The Stronghold series of games has been doing the rounds in one form or another for a dozen or so years now. During this time it has gathered a loyal following who’ve come to enjoy both the castle building aspect and the medieval warfare on offer. While you’d be hard pressed to claim Stronghold has pushed the boundaries of innovation within real-time-strategy, it has usually managed a solid contribution to the genre simply by doing the basics well. Stronghold Crusader 2 is no exception. It’s also the first in the series to be independently developed and funded, releasing the dev team from some of the pressures a giant publisher usually places upon a game’s development.
Set in the Middle East during the crusades around 1000 years ago, SC2 places you in charge of a budding kingdom in need of shelter, protection and nourishment in order to survive and thrive. If you’re an old hand at RTS, you’ll be instantly familiar with the way in which you do this; tell the peasants in your charge to gather resources, then use those resources to fund your economy and, naturally, your inevitable war effort. Start by stockpiling wood and stone, build a granary, a barracks, some walls and prepare for invasion.
The game bears a strong resemblance to classic Age of Empires games in both look and feel, with knights, cavalry, archers, siege weapons and so on, however, it’s the castle building side of things that sets this game slightly apart from such heady forebears. This aspect of the game sees it resembling a more basic, medieval version of SimCity. However, play the game for even a few minutes and you’ll soon discover this is very much a combat focussed game rather than a city builder.
The game uses a bog standard spinny, zoomy 3D engine to conduct itself, and a graphical palette that other reviewers have called “plain-looking”. Admittedly, it’s not going to set the art world alight, but by the same token, this writer finds the old school look and feel somewhat comforting — probably a throw back to having spent so many hours immersed in Age of Empires all those years ago. With that context, I’m going to go ahead and call it “classic styling” rather than “dated”.
In terms of combat, the game is well balanced…and when discussing an RTS, well balanced means that for every unit, there’s another that can effectively counter it. So an army with a healthy mix of units will always outperform an army too heavily weighted in a single direction. There’s nothing more satisfying than having your ranged units (archers, for instance) protecting your melee units from a distance, all the while your siege weapons are sending in volley after volley of flaming death from above.
Having said that, things aren’t all rosey in combat-land. Problems with basic things such as unit routing and AI need to be addressed. In some cases it’s less like artificial intelligence, and more like artificial stupidity. Units get themselves stuck and choose poor routes too often. They’ll also try and attack units that are safely ensconced behind an invulnerable wall, thus sacrificing themselves for no good reason and wasting your valuable resources along with it. The upshot of all this is that you’ll need to keep a close eye on your armies lest you lose them to a fruitless battle without your overarching guidance to save them from themselves. This becomes more of a problem given the game’s focus on multiplayer (the single player campaigns are little more than tutorials for skirmish mode).
Speaking of skirmish mode, the developers have thoughtfully included a Co-Op mode so you can team with a friend and manage a single castle together. Plus, they’ve thrown in some rather entertaining Easter Eggs to spice things up. I’ll leave it to you and Google to find out what they might be.
As an RTS fan who rather enjoys micro-management, this shortcoming didn’t bother me too much. I prefer this style of gameplay to other variations of RTS, such as the Total War games, but for those who prefer a macro approach to warfare, they’ll no doubt become frustrated with some of these traits of Stronghold Crusader 2.
Overall, the game is solid and provides those of us with a latent passion for castle-building an outlet to unleash those hidden desires (pro tip: try the “Castle Sandbox” if you want to build massive castles without fear of attack). It plays well and, despite a few weaknesses, offers up an entertaining — if somewhat old-fashioned — time.
His Lordship Scott Bartley