I’d consider myself a massive strategy buff. Funny enough, I’m also terrible at strategy games. But even so, after 10 years, it’s still my preferred genre. The one strategy game series I remember the most during my youth was Stronghold. The original Stronghold was probably the first real time strategy game I ever played, and I fell in love with the series instantly. Years later I found myself trying Stronghold 2, and Stronghold Legends. About 2 years ago I found Stronghold Crusader, which came out a little while after the first one, and sort of acted as Stronghold 1.5. It’s generally considered the best in the series, but I had never even heard of it. Much like it’s predecessor, I didn’t even realize Stronghold Crusader 2 existed until about a month ago. It went pretty low under the radar, as it was independently published and developed.
The Stronghold games are a real-time strategy game series created by Firefly studios. In the games, you’re given reign over a small medieval settlement, and it’s your job to manage the population, economy, resource production, and food production. You build castles, farms, armies, fight opposing lords, and most of all, deal with common medieval problems, such as small pox, and mad cow disease. The main series Stronghold games take place around 11th century England, whereas the Crusader series of games takes place during the Holy Crusades. (Duh.) The Crusader games are mostly the same as the main series games, but with some added or changed mechanics to compliment the theme. Now, I remember when Stronghold 3 came out, and that game was a complete disaster. So, when I found out about this game, realizing it was independent, I had to jump onto it, if only to see if this game met a similar fate. Suffice to say, after playing for a while, I’d have to say no, it did not.
Upon starting the game up, you’re offered good bit of single-player content, and of course multiplayer. A tutorial for beginners, 9 different scenario campaigns, consisting of 3-4 missions each, a skirmish mode, and good old sandbox mode, where you can build to your heart’s desire and trigger events and invasions at will. A very surprising addition to Stronghold Crusader 2 is a multiplayer Co-op mode. Generally, I like to play Stronghold multiplayer with my friend, act as allies, build our castles, and lay waste to an overpowered AI lord. In Stronghold Crusader 2, you can take that one step further with co-op mode, and put two individual people in control of the same castle. Resources are shared, armies are shared, everything. One person can give an order to units, and the other person could cancel them. One person can focus on building a castle and managing the peasants and economy, while the other sends armies to keep the enemy lords in check. This is something I’ve always wanted in Stronghold, and though I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, I think it’s a fantastic idea. The only problem I see with it is that it could be very vulnerable to trolls. Just make sure you play co-op with somebody you trust.
The gameplay should come as a fresh, yet familiar experience to any Stronghold veteran. You place woodcamps, build apple and cheese farms, build a barracks, build an armory, raise armies, kill filthy heathens, etc. etc. I found the core gameplay to be a lot more satisfying than that of Stronghold 3, which just felt like a slow, sloppy, unbalanced mess. This game, however, feels a lot more like the older Stronghold games, while still staying interesting on its own. Some interesting gameplay features to note include: real-time physics, allowing realistic looking castle destruction. Walls and towers will fall apart stone by stone, rather than just staying static, and then suddenly exploding. Although this was something that was present in Stronghold 3, it didn’t really work very well, and ended up looking really stupid half of the time.
There’s also abilities for your units. Certain troops now possess passive or activated buffs that give you an advantage in battle. This includes a Sergeant at Arms that can raise morale of nearby troops, making them more resistant to attack, healers that heal nearby troops, archers can launch arrow volleys over walls, etc. Dynamic map events that affect gameplay in various ways. Some maps will have tornados that rip through your castle, locusts that eat your food, and lightning storms that can set buildings and units on fire, which can be quite hilarious sometimes. The User interface in Stronghold Crusader 2 is very nicely streamlined as compared to the previous games. Most of the information and meters you need are right in the top corner of the screen, so now you don’t have to go through different menus to adjust rations, tax rates, and so on.
Something else I like is when you roll over things like the rations meter, it tells you how much food is being produced per day, and how much is being consumed per day. This is incredibly useful for deciding how to ration your peasants, and lets you know exactly how much you’ll be losing overtime with ration increases. In addition, each meter will tell you exactly how much affect a given action has on population happiness, rather than just a picture that indicates if the peasants like it or not. For example, I increase my taxes from none to low, a number next to the tax meter changes from 0 to -1. It decreases my overall happiness by 1. I increase rations from normal to extra, the number next to the rations meter changes from 0 to +4. It increases overall happiness by 4. This is very useful for pinpointing exactly why your peasants are happy or unhappy, again, without having to look through different menus.
I managed to get through 3 different campaigns in my time playing the game, and I quite enjoyed them. The objectives and challenges were well varied, and provided just enough challenge. There is a very apparent difficulty curve in this game, however. I found myself struggling to win in certain scenarios, due to various obstacles the game throws at you. One problem in particular I have are the lions. There are lion dens on certain maps, that spawn lions, which are neutral creatures that will attack any unit on site. My problem here is that they spawn WAY too fast. I found myself getting quickly overrun by the roaming lions unless I managed to build up an army fast and destroy the dens within 5 minutes of starting a mission. It takes some time to get some good unit production going, you have to produce weapons and armor, or else you’ll only be able to recruit peasants with dinky little clubs, and the lions tear through those units like it’s nothing. It got to a point where I had a stream of lions roaming into my castle one after another, and I couldn’t make units fast enough to push them back. I get that this is sort of the point, but I feel as though the spawn rate on these suckers should’ve been toned back a little. I think I counted about 1 lion every 10 seconds or so. Keep in mind there seems to be a cap on how many lions a den can spawn, but when you’re actually trying to take a den down, it becomes increasingly obnoxious when you get a lion coming out every few seconds, slaughtering your poorly trained men.
The biggest problem I have with this game, by far, is the AI. It’s not horrible, but it’s also not that smart, either. Stronghold 3 had absolutely awful AI. You would tell a unit to do one thing, and most of the time they’d just ignore you, standing there looking like morons, or they’d run off in the opposite direction. This problem is still present in Crusader 2. Many times I told units to attack a certain enemy, and some of them would just outright ignore me, and run straight passed the enemy. Another problem I had is with the Aggressive and Defensive unit modes. In Stronghold, you can set your selected units to an Aggressive mode, a Defensive mode, or a ‘Stand Ground’ mode. Aggressive mode is basically ‘attack at will’. They get in range of anything, and they’ll just go all out. Defensive mode works the same way, but your units will only move to attack when an enemy gets within a certain range. Unfortunately, I find the range at which a unit will be triggered to run and attack something with these two modes entirely ridiculous. I’ve had soldiers randomly run off and attack an enemy unit a ridiculous distance away.
As far as graphics and performance go with Stronghold Crusader 2, I’d give it a gold star. The game runs fantastically, even on my barely average PC. I had little to no stuttering or framerate drop, and the loading times were incredibly short. The models and textures look pretty nice, considering that most RTS games don’t have the best of graphics. I did notice some texture flickering here and there, but that’s about it. Overall, Stronghold Crusader 2 is a massive step up from Stronghold 3, and a formidable sequel to Crusader. It’s addicting, challenging, has plenty of content, and it’s fairly well optimized. It has its issues, but in comparison to the previous title in the franchise, they’re barely noticeable. If this game is any indication of where the Stronghold series will go from now on, I’m more than happy with it.