thing drawing you back to replay each world.
The thing that makes the in-match progression system work so well, however, is that it’s about more than just unlocking weapons that blow up your enemies in more awesome ways. Serious Sam VR is not a walk in the park. You will need to make careful considerations about what weapons and ammo you are spending your money on to make it through the later levels in a world. In this sense, the game almost has some light puzzle elements.
The enemy population of each level will always be the same, and certain weapons will be better against certain enemies, so it’s up to you to figure out which weapons you need, and how much ammo you need for them, in order to be successful. Choose wrong, and you might not make it through. Fortunately, Serious Sam VR recognizes this challenge, and if you die at any point you are sent back to the shop screen with all of your money back, as if you had just completed the previous level. You can re-evaluate your purchasing decisions and perhaps make different choices the second time around.
The tactical decisions don’t end when the levels start. In fact, you have to make them much more often and more frantically. In true Serious Sam style, enemy waves ramp up until you are faced with an absolute onslaught of foes, and just shooting at the ones closest to you won’t be good enough. Even with guns that don’t need to be reloaded, time is extremely precious. Enemies are constantly pouring towards you, and sometimes if you so much as spend a few seconds shooting at the wrong enemy you will find yourself overwhelmed.
There are health, ammo, and money pickups that fall from the sky on parachutes and can be shot to be collected. However, since doing so will send out a grappling hook from your gun to collect it that takes a few seconds to reel back in, sometimes you will be better off not collecting it, since not shooting at enemies for those few seconds will be the end of you.
These types of little decisions make Serious Sam VR feel constantly hectic. I often found myself crossing and twisting my arms while shooting, not because I was pretending to be in a John Woo movie (although maybe sometimes I was) but because it made tactical sense to shoot at the enemies on the right side of the level with the gun in my left hand and vice versa. In most cases if I hadn’t done that then I wouldn’t have made it through, and that simply feels cool. It even got to the point where after choosing which two guns I wanted to use I had to consider which one I should use in my non-dominant hand, as I wouldn’t be as accurate with it, and I needed to make every shot count.
Aside from working well in terms of its systems, the game feels great in VR too. The movement is smooth and the visuals are in the upper tier of Vive games. It’s also encouraging to see that Croteam has already taken notice of some of the quality of life options that can make or break VR games for some people.
In particular, there is an option to adjust the angle that your guns will be aiming at in relation to the Vive controllers, so if you feel that you have to bend your wrists too far forward to aim straight (or if you would like to bend them even further forward) you can adjust it until it feels right. This option first popped up in Space Pirate Trainer, as far as I am aware, and not enough developers have implemented it. Every first person shooter in VR should do this, so it’s nice to see a more seasoned developer put it in their game; hopefully it will cause more developers to do the same.
While Serious Sam VR is still in Early Access, it is disappointing that there are only two worlds and seven levels total at the moment. Even when taking into account the times I had to retry certain levels with different strategies, I was able to get through all of the content on the default difficulty in just over an hour.
The worlds are meant to be replayed, doing the best you can to earn more money so you can buy more guns and get a higher score, but this still might not be enough for some people. The good thing is that more worlds are incoming, but we’ll have to wait and see exactly when that will happen. Until then, Vive owners can be excited that they have a gallery shooter that asks more of them than just pointing and shooting. And Serious Sam fans can be excited that after five years they have another game in the series, even if they have to buy an expensive headset to play it.