Nowadays, playing a real-time strategy game feels like taking a step back in time – it seems incredible to recall that the likes of Age of Empires and Command & Conquer used to sell millions of copies and top games charts around the world. Yet the RTS genre has somehow fallen out of favour – perhaps because it is always better when played with keyboard and mouse rather than console gamepad – and it is a rare pleasure to find a new one.
The original Stronghold Crusader (itself a sequel to 2001’s Stronghold) came out in 2008, so there’s a sense that this latest iteration is something of a labour of love. Developer Firefly Studios, a tiny British concern, even funded Stronghold Crusader II independently. But it doesn’t feel remotely parochial. The gameplay, and the isometric view, may be reassuringly familiar to those who played RTS games back in the day, but other aspects of the game feel polished and modern: it’s properly 3D-modelled, and constructed around a rigorous physics engine. So when you launch giant boulders at a castle wall, say, you dislodge individual stones in an authentically real-life manner.
Like its predecessors, Stronghold Crusader II chronicles the Crusades. There are two single-player tutorial-storylines, one casting you as the invading Crusader force, and the other as Saladin and his men. In the Crusader campaign, you’re preparing the ground for Richard The Lionheart’s arrival in the Holy Land, so at first you concentrate on resource-gathering, before being gently introduced to all the other gameplay aspects. The game takes a satisfyingly first-principles approach: wood is the key resource, as it lets you construct buildings, and you must mine stone for your castle-building and iron to make weapons for your troops. Farms can only be set up on fertile land, which makes them vulnerable to enemy raids. Increase the diversity of the food on offer (and build things like bakeries and ale-houses), and the masses will become happier; providing the opiate of religion (via churches or mosques, depending which side you’re playing as) makes them happier still, so you can then crank up taxation and create more exotic fighting units with the extra gold you make.
Sometimes you start a mission with a fully realised stronghold, but must prepare it for a protracted siege, and that’s where the real fun of Stronghold Crusader II kicks in. The crux of the game lies in your battle-tactics – positioning your archers so that they have the best sight-lines, making sure you have crossbowmen at hand to counter incoming Whirling Dervishes (who damage all surrounding Crusaders) and so on. The more exotic the workshops you build, the flashier the troops you can create. But even in the heat of battle, you must keep an eye on resources, as running out of food is a sure-fire recipe for losing a siege. There’s some proper British humour in the game, too, and you’ll get the occasional (and welcome) whiff of Monty Python, especially when you discover that you can do things like put rotting cows in catapults and use them to spread disease in enemy castles.
Once you achieve hardcore status, it’s time to move onto a series of Skirmish Trails, which are more open-ended campaigns that send you pinging around different areas of the game world, often taking on a succession of enemies. Those comprise the meat of the game, and will keep you occupied for months. You can play co-operatively, with two players concentrating on different aspects of one siege. Or you can set up custom skirmishes to your heart’s content – mixing up to eight human and AI opponents – and, when combined with the map editor, you can more or less redesign the entire game to fit your desires. Plus there’s a sandbox mode in which you can exercise your castle-building sensibilities to the full, safe in the knowledge that nobody will destroy your precious virtual architecture.
On the face of it, with its old-fashioned sensibilities and cerebral gameplay, Stronghold Crusader II is about as untrendy as it’s possible for a game to be. But on the other hand, Minecraft power-users will marvel at the sophistication and visual clarity of its castle-building engine, and will surely find themselves sucked into the endless subtleties of its gameplay. Let’s hope a new generation might discover the charms of the venerable RTS genre.