Even back in 1996, when the domineering genres of real time strategy and first person shooters were just becoming kings of the PC gaming landscape, console-style action games were quite rare. Other than a few decent shareware titles like Jazz Jackrabbit, Raptor and Tyrian, most PC gamers generally preferred to stay away from the perceived shallowness of "video games". And then from Origin came Crusader: No Remorse, one of the only successful third person action titles to hit the personal computer.
Crusader takes place in the near future, with evil corporations abound. You are a Silencer, a guy with a Boba Fett mask and a blood red suit of armor, a killing agent of the evil bad guys. Except one day, you and your buddies grow a conscience and decided to let some innocent civilians go. Shortly thereafter, your former bosses terminate your employment by unleashing a machine gun-toting robot in your direction. You survive. Your teammates don't. Alone and with no paycheck, you sign up with the rebel forces, a group of rapscallions fighting against the evil regime.
Nearly all of the interactions with the rebels are told through terribly acted, low budget full motion video clips, but they're of little consequence. You're sent on mission after mission as you wreak havoc on the bad guys, litter the floor with the corpses of unlucky guards, and generally just blow shit up. Which was one of the greatest parts of the Crusader game engine - practically every bit of scenery (not counting the walls) could be destroyed, or at least damaged quite a bit.
Crusader runs on an enhanced version of the Ultima VIII engine, with the same overhead angled perspective, although you can move in all eight directions. All of the graphics are done in incredibly cool SVGA - even in the age of normal mapped polygons, it's incredible that high res sprites can still look reasonably amazing. The explosions are also pretty impressive - so much detail was put into them that there's even an option to limit them, in case your computer can't handle it.
Crusader is also unashamed of its overt display of violence. Most of the massive fun of these games comes in all of the brutal ways you could murder your bad guys. Here are the most fun:
Some weapons reduce your foes to chunky little bits on impact. This, my friend, is an ex-human.
The electricity deaths are clean, in that your bad guys simply vanish into thin air. Maybe they are going to another, happier reality where red armored warriors aren't attempting to vanquish them in despicable manners.
Clearly, a member of the Crusader development team was a fan of Terminator 2, as you can freeze your foes in carbon and shatter them at your whim. Also, use them as footstools.
The guy on the left is in the process on disintegrating. The guy on the right (the pile of ashes) is the end result.
The microwave gun will burn away that pesky flesh, leaving only an irradiated, overcooked pile of remains.
For those who like better cooking, merely set them afire and watch them as they run around comically in havoc before collapsing, hoping for a less painful death in their next life.
You are occasionally placed in dilemmas by coming across innocent scientists and civilians who beg for their life. Of course, that little concept called "morals" go right out the window when you answer their pleas by setting them on fire, but what do you expect from a game with a subtitle "No Remorse"?
Other than your standard arsenal of guns, most of which you buy in-between levels at the rebel base, you get a few other nifty devices, like spider bombs. The most useful are the combat robots, a la Robocop's ED-209, that are spread throughout the levels. They can be your enemies if you trip an alarm, but if you find the right terminal, you can control them remotely and murder unsuspecting guards from behind.
Despite its viewpoint, Crusader is actually structured like most Doom-style first person shooters. While most of the levels are fairly linear, they usually require searching for keycards, switches or passcodes in order to continue. Unfortunately, this does lead to some overtly annoying pixel hunting, disrupting the destructive flow of the game.
The control, too, takes a bit of getting used to. Your Silencer controls with all of the grace of a tank, as he carries a fair bit of inertia. There are two control methods - using the keyboard, you get controls similar to Resident Evil, with the Left and Right arrows turning your character, Up moving forward and Down retreating. You can also strafe and roll, allowing some semblance of maneuverability, but you are still pretty far from agile. If the relative movement doesn't suit you, you can use the arrow keys for a more direct control method. Alas, pulling off any fancy maneuvers is a little difficult with this, and it still feels uncomfortably choppy. The scrolling - or lack thereof - doesn't help. The camera remains static until you move toward the edge of the screen, then it will uncomfortably jerk to recenter every couple steps.
Partially due to the somewhat clunky control method, Crusader requires a bit more thought than simply rampaging through the room with guns ablazin. It's usually much smarter to find cover, roll out, fire a few shots, then retreat back to safety. And while it's not a gigantic part of the game, a fair bit of stealth will keep you from alerting too many armed turrets.
While it's a lot of fun, it somehow seems to miss one of the finer points of action gaming. Arcade games were fun because they were nice, quick thrills. Crusader tosses you some gigantic levels, most of which rarely venture beyond the locales of factories, laboratories or offices, and never really expands the gaming variety. So while its fun at first, it does settle into a repetitive lull after you've played a little while and seen all of the amusing ways you can send your opponents to meet their maker. Thankfully, you can save whenever you want, so it's easy to hop back in and out.
The original Crusader: No Remorse was released in 1995, and was followed a year later by its pseudo sequel, Crusader: No Regret. It was really more of a standalone expansion pack than a whole new game - there are all new levels, enemies, music and most importantly, a lot more weapons, but otherwise it's pretty much the same game. Both Crusader games have awesome electronic music, done MOD music scene guru Necros (also known as Andrew Sega, no relation to the game company.)
In order to run either Crusader games, you need to be running in pure DOS. If you've got Windows 95/98 and can track down some CD and sound card drivers, you'll be OK. If you've got Windows XP though, you're pretty much out of luck. The only confirmed way to get the games running is through an emulator like DOSBox - which unfortunately requires a rather fast computer for moderate performance.
Thankfully, Crusader: No Remorse was published for both the PlayStation and Saturn in 1996, early in the lives of both systems. Incapable of SVGA display, the graphics had to be downgraded and look quite pixellated as a result. And while some animation was cut, the game otherwise runs pretty smoothly. Unfortunately, despite using the gamepad, there's still plenty of control snafus. Although you can choose absolute movement, pressing Up actually moves your character up-left, making this control scheme much more unwieldy than it should be. So while it compares somewhat unfavorably to its PC cousin, deal with the awkward controls and the game's just as fun.
While there were rumors of a Crusader 2 - possibly with multiplayer - Origin put all of its resources into Ultima Online, and the series died off. For those that can run it, Crusader is a pleasant foray into destructive mayhem. Years later, gog.com rereleased both No Remorse and No Regret for Windows and Mac OSX.