Retire, milord?

Imagine a real-time, fast-paced strategy game where you enter the Holy Lands following an unforgiving trail of fifty crusaders – each more difficult than the last; each with different enemies, different resources, different allies and different economies. You discover and master the art of defending and storming castles – planning your every move carefully while controlling armies of men, horses, portable-shields, catapults and more in the hundreds. Now, realize that the game in question, Stronghold Crusader, was released twelve years ago and that a succeeder is inbound next month. In light of the upcoming release of Stronghold Crusader 2, I found it relevant to review the original; despite its age – because who says a game’s age defines how fun it is to play? Other titles from 2002 includes Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Dungeon Siege, Mafia and Neverwinter Nights, for instance.

In comparison to the original Stronghold, Firefly Studios significantly altered the dynamics of Stronghold Crusader in an attempt to increase the game speed – which unforgivably means the first few minutes of each mission are crucial. The changes include the addition of a range of Arabian mercenary units, where especially assassins, fire throwers and horse archers introduces a range of new opportunities upon both defending your own castle and conquering others. The traditional military units are still more powerful however, but takes significantly longer to recruit due to the extensive production line. The player must thus analyze the enemies and starting resources swiftly – the sooner the production line can be started, the better. Similar, if the enemies appear weak during the early stages, a quick and silent attack gently delivered by assassins might be preferred.

Each mission has a unique design which requires different approaches and strategies.

Each mission has a unique design which requires different approaches and strategies.

One aspect is to defend your castle and attack enemies, a whole other layer of gameplay, which appears subtle at first glance, is the actual castle management. Stronghold Crusader introduces a range of buildings and techniques which allows the player to generate more money, extra powerful men or a harder working population, to name a few. Increasing your population’s happiness through religion or ale allows for higher taxes, crowding and even food shortages. Similar, increasing the amount of bad things (i.e. gallows, dunking tools or cesspits) in your castle makes your population work faster and thus generate a faster and more efficient money flow.

Securing a food chain is even more important than it was in the original Stronghold due to the deserted and rocky terrain which greatly limits the amount of fertile areas. These areas are therefore both interesting and important strategic points; take out an enemy’s food supply and you force him out of his castle. The gameplay thus consists of both castle management, fighting and survival throughout 50 crusades, four chapters of historically inspired missions and an extra 30 crusades introduced after the original release – in total well above 40 hours of campaign gameplay, excluding later free- and custom-play.

Resources like stone and iron might need to be mass-produced to fund later warfare against unforgiving enemies.

Resources like stone and iron might need to be mass-produced to fund later warfare against unforgiving enemies.

The RTS-genre has undeniably advanced significantly since the release of Stronghold Crusader on several fronts; including, but not limited to, the graphics (though, admittedly, the old graphics are charming), the audio, the interfaces and the AI. Especially the latter is easily noticeable if you have played any modern RTS-game – the AI in Stronghold Crusader is easily tricked, and once a player reaches a certain point in the map, winning ultimately becomes a matter of time due to the superior human player and the seemingly flat difficulty-level of the AIs. Instead, the game relies on quantity and starting perks such as six AIs with 20.000 gold each versus the player with only 3.000 gold. The aforementioned resources and fertile areas may furthermore be in major favor of the AIs – something which combined does make for a challenging game, where especially the first many minutes are crucial for the player’s survival.

That said then the game unfortunately suffers from a range of bugs and glitches, which unavoidably results in quite some micromanagement of the player’s troops to ensure they indeed are doing the assigned task accordingly. The path-finding system has a tendency to choose some strange routes, and can, on rare occasions, end up getting your men stuck. Though, remembering the age of the game then these issues are minor and certainly not game breaking – merely frustrating due to the higher focus on micromanagement.

A large element of Stronghold Crusader is designing your castle and creating your defenses.

A large element of Stronghold Crusader is designing your castle and creating your defenses.

The freedom in terms of building and designing your castle is intriguing and very unique compared to other RTS-games. Similar, the actual gameplay is extremely simple and straightforward, but due to the many layers of extra options and techniques during both fighting and castle management, the gameplay is yet challenging – and most importantly, fun. Ignoring the minor bugs and glitches, Stronghold Crusader is a solid game for any RTS-fan, and a great option for those who wishes to enter the genre.

Firefly Studios recently updated the release date of the succeeder, Stronghold Crusader 2, to the end of September – specifically the 23rd September 2014. Pre-orders are already available, and in the meantime Stronghold Crusader can provide hours of fun.

Buy Stronghold Crusader HD on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/40970

Buy Stronghold Crusader HD on the Humble Store here:
https://www.humblebundle.com/store/p/strongholdcrusader_hd_storefront

Buy Stronghold Crusader HD on GOG here:
http://www.gog.com/game/stronghold_crusader

Pre-order Stronghold Crusader 2 on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/232890/

Pre-order Stronghold Crusader 2 from the developer’s website here:
http://strongholdcrusader2.com/