While System Shock 2 is most definitely retro by today’s standards, for my second game I was gunning for something that was released before I was born, and I’ll try to keep this up as a prerequisite going forward.
Looking through my digital library for hidden gems of a bygone age, I found many worthy candidates for articles to come, but the one that I picked for this round turned out to be Crusader: No Remorse, sitting in my Origin account ever since it was offered through the client’s “On the House” service. Somehow the box art evoked a faint memory, and since the whole idea behind these articles is rooted in nostalgia, I decided to take hold of said memory and trace it back to wherever it may lead.
Upon checking my little stash of retro games looted from my eldest brother’s room back in the family home, I discovered the spine of an old CD case that looked mighty familiar. The thin strip of plain white paper with the word “Crusader” printed on it with small, simple black letters was nestled somewhat unceremoniously between the over-decorated Warhammer Collection and the fold-out box of Red Alert Domination Pack. This discovery swiftly washed away any faint fear I had regarding my looming senility. This is an original copy, mind, and a testament to how much game packaging has changed over the decades.
Now naturally, instead of being satisfied with this justification and just jumping back to Origin to download the version already set up to run on modern systems, I decided to earn my stripes as a retro PC gamer and try to get the old version running.
And then I remembered my laptop has no optical drive.
Oh, the curses of modern technology.
While getting Crusader to run didn’t prove to be a challenge at all thanks to the already configured DOSbox that came with the download, actually playing the damn thing was quite tricky. It isn’t the game’s difficulty that is challenging, but the whacked, woefully inaccurate control scheme and the lack of responsiveness. The game is played from a semi-top-down isometric perspective, so naturally I immediately assumed it would control similarly to Diablo 2 (which, admittedly, is much more recent).
I was wrong.
Crusader’s controls are very, very strange if compared to most typical modern controls, and figuring them out by myself seemed incredibly daunting. I assumed that they would be customizable, or at least could be viewed in the options menu, but such a sub-menu was nowhere to be found. In my last ditch effort I turned to Google. The only usable FAQ I found was half corrupted (somehow?), and while most of the text under the controls section was undecipherable gibberish, I managed to deduce that the function keys did stuff. Sorcery.
Yep, retro game indeed.
Alright, so here I have a highly trained killing machine out for revenge against a corrupt government that betrayed him and his mates, who can finally perform coherent basic human movement, as opposed to idly standing in place or erratically break-dancing on the teleport pad. Having discovered the control guide, I was rather disappointed to see that they cannot be customized. The most I can say about the control scheme is that once I acclimatized, it, uh, worked? I guess? Anyhow, basic controls and aiming are achieved with the arrow keys and various direction-plus-alt/shift/ctrl combinations that give us additional “tactical” movements, many of which will be completely useless over the course of the game because either you or the enemy will be dead before using them even crosses your mind.
The game is chock full of weapons that can either be bought or looted; however we can only carry 5 at a time, but luckily they can be discarded and changed for a newer, stronger weapon, which can be acquired at the store or found within missions. (not that it matters; the basic pistol takes down enemies about as quickly as anything else). Besides this showroom arsenal, multiple inventory items aid us in our rampage such as the spider-bomb, a small remote-controlled grenade which is burdened with the most annoying sound effect and is comically over-powered.
Controls cannot be customised? I’m sorry, I thought I was playing on PC.
In fact, “comically over-powered” is something that can be said about a few things in the game. The contrast between certain enemy and weapon types is absolutely bonkers. Every enemy, from the lowliest guards to the elite troopers, goes down in basically the same amount of shots, and none of their attacks make any sort of significant damage unless they’re carrying energy weapons. Those will eat away your health in seconds. The same is true for the turrets placed around the maps, of which most are barely a nuisance. The thresher turret however, which is basically a stationary tank, tears us up with alarming speed.
We also encounter many mechanical opponents over the course of the game who, once again, barely do any damage, except for the “vetron” mechs which throw rockets at you like they’re going out of style. The (supposedly) even stronger “Solartron” mechs encountered in the last mission may cause more damage, but go down quicker in my experience. Looting bodies will make sure you never EVER run out of ammo, and the medkits will keep you going strong unless you bump into one of the tougher baddies, but even they only cause just a few deaths before you learn how to take them out quickly and sneakily.
Probably the biggest danger to our hero is the dodgy controls. Sometimes even walking in a straight line proves difficult, as the character jumps diagonally forward, occasionally landing atop a landmine or in a pool of acid. Apparently our player character also chooses to ignore the laws of gravity, as attested by his abnormal jumping capabilities, as well as the phenomenon of him lightly sailing forward and down instead of dropping when jumping over a ledge.
The hurdles may only be ankle high, but that isn’t much consolation if you’re paralyzed.
Story-wise, Crusader isn’t anything to write home about. Technologically advanced dystopian sci-fi future: check. Totalitarian, Oppressive and comically evil global government: check. Rag-tag group of quirky rebels: check. Laughably predictable plot twist: check.
