It’s getting to that time of the year where the planets are aligning and I’ve been zapped by a mystical lightning bolt that magically gives me the want to play a Real Time Strategy game. As part of this mysterious course of events, I’ve been playing Stronghold Crusader 2, and while I only played the original Crusader game once, the sequel was enough to tell me that it was a good thing I only played it that one time. However, being a long time Stronghold 2 and HD Fan, I can honestly say I’m disgusted that this is all Firefly Studios could conjure for a 2014 release.
In a day and age where games like Total War can mix RTS elements from Civilisation and Command and Conquer, you can’t blame me for having high expectations from a studio that created what I consider to be a genre defining franchise in what was a poor and underdeveloped market.
Let’s kick off the review by talking about the story.… That was quick, right? The point I’m trying to make here is that there is none. Stronghold Crusader II/2/Dos/Du truly left me in shock when I clicked onto the single player menu only to find the entire campaign consists solely of repeating the same skirmish battles on different maps with the same 8 NPC’s with alternating teams. I know what you’re thinking, “RTS is more about the gameplay!” As much as I’d like to agree with that statement, we’ve seen fine well that Firefly Studios are fully capable of making an at most intriguing campaign from the original Stronghold games that had branching storylines and characters that actually made you think about the story instead of just being there to fill spaces in the Bot lobby for the only game mode Stronghold Crusader 2 has. As fun as skirmishes can be, not everything has to be sending peasants to their undeniable doom and throwing deceased animals over walls to even out the numbers.
I miss the fun. I miss the sim campaigns where the main thing was building and keeping control of your people. I know that seems rather daunting to ask considering the word “Crusader” is in the game’s title, I mean, the whole purpose is so you’re ‘crusading’ the lands, that’s what Stronghold Crusader was originally all about.
But you also must remember that it’s still a Stronghold game, a franchise that prided itself on being an authentic castle life simulator, and even though the only interaction your king unit has with his loyal subjects is limited to the odd feast every now and then, ‘it’s still real to me, dammit’. You can still place down farms and keep the villagers happy and employed and control the tax rates and all the same things you could do in every other Stronghold game, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s been at all revived and revamped. It’s another copy + paste in its purest form, and that truly bothers me. And that goes for most of the features in this game, even the experience feels like it was made for you rather than the other way around. Every game. You build, you recruit the peasants in arms and you send wave after wave of them out into oblivion until one of them manages to kill the king unit. Call me simplistic, but like I said, I never really did play many Real Time Strategies. It’s just not my thing. I played a bit of Warhammer every now and then but at least Warhammer never gave you the impression it would be about solidifying profound harmony in extra-terrestrial civilisation.
As much as I want to like Stronghold Crusader 2, if it weren’t 2014 and games like Civilisation: Beyond Earth weren’t constantly going over and setting the boundaries for the RTS genre, I’d probably let this one slide. After all, Crusader 2 primarily seeks to be a faithful recreation of the original game, I understand it’s not out to impress anyone but that really just doesn’t do any good anymore. Take it from the Sonic franchise; there are only so many times we as a consumer base will take the old cash-in for the old time’s sake of nostalgia, and with everything that Stronghold Crusader 2 brings (Because it does eventually shine with a new engine and sound design) it leaves so much behind.
The soundtrack is par none one of the nicest soundtracks I’ve ever heard in an RTS game. With mixtures of slow-paced to more intense tracks composed by Robert Euvino, the game certainly picks its moments to turn up the heat when you’re being attacked or building your army. That being said, the aesthetics in the game are also pretty good, considering it’s 2014. With real-time Havok physics and a new 3D engine capable of rendering quite a lot of troops (But still not in enough detail to parallel that of any of the Total War games, and definitely not enough to handle the 1000’s of the original Crusader, sadly.) You are definitely once again greeted with the same old Stronghold feeling of being in total command of your armies. But even with the new engines and the fancy schmancy graphics that the extended capabilities of 2014 engines can allow, none of it looks really good up close. Your units move explicitly slow, and when they’re in combat they look like Firefly have just ripped the animations straight out of Mount and Blade, that being in the sense that they’re not really fighting, rather shaking their fists angrily at each other while happening to be clutching horribly textured swords. Even when you’re just building, the UI is a tedium to use and looks outright ugly, and I much prefer the bolder, simpler style of Stronghold 2.
“Aesthetics don’t make a game, Connor, how could you be so stupid.” I tell myself as I sit there and wonder how a game standing alongside indie games made with the Crytek Engine can at all be called a “polished” game. After all, what can you expect from a franchise that’s been left in the sand (Haha.) for over 12 years? That being said, the gameplay itself is pretty good.
It takes bits (And by bits I mean everything.) from previous games like the constructions and the buildings and the… Wait a minute, aren’t these all the same buildings from the previous Stronghold games? You really couldn’t think of any more variants of workshops or settlements? They certainly couldn’t. The very same goes for the units, with exception to the Field General, who’s just a +1 up version of a knight. That’s another primary issue with Stronghold Crusader 2, or with any Stronghold game, really; it almost completely lacks variation.
Sure, there are multiple different kinds of units including cavalry and siege machines but it all boils down to your run-of-the-mill archers, pikemen and a whole load of models of peasants with swords up until you have slightly bigger and bolder peasants with swords. There is no sort of levelling or upgrading system, no intuitive designs to tweak the uses of some of the units, nothing that really makes your selection of units stand out like, oh, say… Warcraft 3. A game that came out in early 2003 and still managed to implement heroes and at least 20 different variants of units with specific buffs for each race. And upgrades. And not-so-annoying voices whenever you click on them. In closing, allow me to reiterate. “It’s 2014, dammit, people!”
On a final note, Stronghold Crusader 2 won’t do much to make you feel like it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel as much as it blatantly regurgitates ideas from the older games and hopes you’ll enjoy it a second time round. For me, the franchise really hasn’t stood the test of time. In fact, if anything, you’re much better off buying the original Stronghold Crusader. I can almost guarantee you’ll still have the same amount of fun with the lowered expectations and retain the same amount of nostalgia. I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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