‘Serious Sam 3: BFE’ Is Not ‘Duke Nukem’…Phew.

Playing a “Serious Sam” game felt a little weird at first. The franchise has always found its comparisons to “Duke Nukem,” and after that series’ fall from grace earlier this year, the prospect of playing another testosterone-fueled, retro shooter sounded less than appealing. Still, where Duke has long felt the need to accentuate the action with nearly grotesque misogyny, Sam has always just been about one thing: having a blast killing an insane amount of aliens.

After spending some time with a preview build of “Serious Sam 3: BFE,” I can tell you that while Sam is still seriously the same, he’s also still seriously fun.

“Sam 3″ is actually a prequel, taking place right before the events of “Serious Sam: The First Encounter.” Mental’s horde of weirdos are just beginning their invasion of Earth, but it doesn’t take long before the streets are absolutely filled with old franchise favorites, albeit with a sufficiently next-gen facelift. The storyline in “Sam” games have generally run in the peripheral for me, though, taking a backseat to bullet-slinging; “Sam 3″ doesn’t really shake that formula up, so far.

The current PC build I’m playing allows access to three levels. The first, a run through the streets of Cairo, is a bit of a tutorial. The chapter begins with Sam holed up inside of a beat-up building, weaponless, and soon to be charged by an angry Gnaar. While the Gnaar is essentially the same beast that you’ve come to know – his appearance slightly more “realistic” – the very first kill you’ll perform is anything but status quo for the series. Hitting an action button, Sam rips out the Gnaar’s giant eye. While it’s strange to see such an animation play out in a “Sam” game, it’s also immediately satisfying.

It’s not long before you’ll find a handy sledgehammer, allowing you access to the new melee ability. The good news: melee is “Sam 3″ feels really great. Each enemy you encounter with the big ol’ hammer will initiate a slightly different move, with the best reserved in the over-the-head brain smash for the Gnaar.

If melee isn’t your thing, though, it’s not long before you’ll find a gun, and the rest of the preview build – which also takes place in Egypt – genuinely felt like a “Sam” game, with some caveats. That said, almost all of the changes are improvements for the franchise.

You’re still going to be surrounded by enemies, pretty much all of the time. Right away, you’ll find yourself circle-strafing, trying to avoid those pesky beheaded kamikazes, deadly bombs held high in each hand. Even set to the “normal” setting “Sam 3″ is a rather difficult game, but honestly, if Croteam had dumb down the difficulty, it would have been a major disappointment. I want to feel like I could die at any moment, and well – you will.

The series also hasn’t given up the old-school shooter’s lack of cover. If you’ve grown accustom to ducking behind conveniently placed walls and barrels in today’s games, get ready for a jarring experience. “Sam 3″ doesn’t just continue the always moving, always shooting gameplay of its predecessors, it ratchets it up with destructible environments. The first time a giant, horned bull-beast comes crashing through a wall, you’ll find yourself aware that there’s quite literally nowhere to hide.

While I’ve enjoyed almost all of the changes to be found in “Sam 3,” there is one new feature I’m less than pleased with: reloading. I recognize that it’s a small issue, and that it’s practically insane not to include a reload function in today’s games, but – well, it’s a small touch of realism that feels out of place.

“Serious Sam 3: BFE” feels like everything “Duke Nukem Forever” should have been. It’s old-school without completely disregarding the need to update to today’s standards. The game is due out sometime this summer, which is about over, so hopefully it’s soon.