What’s the best video game monster? Stop and think. You’ve probably thought of something bristling with claws, which snarls as it rushes to bite you, or some skittering horror that lurks in the shadows. Perhaps it’s a shiny robot or a soldier with particularly fiendish AI. These are all understandable choices. They are, however, wrong.
Exposing another bias of mine, I feel the need to surround any comparison of a game with the tower defence genre with caveats. Creeper World 3 is clearly a form of tower defence, but describing it as such risks doing it a disservice. Bluntly, it’s not that boring.
Most tower defence games are about an hour long at best. At least, that’s as far as I ever get before losing a round and not caring enough to try again, or winning a round and not caring enough to watch another line of guns mow down another orderly queue like an unusually proactive shop assistant. Call it an acquired distaste.
In Creeper World 3, “tower defence” only truly describes the opening act of a level. Each takes place on a different planet, and tasks you with securing some key artifact and usually a key to the next world. You examine the map from above, place your headquarters, and dot the surrounding landscape with power generators before setting up your defences. So far, so tower defence. But your goal isn’t merely to survive; it’s to build up your forces and counter-attack, wiping each map clean of your foes. You have the run of the map, and enemy movement changes with its surroundings, so stock formations and cold calculations of optimal damage are out. Your tactics need to be more… hell, I’m going to say it: fluid.
For this is the main reason Creeper World 3 is unlike anything else out there. Your enemies are not soldiers, or robots, or alien beasties dumbly marching to someone’s doom through your gauntlet. The vast bulk of the force opposing you is comprised of a sinister purple goo. Not goo taking on various forms. Just an inexorable tide of deadly liquid, mindlessly destroying everything in its path.
What’s difficult to convey is quite how compelling this is. Easily misunderstood as a gimmick, the Creeper is instead a uniquely challenging opponent. In theory it’s highly predictable, and a quick read of the landscape will give you all the knowledge needed to bottle it up, but even the slightest complacency can spell disaster.
Where discrete units would be easily spotted breaking from ranks, it’s frighteningly easy to overlook a tiny trickle of Creeper. Fluid dynamics being what they are – and the game has a complex and convincing model – it’s a short step from there to a critically breached base overflowing with malevolent gack.
There are more threats, introduced regularly and comfortably with each level of the campaign. Runners flit about some levels firing disabling shots at your buildings, and corrupted human technology punts out aggressive sentries on others. But these really serve only to distract and weaken you. Most of the hostile tricks are essentially alternative ways to deliver the Creeper or make it harder to control. There is only the goo.
What’s most surprising is how effective this approach is. My natural supposition, particularly with tower defence, would be that a game ought to introduce more monsters, and that shooting endlessly at stacks of gunge would get old. But Creeper World makes a strength of it. There’s plenty of variety, and some deceptively fiendish threats, from the complications some levels introduce – one with an indestructible network of tubes the Creeper can rush through, another with an orbiting planetoid that pulls it in, your extremely high walls be damned. To counter all this is a colourful box of toys for the player, most of which are critical on their introductory level. Taken together, they offer a robust set of options for most situations, with even the more puzzle-y maps generally offering as many solutions as you can dream up. Rapid fire cannons hold the line but struggle with volume, while mortars are slow but cut into deep purple puddles and fire over walls. Patches of ore are mined and distributed along the same networks as your power grid as anti-creeper, a precious blue antidote sprayed or dropped from bombers to thin out distant streams or establish beachheads before flying your turrets over – almost all of your active weapons can be moved once placed, and carry a private store of ammunition for emergencies and/or dropping recklessly into a puddle, hopefully clearing a path for others.
That power grid itself is a major strategic concern, as generators and infrastructure are instantly destroyed if bepurpled, potentially cutting off your guns, while ore must be siphoned back to base (themselves also mobile, and in most cases multiple, opening further tactical options) before use. Aircraft both offensive and logistical round out options I often neglect, and a research system unlocks midway through, adding another asset to secure and protect, just in case you were worried about things ever being simple. It’s all rather pretty too, in an unpretentious kind of way. Lively sprites and bright colours complement a clear and efficient interface, and there’s equal satisfaction to be had from watching your turrets sniping Runners and cutting down Spores.
But through it all, there’s no forgetting that it’s the sheer relentless tide of murderous gunk you’re fighting. It constantly builds pressure both figurative and literal and at times becomes almost hypnotically compelling,
The plot does a great deal to drive this home, a remarkable achievement given that it’s completely unobtrusive, and that many developers wouldn’t have bothered with one at all. It’s the year Literally Billions From Now and you’re the last human. Not the last survivor of a battle, not the last human on Earth, but the last human anywhere ever. Your refreshingly non-wacky AI companion explains that your current situation makes Dave Lister’s look positively idyllic, as you’ve woken up after a mysterious substance called Creeper has destroyed all humans, all their works, all their civilisations, everything. And this has happened repeatedly. Any time some survivors rebuild, the Creeper comes back. The humans invent a countermeasure, the Creeper circumvents it. In the handful of cases where humanity got too clever, the Creeper simply waited. Whether it takes a decade or thousands of years, the Creeper will simply pull a galaxy wide Tremors on us and wait for us to forget, or convince ourselves that it’s gone.
Again and again, everything has been wiped out by the same unstoppable tide. No explanation, no quarter, no hesitation. This is not some localised crisis or a simple war. This stuff you’re shooting at wants to obliterate you, and it will keep on coming forever.
And this is where an odd thing happens. Through its refusal or inability to communicate, the Creeper takes on a personality in your mind. Its absolutely indiscriminate genocide is so not personal that playing CW, the mood underflows and becomes bizarrely more personal. Aha! I see you there, sneaking around that sliver of land the shield doesn’t quite cover. Nice try, gunge! What! You dropped a spore on my mines! You bastard, you knew I needed them. Ha, didn’t think I’d bomb you THERE, did you?
It is a silly thing, and I can’t fully explain it. Through screen after screen, the endless soupy tides form a giant purple tabula rasa onto which I paint a hateful face, and I take a possibly unhealthy delight in stamping on it. Be it the easier missions where speed and sheer firepower allow a systematic cleaning of the board, or the harrowing defensive maps where even the walls you’ve shored up with terraformers struggle to contain the flood, each is unusually satisfying to purge. And that’s without even counting the bonus maps, and many created by users.
Of course, all I can ever do is briefly, pointlessly poke the gunge’s imagined uncaring eye. The gloop will outlive me. It doesn’t matter.