Once upon a time there was a game called Stronghold. Half city-builder, half real-time strategy game, Stronghold became a cult PC classic and spawned a number of sequels—including Stronghold: Crusader, the 2002 title that took the Medieval Europe-based series to the Middle East.
After a whopping twelve-year hiatus, Firefly Studios is bringing Stronghold back to the Middle East in Stronghold Crusader 2. It's perhaps the right time for the studio to pivot, after the generally disastrous reception of 2011's Stronghold 3. A change of scenery, a change of publisher, and—hopefully—a change of fortune.
And did I mention you can shoot diseased lion corpses at your foes to spread illness?
In a preview at E3, our side's castle is lazy. Thanks to the power of "map constraints" we've managed to secure our end of the region by constructing a simple wall across the sand strip. The enemy, on the other hand, has built out an entire castle, replete with multiple towers and a central pillar. I can see him standing proud atop this pillar, waving his sword in the air and taunting us. We'd better build up our economy if we want to take him out.
Stronghold Crusader 2 is, as mentioned, one part city builder and one part real-time strategy game. Think of it as a real-time strategy game without all the "micromanaging peasants" tedium. Instead, you're constructing buildings to affect your city's economy—making sure, for instance, that you can house enough peasants to fully staff your mine, which is necessary to construct weaponry. There are a lot of chains to be forged in the name of warfare.
Crusader 2 is the first game in the series rendered in 3D, with full control of zooming and panning. That being said, the game is also backtracking on some of the features that made Stronghold 3 problematic—namely, freeform building.
"We realized curved walls were great for our screenshots," said Paul Harris, senior producer at Firefly, "but it was a real pain to get things straight. What we've done is gone back to grid-based, which is great. It's really simple to make straight lines, which is what everyone does anyhow. It's like New York—you want to make an efficient grid system.
"We realized we were doing curved roads just for ourselves," he continues. "We tried [this time] to go back to the original game, look at what was it in the original that people liked. Why was it they found 2D easier than 3D? And then we realized it was because even though it had restrictions, those restrictions made the game easier to play."
Because everybody loves a good war, armies are the real focus of Crusader 2. Once you've built up an economy, it's time to arm your peasants and attack. Since this is a Crusader game instead of stock Stronghold, you've got the addition of Arabic troops that can be hired as mercenaries, just like in the original Crusader.
There's no limit on how many troops you can have at the moment. "It's a technical challenge for us," said Harris. You can only build as many troops as you have peasants, but your peasants refresh constantly. By the end of the match you could have potentially hundreds of troops to control. That might change in a multiplayer match—there will probably be a limit to your maximum troops that scales with how many players are still in the match.
If you prefer your strategy games solo, the game will also feature a pseudo-historical campaign.
What I saw looks promising, but what I saw was (obviously) a small slice of the game. Stronghold 3 was a mess, and until I really get a chance to dig into the game's economic systems it's hard to know how much depth is present this go-round.
But diseased lions. Diseased. Lions. Crusader 2 looks like it takes a lot of the busywork and complexity out of the modern RTS, and I wouldn't mind that at all.