The original Stronghold Crusaders has built up a bit of a following since first released in 2002. Developed by FireFly studios, the sequel (which has been a long time coming) is a competent, retro game in a new skin. The Real Time Strategy genre has always been at home on the PC. The use of the mouse has never been so pivotal as responsiveness is key to all RTS games. It starts with an empty desert area with an occasional oasis and tree dotted about the landscape. From there you must farm wood to start in a bid to try and build civilisation.
The game’s progress is quite logical as each time you play you must try and work out the best way to utilise resources, manage your men and try to keep the enemy from the your doorstep. Like most strategy games – balance is pivotal in ensuring a failure to success ratio. Where some games are unfairly punishing, Stronghold Crusaders 2 is at least the right kind of RTS that provides insight with each failure. When you spread your forces out across the map you might realise you did so in haste and their thin cover is not enough to keep a marauding army overwhelming you in just one area of the map. This means you should try and keep your main army central if possible and only sacrifice the bare minimum to deal with smaller issues like Lions attacking. It’s in this balance that made the original a hit with some RTS fans. The sequel, it has to be said, although balanced, doesn’t stray too far from the original concept. With each play through you realise that you may have not had enough men, weapons or that there are flaws in your map layout. This can be rectified during the next campaign and as you get to understand the deeper mechanics, you realise you can last just that little bit longer.
The graphics have had a lot of improvements but still nowhere near the potential of most modern graphic cards. If I used one word to describe the visuals, it would be ”functional”. The drop down menus and in game options are deep and to a beginner can seem over whelming. Their fonts, colours and table charts all look sensible and if I’m honest rather dull. There isn’t much excitement to had in looking at the rows of menu settings and item icons.
So it’s not going to be winning any beauty contests anytime soon, but nor is it a hideous chud you’d kick out of bed either. All sound effects are clear and work as they should. Explosions, clashing of swords and baying crowds sound mildly distant (as to be expected). This effect works well and allows you to separate yourself and watch over them in a god like capacity with ease.
The multiplayer aspect is quite lavish but again it’s let down by the oh so dreary menus. Up to 8 players or mix of players/AI duke it out for dominance of areas of the map and you can customise these games to play balanced (everyone equal) or skew the advantages or disadvantages of your game. More gold, less gold, better goods, more random events etc.
As you progress through the game it is important to keep you subjects happy and this can be done by obtaining different kinds of food for them. If they workers are happy their productivity goes up and this can be imperative to maximise you resources and army. You will have to mine metal for the blacksmiths for weapons and only build what you need. Everything becomes important during the later stages and as you build up you army, housing, food stocks and resources you must do your upmost to keep juggling them all. Stronghold Crusaders 2 keeps the right balance going and (like spinning plates) it can be just as entertaining to watch your civilisation come crashing to the floor when it all gets a little too much. But with each failure comes another lesson and you will learn your lessons! (Some quicker than others).
When you are strong enough you can then take on rival castles and factions that are also trying to be the biggest and best. This is like the boss battles in most games and it can be all hands on deck in order to successfully topple another army. You have to then time the use of siege weapons like giant catapults and aim them in the right place in order to maximise damage. You also run the risk of retaliation and surprise attack if you decide to leave your fort unmanned and bring all your soldiers forward. This is where Crusaders gets it right. Sometimes the stakes are high but like more good gambling machines, the risk is worth the payout. Animations for tower destruction are adequate but there are some flat notes and sometimes, what should be a rousing, satisfying moment can fall a little flat.
To break down each stage of this RTS would be to rob you of the joy of learning, but as you get bigger and stronger it can really feel great to overpower an external enemy and take their territory over. It took quite some time to learn how to play Stronghold Crusaders properly. The intro tutorials are by far the dullest I have had to endure in order to really get the best out of the game. Several times they tried to make the text based moments enjoyable with a little bit of humour but the fun quickly subsides and the grind might put a few new players off. This is where the game falls down as if you haven’t played the original then you are in for a daunting learning curve. However for the players who have it is business as usual. The online elements are functional but it’s still in the single campaign are where the best fist pumping moments are to be garnered.
Stronghold Crusaders 2 is a fully competent RTS game with a rather vanilla interface. Fans of the original will find much retro fun in this sequel, however it doesn’t push the series very far forward and the learning curve for new players is a full on grind. Play only if you really love RTS games and have plenty of time on your hands.
MLG Rating: 7/10 Format: PC Release Date: 23/09/2014
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Stronghold Crusaders 2 by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 2 weeks on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.