One of the greatest things about being a reviewer is that sometimes people actually listen to you. Stronghold: Crusader is the follow-up title to the original Stronghold game reviewed by GiN about a year ago.
Anyhow, just about everything that I said needed fixed from the original title has been improved here. Of course I am sure I was not the only reviewer who brought up some missing features, but at least I was among the crowd calling for change.
The Stronghold series bills itself as a castle-building simulation. While this is a good description, it is worth noting that the game mostly centers on building and then defending, or alternatively attacking, beautifully designed castles. So in addition to a simulation, the game is a real-time strategy title.
For medieval-loving gamers like me, the original stronghold was a godsend. Stronghold: Crusader uses the same engine and graphics, so if you played the original you won’t really even have to read the instructions other than a quick glance to see how to use new units.
You play from a top-down bird’s eye view. You directly control your army by clicking and dragging them, plus giving them orders. But your townsfolk are controlled indirectly. If you need more wood, you build a woodcutter’s shack and a formerly unemployed peasant will go to work. If you run out of peasants, you can build more housing to bring them along.
Some of the buildings in the game support your peasants and basic infrastructure, like farms and houses, while others support your military arm like iron mines, stone quarries and weapons productions facilities. Finding the right balance between keeping your peasants happy and your army well-supplied is a key to victory.
Stronghold: Crusader focuses on Europe’s attempt to conquer the Holy Land, which basically is the Middle East. But don’t worry about history, because other than a new setting, the game pretty much looks just like the last one where you were trying to conquer England. The main difference is that you will be mostly fighting over the desert. Since the desert is not the most hospitable of places, you will run into unique situations such as maps without any wood-producing trees, or areas where a tiny oasis is the only location where farms can be built, and thus becomes a hotly contested area very quickly.
As in the last game, the only way to truly be safe is to construct large castles and then defend them by putting archers and crossbowmen, plus other troops, atop the walls. Digging moats is also an option, though in some areas of the desert this won’t be possible. Engineers with siege equipment and anti-siege equipment will also be highly valuable.
Battles can become fairly epic in scope, with hundreds of troops fighting each other at the same time. Thankfully, the troop artificial intelligence is fairly good, so they will do a good job for themselves whether you are micromanaging the battle for them or not.
The main difference in Stronghold: Crusader from the original is that true multiplayer is now an option against both human and computer opponents. You can setup a game against humans or the computer, very much like you would in Age of Empires or any other strategy game. This was a real missing element in the first game, and led to low replay ability. Now, with the included maps and a full set of tools to make more, once you conquer the Holy Land, you still have a ton of things to do.
In addition to real multiplayer, there are also a host of new units. You can hire Arabian mercenaries to fight for you. Some of the Arabian soldiers are nearly identical to their European counterparts, like the archers. Some are completely new however, like the assassin that can sneak up castle walls unseen, the slingers that at short range can be devastating or the lowly slaves that nonetheless can be used to burn down exposed enemy structures with their torches. A rushing mass of slaves can be a real killer, especially if you don’t have your walls completed yet.
On the negative side, there are a few things that did not make the jump to Stronghold: Crusader. I miss the ability to create wooden walls and towers. Without them, you can’t have a palisade. I realize that they would not be too practical considering how scarce wood is in the desert, but it would give you another building material to patch up holes in the wall if stone was not filling your stockpile. Also, the rich story that was present in Stronghold, with the little characters talking with each other before each mission is not present here. You get a briefing and sometimes this is historically interesting, but I never really got sucked into it the way the original did with its excellent characters and back-end plotting that you were privy too. These are both minor issues, and the game is perfectly playable and enjoyable without them, much more so than even the excellent original.
If you like castle building or ran out of things to do with the original Stronghold, then Stronghold: Crusader is a welcome twist to a now established theme. It has all the fun and playability of the original, and will keep you entertained for many, many more hours. It earns 5 GiN Gems for being everything the original was, with just a lot more of it.