It would be hard to calculate just how many hours I’ve spent playing RTS-based games, and not just because I’m horrible with math. The Age of Empires series sucked up a good portion of my childhood sleep, and years later I still occasionally load it up and dominate a custom match. There’s just something extremely satisfying about using your brain (and a large number of peasants) instead of your brawn to defeat your virtual, mortal enemies, and in some cases it actually requires a certain amount of skill. Though usually victim to a player’s bout of frustration, simpleton AI, and a lack of visual charm, RTS games are unique in the sense that they offer an almost limitless number of gameplay options and outcomes, which is only slightly offset by their shortcomings. With that in mind I introduce Firefly Studios’ Stronghold Crusader 2, a state-of-the-art masterpiece boasting all of the strengths and very few of the weaknesses RTS games have to offer.
Let me first go on record stating that I should never be given control over anything, whether it be military power, political power, or even power of attorney. I’m simply too damn irresponsible. Take this game, for instance. My first venture into the Arabian Desert started off with directions to raise an army and destroy a fellow named “The Shah”. Yes, I had the resources and know-how to do this and yes it was the mission objective, but what do I end up doing? Well, I’m smart enough to know that armies offer protection, so of course I build up a huge contingency of knights and archers. I’m also smart enough to know that soldiers get thirsty, and the only way to solve this was to construct as many breweries as possible. The subsequent raise in mead rations (both in the game and out) was followed shortly after by flinging sacks of dead camel heads around with a trebuchet and finishing up by setting my own peasants ablaze during a lightning storm. Suffice to say, The Shah beat the ever-loving crap out of me and I lost. Like I said, I’m not good with power.
My point in all this is, by that description alone you should already be itching to play. However, if you still have doubts and need some nudging (I am absolutely the nudging type), let me tell you just a little bit more. The backbone of RTS games is obviously the utilization of strategy and the abundance of choice, and right from the start, Stronghold Crusader 2 is all too happy to offer plenty of both. With a PvE storyline, eight-person multiplayer, Skirmish mode, open Castle Sandbox, and Co-op mode, you’ll die of old age before you even think of being bored. Though the first few modes are standard for RTS, the last, Co-op, puts an interesting spin on traditional war-waging. With only one team, two players must share resources and control in order to defeat their enemy. Though Firefly Studios’ math is wrong (sharing one team with another player wouldn’t be twice the control, since your commands can be canceled), Co-op mode offers a unique way to either conquer or be conquered, depending on how much you like your partner.
Being the lonely person I am (don’t worry, I’ll always have Daniels, Walker, and Morgan), I immediately forwent the tutorial and headed straight into the PvE Crusader Campaign. This was a huge mistake. Having missed the first Stronghold Crusader, I was quickly reminded that I had no idea what was going on. The main string of missions, of which there are many, was admittedly created with seasoned players in mind, so stepping off to the side and educating yourself on the use of units and buildings is probably not the worst idea. When you finally get accustomed to the various functions of each asset, you can quickly progress back into the storyline and get your ass kicked while at least knowing why.
While on the topic of playable units, let me first say that I was utterly impressed by the variability and functionality of the available soldiers, war machines, and buildings. From assassins who can scale castle walls and cloak themselves, to fat slave drivers who force upon your walls a barrage of torch-wielding servants, the number of unique characters to command is astounding. You do, of course, have the standard archers, Templars, pikemen, and cavalry to work with, but the inclusion of unique soldiers certainly adds to the game’s ingenuity. Trebuchets, battering rams, and war wagons are also available to command, and how you use them is completely up for interpretation (see the aforementioned camel head launching escapades of my first playthrough). The abilities and weaknesses of each unit make for a well-balanced game, forcing you to employ multiple types of warriors in order to successfully defend or conquer.
Along with a great selection of soldiers comes an equally impressive array of buildings. The need to balance food consumption, taxes, housing, and defense will have you constructing wood mills, mines, hovels, and granaries, while at the same time raising up barracks, armories, and stone walls. This too, is perfectly balanced, and the construction of proper buildings is essential to success. Walling yourself in with towers and gatehouses (with which you can employ hot tar and various other traps) will ensure your survival as your peasants tirelessly harvest supplies. Gold is just scarce enough to necessitate trading and selling of goods, but if done properly, a completely self-sustainable society is achievable.
Where before I said a common pitfall in RTS games is a lack of aestheticism, Stronghold Crusader 2 is the exact opposite. With a 360o rotation of the map, you’ll be stunned by just how beautiful the structures, environment, and soldiers can be. The rich colors and textures of every item in the game are simply breathtaking, and being able to view it all from any angle only adds to the realistic feel of the world you’re fighting in. With Havok’s Vision Engine, Stronghold Crusader 2 boasts real-time structure destruction, leaving me to smile every time a catapult launches a boulder into one of my towers, knocking rock and debris everywhere while at the same time chucking my archers from their positions to the unforgiving ground below. The animations of the soldier units, damage effects, and even the water is completely seamless, allowing you to utterly immerse yourself in the sandy oasis you struggle to defend. Though the clips of main characters (usually an opponent, such as The Shah) look like something from Veggie Tales, the rest of the game’s visuals are far from lacking.
Along with excellent visuals comes a fairly intelligent enemy AI and a rather finicky environment. Where Age of Empires would send the same battalion over and over to be slaughtered before my gates, Stronghold Crusader 2 actually seems to try different combinations of solider units, utilizing everything from war machines to assassins in a creepily human-like way. Though the game does employ an alliance system, I found that my allies were overly needy for supplies while enemy alliances each did their own thing, never really combing forces to overthrow my city. The environment you fight in is also intelligent (albeit in a horribly cruel way), and you’ll soon learn that lightning storms and locust swarms can easily muck up your best laid plans. Though a pain in the ass to deal with, the environmental factors keep you on your toes, forcing you to battle both the enemy and Mother Nature.
Stronghold Crusader 2 is built upon the fundamentals of traditional RTS games, but at the same time offers unique forms of play, interesting units and buildings, and stunning graphics. This game has the potential to provide hundreds of hours of novel battles, and the multiple types of game modes can fight off even the most persistent boredom. The beauty of the game, the freedom to manage things as you see fit, and the attention to detail all make Stronghold Crusader 2 easily one of the best strategy games out on the market. Though the campaign may seem unforgivingly harsh, as long as you keep the breweries to a minimum and the carcass-catapulting under control, you’ll have a great time conquering the hostile desert.[review]