Gamers who’ve been going for awhile will tell you of how their high school/university/early career days were nearly screwed over by videogames. Maybe it was Civilization 2, or LAN Doom, or online Quake, or maybe IncGamers’ Paul Younger will just go on about Red Alert until you close Skype. I played all of these things, and they all made the non-gaming parts of my life suffer in some way, shape, or form.
But I also played an unassuming little game – a game which I imagine most of you won’t know. It was called Crimsonland, and I suspect it ate as much of my time as Civilization ever did.
Crimsonland, newly released on Steam, is a remastered and updated version of that very game, and much to my eternal joy it is phenomenally easy to describe. Here is how it works: you are A Man. You are in the middle of an all-too-small arena, viewed from a top-down perspective. Aliens and lizards and spiders and beetles spawn around you. You have to shoot them in the face with your gun (aimed with the mouse) and move around with WASD. That’s basically it.
Except that’s not it at all, is it? I mean, for starters, that gun of yours is a pistol, and you’re going to want something a bit bigger to deal with the swarms of monsters casually ambling towards you. You should totally shoot a few in the face until they drop a bigger gun. Also, you’re probably going to want power-ups; fortunately, shooting monsters in the face often makes them drop those too. Maybe you’ll get a shield granting temporary invincibility, or something that slows time and makes it a lot easier for you to aim and react, or possibly just something that loads your gun with a clip of fast-firing flaming megadeath.
And then there’s the monsters themselves. Yeah, sure, pretty much any weapon can turn your basic zombie or alien into a bloody smear on the ground, but what about the big ones that can take a bit of punishment? Or the ones that fire back? Or the monster nests that spawn more enemies, or the zombies that continually raise more zombies the longer they live, or the spiders that – when “killed” split into two more until that one spider has become an infestation? What about the enemies that circle around and try to corner you? Worth bearing in mind, particularly because pretty much every foe moves about as fast as you do.
Little of which will surprise anyone who played the old one (or, indeed, anyone who played something like Nation Red, which I always thought of as “like Crimsonland only in 3D and not as varied”). Yes, this re-release is Crimsonland. It largely has the same weapons you remember, and the same perks. It still has a death scream that sounds like a constipated man finding release after three days of straining. It’s still harder than Lars von Trier looking at a dead dog, and it still requires more luck than someone playing Russian Roulette with a crossbow.
There are some modifications for the sake of balance, though. Telekinesis – which previously let you activate powerups by just holding the mouse over them – has been changed, so that it now drags them towards you instead. The Jackhammer gun seems considerably less screen-murdering than it once was. Etc.
In case you’ve got the impression that Crimsonland is just an endless survival thing, though, then I’d better disabuse you of that notion. The first port of call for any player should be the Quest mode – a series of 60 levels that have very carefully defined setups, with the same enemies spawning in the same order at the same times. It’s finishing levels in Quest mode that unlocks the new weapons and perks for use in the other modes.
Also! When I said 60 levels, I sort of lied, because there are three successively unlocking difficulty settings. I suppose this technically means there are 180 levels, each of which will maybe take a minute or two if you finish them all first try… but you absolutely won’t. Some of them are obscenely difficult, particularly once you start hitting the higher difficulty levels.
If I do have one real complaint, actually, it’s that the difficulty curve looks something like a mountain range. You’ll breeze through a bunch of levels. Then you’ll come across a complete arsehole of a level that will take a few hours of trying to get through… and then you’ll breeze through the next 10 or 12 on your first few attempts. The hard levels are hard not just because of skill, but because – as mentioned above – they tend to require quite a lot of luck. If the first weapon that drops is absolutely pants for the forces you’re fighting, you’re in trouble. If no power-ups drop within reach, you’re in trouble.
This can be mitigated somewhat through strategising, of course. You want to plan out your route around the arena so that you don’t get cornered, and pick up weapons and power-ups at appropriate times. If you have a Gauss Shotgun, you might not want to nab the nearby Blowtorch. Equally, because things like the time-slowing power-up temporarily give you infinite ammo and fully reload your clip, you might not want to grab it as soon as possible – if you’ve got a really slow-loading weapon, then maybe you should wait until you’re nearly out of ammo. On the other hand, no amount of strategising or careful aiming can save you from some situations.
But Quest mode isn’t the meat of the game. That comes in the game’s five Survival modes, each of which offer their own unique twists on the monster-murdering formula.
The basic one, Survival, is the classic one. In this, your score doubles as experience points, and reaching certain thresholds grants you a choice of RPG-like perks that boost your character somewhat – everything from faster reloading, through doing more damage while standing still, all the way up to one that has a 50/50 chance of either killing you or giving you a tonne of points. You get a choice of four, and moulding your character over the five minutes or so it’ll take for you to be gangbanged to death by spiders is something that needs to be done with careful thought.
The second, Rush, is pretty much a proof-of-concept for the game. It gives you an assault rifle with a bottomless clip and just hurls monsters at you until you die. No power-ups, no perks, no nothing. Just point, shoot, and run. The third, Weapon Picker, gives you only one clip of ammo for each gun, but it regularly spawns guns around the arena. The fourth, Nukefism, gives you no weapons whatsoever and forces you to use power-ups to kill and survive. Finally, there’s Blitz, which is basically Survival mode running at double speed.
Survival and Blitz, really, are where it’s at; the others are fun little experiments but little more. Still, everyone’s likely to have their favourites. Think of it like Geometry Wars 2, if you’ve played that – a simple concept, but twiddled with in a number of interesting ways to keep it fresh. All of these have online leaderboards, and there’s even a split-screen co-op mode if you fancy going into it with friends.
And oh, lord, but it remains fresh. Crimsonland is a horribly unfair, hugely difficult, one-more-go monster that will eat all the time you have and come back for seconds. You fire it up, have a dozen goes, get frustrated, and alt-tab out. Ten minutes later you realise it’s still open and alt-tab back. And so it goes on, until the dawn chorus starts up.
If you already have an old version of Crimsonland, this remastered remake re-release update may not offer that much new to you; there are a smattering of new bits and bobs, but it’s not like there are 50 new weapons and 100 new perks. Then again, you already know if it’s worth another £6.35 to you (at the current, 40% off price). If you haven’t played it before, then look: did you like Nation Red or Geometry Wars? Have you ever enjoyed a twin-stick shooter? Does a twin-stick shooter with RPG-lite elements appeal to you? If the answer to any of these questions is yes – and even if the answer to all of them is no – you should probably go and play Crimsonland. While there’s a lot more competition in terms of brilliantly-designed timewasters than I when I first played this a decade ago, Crimsonland remains one of the best.