In Crusader: No Remorse, we play as a Silencer (who is constantly referred to as The Silencer, despite it being clear that he isn’t the only one), a highly trained spec-ops soldier serving the World Economic Consortium. Naturally the WEC, being the tyrannical government it is, betrays the Silencer, killing his mates. Out for revenge, we hook up with the rebels so we can pester the WEC whenever we can. We can interact with various characters in between missions during our down time at the rebel base – the aggressive sergeant who makes a show of not trusting us even after we put our life on the line and screwed over the WEC multiple times; the stereotypical “cool-geek”; the mentally deranged merchant with the token pet; and the by-the-numbers commander who doesn’t do anything other than boss people around and chain-smoke cigars.
During the mid-mission cutscenes we also meet our enemies, and here it is clear that what limited supply of originality was available was used up on the friendlies, as the maniacal evil scientist is joined by the power-hungry corrupt senator. The FMV cutscenes are pretty well done, but the acting is rather hit-and-miss. This is probably my first encounter with FMV in a playthrough of my own, however, and found it rather charming.
Story is cliché and predictable, but not downright bad in any sense, thanks to redeeming amounts of camp.
Having touched on poor controls and balance, I must say that despite these issues, gameplay is surprisingly fun. It certainly didn’t re-invent the wheel, but at the time (and even today) it was pretty unique and managed to provide some measure of enjoyment regardless of the aforementioned issues. Gameplay is criminally unresponsive, enemy AI is extremely limited, the pace is slow (contrasted by the quick, synth/electro chiptune soundtrack, which is actually really, really good), and the whole thing is really repetitive. And yet, with all these problems piling up, I couldn’t help but have fun while playing. For a time.
Crusader: No Remorse outstays its welcome, and while the discussion of game length is topical right now (Looking at you, The Order: 1886), I must say that my opinion of Crusader would be higher if it would have ended about halfway through. I’ll grant that the last mission somehow managed to bring “fun” back into the equation, but even that dragged on too long. While I understand a developer wanting to avoid the player’s last thoughts being “that’s it?”, I don’t really think that “Thank fuck that’s over” is a better alternative. On some occasions the game tries to mix things up by adding exploration and puzzle elements. Some doors require color-coded key cards which, in the first few missions, are hidden in distant rooms or on the body of enemies. However, at one point you can practically hear the designer sigh “screw this” when the key card for the locked door was literally on a box next to the door. After that first occurrence, this kind of card placement became common.
When the game dabbles in puzzles, they’re either timed jumping trials, trying to get through security systems, lever combinations, triggering switches by ricocheting shots, hacking into turrets and mechs, or re-aligning fatal laser beams. Two or three of these pop up in each mission, and are almost invariably well executed, and possibly the only source of difficulty-by-design in the game. Note my use of the word almost. Please, developers, if your jumping system – literally – does not work, do not, for the love of god, do not include jumping puzzles. Looking past the key cards, level design is mostly solid. A few of the missions where areas loop around can be disorienting and confusing, which could have been easily solved by including a map of the already explored rooms showing our current location, but, hey, difficulty.
Despite numerous pitfalls, gameplay manages to be enjoyable and the puzzles stand out.
To conclude the review part of this article, Crusader is one of the very few games about which I don’t quite know how I feel. No form of numbered scoring system is adequate for this anomaly of a game. The best thing I could come up with is that if Crusader: No Remorse would have an alignment, it would be chaotic neutral. Looking at it plainly, as… “objectively” as possible, it is about as average as average can get, the most perfect example of a 5/10 ever to exist. But that verdict just doesn’t fit. On the one hand, due to the many annoyances and some of the glaring flaws, I’d give it less, but on the other, looking at the amount of fun derived from the experience, I’d give it more. Tacking a three-dimensional opinion onto a two-dimensional scale simply can’t properly convey what this game is. This game is simple, and yet incomprehensible.
Crusader: No Remorse is a strange creature, one that I liked less and less the more I played, which flies in the face of some modern games’ “It gets better later on” quality. One of the greatest offenders of this would be the Final Fantasy series (through which Zak is currently journeying). A friend once persuaded me to try one of the Final Fantasy games. After I put it down, realizing that it just wasn’t for me, he told me something along the lines of “It gets good after about 15 hours”, something that bewildered me.
But back to Crusade. This game is a downhill experience. Gameplay was plagued by so many issues that despite the fun factor, it just became grating after a while and, like I mentioned, the key card placement became really lax which bugged me quite a bit. I find it difficult to even write down the weirdness of it, because I feel like there is so much to talk about concerning Crusader’s baffling effect, and yet I find I’m out of things to write. I could elaborate on this for pages and pages, but it would barely be coherent, and would pretty much boil down to this:
Crusader is weird.
Crusader : No Remorse is available on GOG and Origin.
Previously on Back in Your Day : System Shock 2
Next up on Back in Your Day: Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars