FireFly Studios' Stronghold Crusader
Windows - 2002
Description of FireFly Studios' Stronghold Crusader
Whether it's the drudgery of a nine-to-five existence, eternally late buses or the mindless drivel that now passes for quality TV, there's plenty in 21st Century existence to moan about. But next time you find yourself taking a sideswipe at modern day life, spare a thought for the poor souls who had to endure the Middle Ages. A quick glance at the history books tells the story of an era scorched by ceaseless wars, horrific sieges, and bloody, eyeball-to-eyeball combat. It's a grim picture, and one that developer Firefly has once again painted intelligently on to a canvas of cunningly crafted maps as it takes the Stronghold series east in its standalone sequel.
At first glance, Crusader looks more like paint by numbers than a masterpiece though. Taken on face value the game could easily be mistaken for another run-of-the-mill Age of Empires-style RTS with food, stone, wood and iron all needing to be collected. Fortunately, the game never descends to the same level of micro-management as is common in games of a similar ilk, instead you just place a farm or woodsmen's hut and you can leave your peasants to do the rest.
That's assuming you have peasants, mind, because in Crusader, the number of workers you have is directly linked to your popularity. Influenced by everything from the number of different food types you have stored in your granary to your dedication to religion, this popularity contest is crucial in determining your success or failure. Starvation and high taxes are sure to drive peasants away, and without them you can't collect resources and, worse still, can't raise an army.
While keeping your popularity up adds to the intricacies of the game and separates it from the host of other RTS games, what really stands this apart from its competitors is the emphasis on castle building and protracted sieges. Sure, AOE2 lets you put up a few walls and the odd prefab castle, but in Crusader you get to play architect with everything from drawbridges to kill holes. It's quite remarkable, with every imaginable detail of castle design -- walls, gates, moats, turrets, towers, and a host of devilish traps -- thrown in for you to toy with. And thanks to the simple controls, constructing an impenetrable fortress is wonderfully easy.
It's just as well too, because in Crusader, not even the beginning of a new mission brings respite from the aggressive attacks of your enemies. AOE2's missions begin with a kind of phoney war when cautious exploration and hasty development takes priority over combat, but in Crusader, the enemy attacks right from the word go. There's no honeymoon period or gentle easing into the game. Instead, the first wave of enemy soldiers is banging down your gates within a couple of minutes. This sets the tone throughout, with the ferocity and relentlessness of attacks ensuring the game is played at a much higher tempo than the vast majority of other RTS games, and it's all the better for it.
Succeed in building a castle strong enough to hold back the determined enemy troops and you can slowly start to amass the resources needed to create an army of your own. Once done, you can take the battle to your opponents by laying siege to their castles, but bitter experience soon betrays the AI's adeptness at building its own impregnable fortresses. Thankfully, the range of siege weapons that can be built is just as impressive as the list of castle fortifications. Battering rams, siege towers, catapults, and diggers that can bring walls crumbling down can all be added to your army of archers and knights as you set about vanquishing your foes. And it's during these epic sieges that the game is undeniably at its most exciting, with arrows and stones blanketing the sky, burning oil filling the screen in flame yellow and hand-to-hand fighting erupting on every parapet.
While building castles and the huge battles that ensue definitely make for a riveting game, arguably Crusader's greatest quality is its maps. Having ditched England's green and pleasant lands, Firefly has transposed the action to the Middle Eastern deserts and created some wickedly clever maps in the process. The brilliance of this map design stems from the placement of the scant resources. On one mission, for example, the only farmable land is slap bang in the middle of the map, with you on one side and the enemy on the other. A constant scrap for this precious land ensues, forcing you into the attack much earlier than you might otherwise like.
Another example of the intelligent map design sees you controlling all the iron, and your opponent all the stone. While this leaves you precariously unprotected at the start, as you turn the iron into weapons for powerful knights and crossbowmen, you can slowly gain the upper hand. Through such clever positioning of resources Firefly manages to present a fresh challenge with each new mission, even though the main objective of killing your enemies remains the same throughout.
Another of Crusader's remarkable qualities is its sheer size. Four challenging campaigns offer a lasting challenge, while the main 50 mission quest is enough on its own to consume a good few weeks of your life. But while there's obviously much to admire in Stronghold: Crusader, the game isn't beyond criticism. The behaviour of enemy troops, for example, is occasionally suspect with knights standing around idly while all hell is breaking loose and torchmen refusing to press home their attacks.
The most disappointing aspect is how little is really new in Crusader. Architecturally the castles certainly look different, but the components you can strap-on are much the same and the basic design principles are identical. The game's admittedly been refined somewhat, but with the majority of fighting units simply being regurgitated from the first game, Crusader is ultimately a glorified expansion. Firefly's search for an oasis of new ideas gets lost in Crusader's deserts but the basic game remains just as good all the same. Owners of the original haven't been forgotten either, as Take Two is offering a rebate upon purchase, stateside anyway. Crusader won't make your job any easier to bear, nor will it get the buses running on time, but this deliciously brutal slice of RTS gaming is a hugely enjoyable Middle Ages romp.
Review By GamesDomain
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