A noble crusade.
It's been 12 years since the release of Stronghold Crusader, a well-received real-time strategy title from Firefly Studios that pleased fans of the genre with its accessible-but-deep gameplay. Firefly has almost solely focused upon developing Stronghold games since then but aside from two updates to the original game, they haven't ventured back into the Crusades until now. And what a fine return it is.
Like its predecessor, Stronghold Crusader 2 initially seems to be an uncomplicated, if even slightly derivative approach to the RTS formula, something which back in 2002 wasn't helped by its dated, 2D isometric visuals. However, sinking more time into it reveals an almost alarming wealth of content, so much so that even after playing it extensively you'll feel as though you've barely scraped its surface.
The first thing that you'll notice when making your initial tentative steps into Stronghold Crusader II is the level of detail that's been invested into making its world as joyous to behold for the player as possible. RTS games aren't typically graphically intensive, and Crusader II is no exception but its art style has such warmth and its animations are so meticulously detailed that it's impossible to not be charmed by it. I enjoyed simply watching the game do its thing and go about its business, though a lack of different graphics options for textures, lighting etc. was a little off-putting, as I'm a man who enjoys tinkering in the menus of my PC games.
Crusader II will place you against a myriad of different enemies in its single-player Skirmish mode and the key to victory is to essentially build a stronger, more well-equipped castle than them (putting your thumb on your nose and chanting "my castle is bigger than yours!" is optional). My first few attempts at this were futile, as focusing upon one specific area of leadership—be it military, food/material production or general governance—led to my settlement becoming unbalanced and my people unable to adequately defend themselves against my foe's constant barrage of attacks.
Crusader II doesn't provide you with a great deal of breathing room. After your enemy (or, in later skirmishes, enemies) fortifies their castle, they will then proceed to repeatedly attempt to overthrow your leader, the most valuable unit in your populace, by storming your castle, breaching its walls and mercilessly killing everyone. In order to prevent them from doing this you're going to want to build sturdy walls around your castle, therefore meaning you're going to need stone, which in turn needs a quarry to be built, which will need workers in order to gather supplies, who need food to eat and hovels to keep sheltered.
Maintaining all of your responsibilities is a difficult task, though it rarely becomes stressful. The game maintains a light tone, with it balancing its gameplay between combat and the minutiae of city management adeptly and only occasionally veering into frustration as your progress become undone by enemy sieges. The most difficulty I had was in building structures in "neutral" areas of the battlefield, as far too often would the enemy send his archers out and lay to rest my workers at my quarries, spoiling the foundations of my economy and forcing me to think on my toes in regards to how I was going to keep my settlement ticking along.
Unlike games such as the Civilization series, Stronghold Crusader II doesn't grant you a large period of time to develop your society and build upon your fledgling society. As soon as you're placed into a skirmish you must be ready to fight, and while I prefer the Civ style of methodical, slow-paced gameplay to the non-stop action of the likes of Company of Heroes 2, Cruasader II proficiently sits in the middle ground between the two. On more close-quarters terrain you'll find yourself with less time to manage your people and resources, but where the game really shines is in its larger environments, as you create an impressive castle and city whilst your men turn the neutral zones into battlefields in the distance. The key to Crusader II's success in these PvE battles is in its attention to detail, whether it be the cumbersome walking movement of the heavily armored knights, the foot soldiers getting out pickaxes in order to bring down your castles' walls (which fall with impressive realism) or the catapults of fire, it's the little things that really make it stand out.
Outside of the single-player skirmishes there's plenty to sink your teeth into. There are the "learning campaigns which are perfectly suited to getting to grips with the game, custom skirmishes in which you can wage war against up to eight CPU players and a sandbox mode, where you can build your castle without the constant, looming threat of an enemy attack and tinker around in one of the game's many maps. While this is a nice addition, Stronghold Crusader II isn't a game that is designed to be played in such a manner, given that there's no option to fast-forward the action, therefore meaning that sandbox mode largely consists of waiting for your workers to push and pull supplies around. Suffice to say, it's not that much fun.
It was during this mode that I also began to notice a few issues with the game that I wouldn't have otherwise spotted when being pressured into action by enemy armies. Firstly, the lack of in-game descriptions of the various structures, weaponry and artillery units is more than a little frustrating. While this obviously becomes less of a pertinent issue over time, having stats for each soldier unit would've been a small addition that would have also been a huge benefit to the gameplay, making this omission an odd one. I also found that materials in my stock pile would drain seemingly of their own accord, with supplies such as wood and stone not being used yet still dropping. This became an issue when I attempted to build structures that required these materials, with me eventually being forced to pay for them rather than taking them out of my pile and quickly place buildings before the stock dropped below the required amount once again.
Ultimately, though, these issues fail to leave a negative impact upon an otherwise engrossing experience and while its single-player skirmishes are satisfying and rewarding, its online multiplayer offers even more reason to return to the game. There's the typical array of PvP options on offer in Crusader II, but the most unique addition is a co-op skirmish mode, in which two players can control one army in order to take on AI opponents. This mixes up the dynamics of the game considerably, and will offer players the most long-term enjoyment and value.
Stronghold Crusader II is a game that will steal hours of your life if you let it. While it isn't as expansive as Civilization 5 nor as action-packed as Company of Heroes 2, its position nestled between the two is a welcome change of pace for the genre and one which is well worth experiencing. Firefly Studios hasn't quite made a new classic RTS game here, but they were extremely close.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on PC version.