Feed the peasants, defend the Lord and build a kickass castle.
It has been some 12 years since the original Stronghold Crusader graced the PC, so it could be asked what the hell developers Firefly have been doing in the meantime. I mean, sure they have been working on other games, such as the core Stronghold games, but Stronghold Crusader has a special place in my heart and as such, a sequel should have been made sooner. If it was just about building and running castles, I could have got my fix elsewhere, even through Firefly’s other games. But the way Firefly combined the relatively slow progression of building a castle and the associated economics, with the faster paced threat of opposing forces was really something special. Still, the wait is now over and Stronghold Crusader 2 is now available to buy. It better live up to expectations…
Set during the crusades, Stronghold Crusader 2 tasks the player with the enviable job of building an easily defensible castle, which is more than just a tower for a lord to hide in. It is more like a small town which will have to prove attractive to the local peasants to convince them to move in and start working for the lord. But beyond this, the player will also have to build their military arm in order to fight off opposing factions and take the battle to their castles, with absolute domination being the ideal goal. This is not an easy job, especially if the player is dealing with multiple AI controlled enemies or, even worse, other free-thinking humans.
Fortunately for those who are new to the genre, or to those who have forgotten how to build a castle beyond those made of sand, Stronghold Crusader 2 manages to pack in a fairly decent tutorial. Here the player will learn all about feeding the peasants and not taxing them out of existence. They will learn the importance of setting these peasants to work gathering wood or food, or mining for stone. They will also learn how to create soldiers and how to kill enraged Lions that happen to be upsetting the peasants. The tutorials may not go into depth, but they serve well enough to get the player moving in the game.
Beyond the tutorials, campaign challenges will teach the more complex aspects of the game, and leave the player more than capable of holding their ground in any skirmish. These challenges will put the player into a scenario and then keep pushing them with new problems until the player either buckles or the mission is complete.
By the time that the campaign is complete, which would be no mean feat, players will be well versed in the intricacies of the game and more than capable of taking on skirmishes with AI enemies. The real challenge however, will come from playing against other real players, or playing with them on the same side, with two players controlling the same castle. There is a surprising amount of content here for castle building fans, and players who find themselves taken with the level of difficulty and the setting for the game will be entertained for many hours to come.
The problem is that Stronghold Crusader 2 feels like two different games, and they don’t necessarily compliment each other as well as one would hope. On one side, there is the economic management of running a castle settlement, gathering resources and building what could become an awesome castle. The actual building side itself is straight forward enough with most buildings just being dropped into place with a template. Walls are a little more tricky, but no great hardship. The difficulty comes with gathering the resources quickly enough, before the other aspect of the game makes its presence known.
The other side of Stronghold Crusader 2 is the warfare. Again, this is fairly straight forward. Create more troops than your enemy, give yourself advantages with placement and throw the right troop type at the problem. It works, and it works well. But when the two systems cross and the player is desperately trying to build a wall when the enemy appears on the horizon with giant catapults or other siege weaponry, or when the enemy attacks within minutes of the game beginning, it can get frustrating. Both systems are enjoyable, but multitasking the two at the same time is really tricky. Besides, sometimes you just want to be left alone to build an awesome castle.
The visuals in Stronghold Crusader 2 are a bit of a let down. Despite 12 years passing and a 3D engine, which was previously used in Stronghold 3, which undoubtedly improves things, Stronghold Crusader 2 still manages to give a strong sense of nostalgia, and not in a good way. The game still manages to feel old, even though it has only just come out. Add to this a healthy number of bugs, and it is almost like traveling back in time. I can understand the developers trying to recapture the appeal of the original title, but the visuals are one area I would have expected more progress.
Stronghold Crusader 2 will raise loving smiles from fans of the original Stronghold Crusader, with the challenging gameplay and warm sense of nostalgia. However, for those who simply were not into building and defending castles some 12 years ago, this belated sequel will come across as somewhat ugly, at times tedious and a little bit buggy. The experience improves when played with friends, but to fully compete, players will need to work through the tutorials and campaign, which will be a slog. Stronghold Crusader 2 is a great game that players will be able to sink hours and hours into, but it will be easier if they are bathing in the glow of nostalgia.