My history with the Stronghold franchise is exactly as long as my playtime in Crusader II. I am a giant, clumsy noob, and unfortunately Crusader II does absolutely nothing to rectify the situation. It’s incredibly disappointing because I want to get good at the game, I want to find new tactics and I want to beat the AI on a setting other than ‘easy’. But like any eager student with a lacklustre teacher, I’m doomed to the back of the classroom to doodle and pick my nose while thinking of what else I could be doing with my time.
To bring those of you who don’t know what Stronghold is as an entity, let’s do a quick recap: it’s basically Age of Empires, but with a focus on building fortifications. You have an allotted area on the map where you can build these fortifications, along with production buildings and training facilities, and your job is to keep your king or lord or whatever it is alive, and kill the opponents king/lord.
As a basic concept, it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s just executed in a way that reminds me more of an extremely good browser game instead of a fully-fledged title. Granted, at forty bucks it’s not sporting an AAA price tag, but it lacks some simple attributes that would have made for a far better game.
Let’s leave aside the game crashing every now and then for the moment, because I have no idea how widespread the problem actually is. Reading other reviews, I’m yet to find a complaint about that, but it might be something to keep in mind. Instead, I want to focus on the change from 2D to 3D for the franchise. Personally, having watched gameplay videos of Crusader II 2D predecessors, I see why that particular dimensional build works — it’s kind of like putting stickers on a picture. However, SCII’s 3D isn’t ‘free-range’. There were a few places in the game where I could put walls up in a straight line, but there was literally no way I could place a gate door along the same isometric angle. Imagine I’d place the gate along a northern line, and the options for the gate were to face North East, North West, South East, South West. Not particularly fucking helpful.
There were also times when I was trying to create walls that they would, for no other reason I could see other than the processors having their circuits blown by what I was trying to do, bunch up unnecessarily or just become ridiculously thin. Maybe those are legitimate options for players in the game, but for me in particular it had no real use.
As an ecosystem of resource gathering and town management, I think the game works admirably. Peasants accumulate according to how happy the populace is, and ensuring that they have not only enough food but a varied food sources is important. In a way it reminded me of Black and White 2, or a better version of The Sims, that crappy game where people speak gibberish and everyone finds it charming. NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT YOU’RE SAYING LEARN ENGLISH THIS IS STRAYA.
I like that in SCII — and I presume the rest of the Stronghold series — that you have to build the weapons and armour for all your troops. For instance: having a fletcher (bow maker) and an armoury will let you recruit archers (bows) and crossbowmen (bows and armour). These armaments can be sold, just as all your other resources that you make can be sold (like wood, food, stone etc), which makes for a more servile economy – if you have the stock, why shouldn’t you be able to utilise it?
Unfortunately, the combat is such that I kind of wish I had the opportunity to simply run a town and supply someone elses army with my equipment. I’ve seen others describe the units as being a general ‘rock, paper, scissors’ deal, but I have to disagree. The difference in speed between foot units is ridiculous – an archer moves at, I think, maybe four to five times the speed a heavily armoured infantryman does. Heavy armoured troops take a ridiculously long time to kill – imagine Warcraft III compared to Starcraft. I guess if you really wanted you could play a retreat and fire game (I forgot what this tactic is called, starts with an S – let me know in the comments), but the time it would take… it wouldn’t be particularly fun, nor demanding.
Where the combat could have been saved or made more accessible is where the game as a whole lacks. I see that a mace-wielding warrior has a little symbol that means he’s fast and does an assault charge when getting into combat. What I don’t see are any numbers, and numbers matter in an RTS. I want to know how much health he has, how much more damage he does on a charge, what his armour value is, what his actual speed is. If I knew, for instance, that a mace warrior did twice the damage on the charge, I might get a unit to throw into the opposition while pestering them with arrows, before then having them retreat and bringing in my heavier units to finish them off. At the moment, I can’t tell if that’s worth it.
I also can’t tell from a cursory glance what my stock levels are. To find out how and why my peasants are faring the way they are, I have to click on my main keep (where the lord hangs out, basically the heart of your stronghold) and then navigate my way through there to find it. For a building sim, this would be fine, but for an RTS where gamers like me want to play as competitively as possible, not such a great deal.
Infuriatingly, the only instructions I could find for hotkeys came with a page in the email along with the game code. Couldn’t find it in the menu in-game. It might not stagger belief, but it surely makes it trip a little bit on the stair it was sure was there.
To top it off, the game doesn’t really reveal anything to you. Part of me is absolutely certain that I have missed a level in the training missions, but I am about 99.99% sure my missions went from ‘you have the bare basics, let’s learn those’ to ‘here’s basically everything, but I’m not going to tell you how they work’. Granted, it’s a nice break from the hand-holding, but I would have loved to know what served what purpose and why I’d want to be using them. In the beginning level where you get to basically have a real match, the voice-over suggest you throw animal carcasses with your siege equipment onto the enemy troops to make them sick before attacking. Amazing idea. Doesn’t tell you how, but I figured it out easily enough. Then when I ran out of animals to throw, and seeing a lot of camels around, I figured I’d be able to slaughter them and thank them for their sacrifice by flinging them hundreds of meters into the air. It doesn’t seem possible. Note: seem, because it might well be, but the game doesn’t make anything particularly clear.
Unless it’s wrong, where it suggested I used an incredibly slow moving troop as a scout because ‘it can fire a bow and wield a sword’. No, a scout is something that can get in and out of an area quickly. I don’t want him to fight, I want him to investigate. Considering I can see the entire map whenever I want to, it seems redundant for me to scout anywhere.
Maybe I’m being too nit-picky about the language, but I’m not a casual RTS player. Granted, I’m not particularly good, but I like to have the option of delving into numbers and stats and being able to assess things quickly so I can make for my strongest game possible.
If you just want to destroy some walls, I’d recommend SCII, but only after it’s had a price drop or two. I’ll be keeping my eye on this one, see if there are any updates that change the game in a significant way, and maybe I’ll be back on later. Till then, I’m going to stick with Rome II.
Stronghold Crusader II