Reviewed: November 11, 2004
Released: November 3, 2004
Trial Version Download
Some of the best-kept secrets are hidden away under the guise of “shareware” and Alawar’s latest offering, Crusaders of Space: Open Range, is just such a title. Combining the classic old-school gameplay of cult arcade titles like Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Galaga and with loads of power-ups, explosive weapons, and next-gen graphics, you have all the ingredients for some frantic and challenging gameplay that will keep you glued to your PC a lot longer than you might expect.
Crusaders starts off a bit slow with a standard formation of Space Invader-like aliens slowly moving back and forth. You are in the ship at the bottom of the screen, able to move right and left and shoot a single energy shot that sounds exactly like the Space Invader pneumatic hiss.
The first thing you’ll notice is that enemies don’t die with a single shot. Each enemy has a shield, or armor, or some type of protective field that is represented by a blue health bar above each ship. You must deplete this bar before the ship actually explodes. Smaller ships go down fairly fast, but some of the larger ships can take a real beating before they blow apart.
In the fine tradition of progressive gameplay, each new level brings new enemies, weapons, and power-ups. The clusters of sideways moving ships are soon joined by bombers and fighters that snake around the screen in ever-changing formations. Some fire lasers, others drop bombs or explode in a geometric pattern of spiky mines or shiny ninja star projectiles. Combined with some flashy multi-colored explosions and particle debris from the exploding ships, it can get quite confusing at times.
As the lone defenders of the cosmos, your ship can be upgraded throughout the game by collecting the various power-ups that slowly sink toward the bottom of the screen as you destroy the enemy. You might be surprised to find you only have one ship to play the game with, but you’ll be just as surprised to see how long this one ship can last.
Your ship has various levels of armor, plus each time you pick-up a weapon upgrade you get extra protection. When you get hit you’ll lose one of your weapon upgrades and subsequent piece of armor, but only when all of these are gone will your ship explode and the game end. My first game lasted 32 levels and my most recent session took me to level 50 where I was finally defeated by the boss.
Along the way you will collect a variety of new weapons that spray their fire out at angles or increase to double-shot or increase the fire rate. These are added to your ship’s arsenal and all fire with the primary fire key. You also have secondary weapons including direct-fire missiles that take down an enemy with a single hit despite their shields. There are also temporary weapon upgrades that will give you added firepower for a 20-second countdown.
Control is as simple as the gameplay and you can choose from mouse, keyboard, or gamepad. You basically move side-to-side and fire one of two possible weapons. It doesn’t get any easier than this. I opted for mouse control, which seemed a bit more accurate than the keyboard and more accessible than digging out my gamepad.
The game is divided into two episodes. Each episode has numerous missions that consist of ten levels each. The odd thing is that when you start each new mission the first level strips you of all your weapons and the enemies return to their basic slow-moving formations. It’s almost like starting from scratch every 10-15 minutes.
The difficulty ramps up throughout the ten levels leading to a climactic boss level that features a huge enemy ship and numerous waves of smaller enemies, or sometimes just a lengthy level with numerous waves of ships. To make these final battles more exciting (or difficult) is that you are relieved of all missiles.
Crusaders of Space is deceptively simple in its visuals. While the game itself looks quite basic, when you take the time to study the individual ships, the detailed weapons fire, the colorful explosions, and the wonderful particle effects, you can see the care that went into this production.
Ship design is unique and often quite alien. You have your traditional wedge-shaped fighters then you have some metallic blob-like ships and some scary skull ships with batwings. These models all exhibit a metallic sheen and even some primitive lighting and shadow effects depending on their tilt and movement.
Your ship is equally as well designed with twin weapon pods and a nose cannon. The power-ups, whether they are a cluster of rockets, a spinning coin, or a standard hexagon weapon upgrade all look great and are easy to identify, even in the chaotic wash of special effects that dominate the screen at any given time.
The HUD is clean and kept to the side where it displays your ship status, score, secondary weapons, invulnerability timer, and an insert headshot of your pilot.
My singular complaint with the game is the lack of backgrounds. After 50 levels I have only seen a scrolling star field for the normal levels and a scrolling grid of pipes and conduit, perhaps a space station, for the boss levels. Some diversity in the backgrounds would have kept this game a bit fresher, especially in light of the repetitious gameplay.
There isn’t much in the way of sound effects. You start with the hiss of the single energy bolt then move up to the futuristic blips and beep of your other weapons. Explosions are convincing. There is a bit of speech that ranges from the occasional one-liner, “look out Bill Gates” when you collect some cash, to various taunts directed at the enemy when you collect a rocket pack.
The music is awesome, some futuristic trance and techno beats that really drive the action. It’s the same style music you might be familiar with if you are into the “mod scene” - you know, those graphics and sound demos those 15-year old kids over in Norway create using 64kb or less. Honestly, the music blends into the game so well I can’t even tell you if there is more than one song. It may be looping but the music is so good that even after 6 hours of play (not all at once) it still hasn’t gotten old or annoying.
I’m a huge fan of the shareware delivery style for software. Not only is it a great way for budding designers to get their projects out to the public, it’s a great way for gamers on a budget to get quality games at a great price and often, try them before they buy them.
$20 is more than a fair price for this outstanding shooter. Whether you are six or sixty, you can enjoy this simply, yet challenging and totally addicting game in small doses or for extended marathon sessions. Its design allows you to unlock levels then come back later and pick-up where you left off.
Perhaps it was because I was raised by the coin attendant at Aladdin’s Castle, or perhaps it is my affection for old-school games like Space Invaders and Galaga (I’m still compelled to play Galaga whenever I spot it in a bowling alley or bus station), but I found Crusaders of Space: Open Range a totally fun and addictive shooter. If you have any love for the genre then you owe it to yourself to at least checkout the free trial. I’m betting you’ll be registering for the full game within a day.