The medieval mixture of city building and real-time strategy of Stronghold continues with Stronghold: Crusader. The twist: this time it's the Europeans, led by the ruthless Richard I, invading Phoenicia and Palestine to confront the forces of Islam, led by the cunning Saladin. Players will take command of either side and engage in fierce tactical combat including open field battles, sieges, and campaigns.
During the Third Crusade, Christian forces invaded the Holy Land, captured Jaffa, then stalled and failed to capture Jerusalem. They fought several bloody battles and countless skirmishes against Saladin, but neither side won a decisive victory. Eventually the cost of maintaining an army so far removed from Europe forced a peace accord and a withdrawal -- Saladin triumphed.
Stronghold: Crusader offers players a chance to control either side and rewrite the history book during four extensive campaigns. Utilize many varied units including: assassins, horse archers, slaves, Greek fire, fire watchmen, moats, killing pits, Arabian swordsmen, Teutonic knights, grenadiers, siege towers, fire ballistas, trebuchets, and mangonels. A scenario editor allows the creation of new maps and missions, while the multiplayer options allow eight-player battles over a LAN or the Internet.
Crusader should feel very familiar to anyone that played Stronghold. You still play the lord of the manor, constructing imposing castles (or attacking them), throwing enemies off the ramparts, building a functional economy, feeding your people, etc. Only this time, you aren't slugging it out against other European lords. This time, the enemy is much more lethal.
Stronghold: Crusader abandons the gray skies of Europe and plops you down in the middle of the hot, arid desert, battling ticked-off Arabs or (if you choose) invading European infidels. This new location alone adds flavor to the game due to the wider variety of units that are available, meaning it's no longer just swordsman vs. swordsman. The Arab army consists of unique units such as horse archers, assassins, slingers, fire throwers, and slaves (who love to set things ablaze), while the Europeans counter with common medieval units such as crossbowmen, knights, and pikemen. The best thing about this is that each army requires different tactics to succeed, and despite the different army makeup, the two are balanced -- each unit has a weakness that can be exploited.
Even if you decide to play as the invading Europeans, that doesn't mean you can't play with the new Arabian toys. The Mercenary Camp structure allows you to recruit an Arab army in a matter of seconds if you have the gold and available men. While it's great to tinker with the new units, this allows for an army to be assembled quickly, and can lead to an early game rush. In fact, during some of the skirmish games, many scenarios are easily won simply by abandoning the idea of building a castle and instead focusing on building a small army to attack a fledgling castle. A smart human opponent can counter this, but the AI struggles with this tactic.
The desert terrain isn't just an aesthetic; it impacts how the game plays. The likelihood of a fire is much greater, which puts an emphasis on homeland security in the form of wells and water holes. A fire can spread rapidly, crippling an otherwise strong castle and its surrounding farmland. It's not easy to grow crops in the desert, either. Each map has a designated farming area in the form of an oasis, and once the oasis area fills up with farms and orchards, you can't build any further structures there. Thus, you need to plan what you want to build beforehand.
There's a lot to do in Crusader, with 20 missions spread out over four mini-campaigns. The campaigns, while challenging at times, are more of an extended tutorial that introduce new facets of the game, teaching you how to play each side as well as how to create a thriving economy, how to build a better castle, and so on. There's an easy-to-use map editor, a "Castle Builder" tool (think: sandbox mode) that lets you build your castle without the fear of being attacked, eight-player multiplayer support, and customized skirmish games.
The best mode of play, however, is the new "Crusader Trail," a linked set of 40+ skirmish games against the AI. Some of the missions are one-on-one fights against the computer, while other missions are team-based games. The difficulty level ramps up as you progress, and is decidedly not for beginners. The Crusader Trail campaign is also much more freeform than the standard campaign in that you have access to more goodies right from the start. The goal is to beat the other guy to a pulp -- not to collect 500 units of ale or other economic based goals found in the main campaign.
There are still some niggling issues with the gameplay that remain unchanged from the original Stronghold. The AI of both your workers and the enemy remains a bit odd at times. For example, hunters sometimes fail to see animals that are behind their tent, and since you cannot directly control anyone on the map except military units, you cannot lasso the unit in order to gather food. This doesn't happen on every map, but still causes headaches on occasion.
The enemy AI is also a bit sporadic in how it attacks and seems to ignore soft spots in your defenses. The tough maps are usually tough because of the initial circumstances, and rarely due to ruthless AI. Control is also a bit quirky. Crusader is more of a castle builder / city sim than a traditional real-time strategy game, but combat is still a focus -- the lack of basic commands (such as unit formations) makes it a bit cumbersome to manage a big army, especially when on the offensive.
The quaint, cheerful-looking graphics found in Stronghold are just as pleasant in the sequel. You can watch your little "castle / city" function as workers go about their daily routines, and it's a joy just to sit back and watch them work. Bakers remove bread from the hearth, brewers stir up their concoctions, and fletchers carve and make bows. It's the combat that steals the show, however.
A full-blown siege is a marvel to look at as boiling oil is dumped on attackers, flaming arrows fly from watchtowers, and trebuchets launch diseased-riddled cows over castle walls. The graphics aren't as crisp as they could be (games like Zeus and Emperor are a bit livelier in appearance) but the graphics in Crusader work -- they fit the feel of the game and never detract from the experience.
The sound is impressive. From the smashing of castle walls to the battle cry of troops screaming as they charge the enemy, the game is packed with atmosphere. It's also nice to get a voiceover telling you when walls enclose your keep -- it's a bit easy to miss an open spot when connecting walls, and this voiceover helps a lot.
In the end, Stronghold: Crusader provides a lot of bang for your gaming dollar. There's a lot of different ways to play the game, and complaints aside, it's a worthy addition to any strategy fan's library.
People who downloaded Stronghold: Crusader have also downloaded:
Stronghold, Stronghold Legends, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, FireFly Studios' Stronghold 2, Sudden Strike 2, Age of Empires III, StarCraft, Caesar 3
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