It's been a long time in the making, but Firefly's highly anticipated Stronghold Crusaders 2 is on its way. We caught up with Firefly Senior Producer Paul Harris at EGX Rezzed 2014, where an alpha version of the game was being shown off to the public. Read on to see what Harris has to say about Stronghold Crusaders 2's new units, its co-op mode, its visuals and more.
Strategy Informer: What new units are going to be in Stronghold Crusader 2 compared to the original Stronghold Crusader?
Paul Harris: One of the great things about [the original] Stronghold Crusader is that it got so much right. It's a really, really well balanced game because we made the original Stronghold game and, essentially, Stronghold Crusader was made using the same engine, using the whole of Stronghold as the base. Then it was, like, almost a year's worth of playing and balancing and refining the game [Stronghold Crusader] so it played really well.
So one of key things is, we made sure we take all of that and made sure that Stronghold Crusader 2 starts in exactly the same way. But then there's a few things in Crusader -- not exactly exploits, but certain units which were a little bit overpowered. So we looked at those and we tried to implement new units so there's counters to some common tactics that were used in Crusader. So, like, people used to use the Horse Archers, which were archers on horses, so they could ride around castles very quickly. People used to ride them around castles shooting at peasants, and of course, no one could catch a Horse Archer. It was quite a good tactic. So now we have something like the Sassanid Knight. Basically these guys are knights, with spears, on horseback. They go at the same speed as the Horse Archers, but they've got a small sprint just at the end, just so they can engage in combat, and it's a nice counter to a simple thing that happened in the original [Crusader].
Another thing we've got is the Whirling Dervish, this guy... again, this is another unit that has a small special ability. So what he's got is kind of a sprint, and if he catches-- so he sprints towards a group, say of archers-- classic thing would be get your group of archers and stick them next to someone's farms and they're just killing peasants [and] killing their food production. So the great thing about the Whirling Dervish is that although he's not actually heavily armoured, you can run into that group [of archers] and he'll do a lot of damage if you can get him into that group: that's the trick.
And a lot of the other units we've got-- the new units are like buff units. So we've got the Sergeant-at-Arms who gives an armour boost to the troops within a certain vicinity, we've got a healer [Arabic Healer], if you've got him on the battle field he'll slowly heal the units within the vicinity. So it's up to the enemy to spot those things and try-- the tactic would be to target those units first, so as to remove the advantage that they're giving.
So the idea is that there's so much in Crusader 2 for the new players that have never played it before, so they've got everything that the original Crusader [players] play with, but for those-- because there's a lot out there that played the original Crusader-- they'll instantly recognise the gameplay, but they've got some new stuff that they'll be able to play with almost immediately, and some advanced stuff which they can immediately get to grips with, and it'll feel different.
Strategy Informer: This is Stronghold Crusader 2, but there's many other Stronghold games. How do you get that balance between offering enough to keep old players interested, but not completely aliening new ones?
Paul Harris: It's tricky because-- I think one of the things is that with Stronghold there is a natural kind of “basic strategy”, i.e. people understand that “archers, swordsman”, you know, those couple of things that people are immediately attracted to when they first play. So we always introduce those.
We're gonna have some campaigns, first of which is a learning campaign, so we'll teach-- we'll introduce elements of the game so that new players are immediately-- can learn the game that way before going into full-on skirmishes, but also, we'll introduce troops; the more basic ones first, then let them [players] explore more advanced ones on their own.
Strategy Informer: And healing is new, is that right?
Paul Harris: Yeah that's right. We never really had that before in the Stronghold games.
Strategy Informer: How does that work, is it an area of effect, or do you target particular units?
Paul Harris: Yeah, because we don't want people to have to micromanage the battlefield too much-- so obviously there's got to be an element of it [micromanaging] because we don't just want people to send in units and forget about them. So healing has got an area advantage; so as long as troops are within that area they will get that advantage that he [Arabic Healer] gives them
Strategy Informer: The Slave Driver and the Slave King: What's the the story with them? What do they offer to the game?
Paul Harris: So in the original Crusader the Slaves were a bit of a classic unit in that they've basically got these fire torches and they go around-- and the classic tactic is to make these Slaves-- you send them in and they set fire to, like, the farms and the whole castle goes up in flames. And so the Slave Driver's a similar thing. If you've got a Slave Driver within the Slaves he gives them a buff and basically gives them a little health advantage so they last a bit longer. So it's kind of-- that helps a weak unit just be a little bit stronger, but now you need-- it means you have to manage that a little bit more but, but not to the point where it's really micromanaging.
Strategy Informer: Is that the same for the Slave King?
Paul Harris: The Slave King's actually one of the AI characters. The great thing about Crusader 2 is that it's eight player multiplayer-- it can be eight human players, but it's also got eight AI opponents and they've all got their own personalities, and the Slave King is one of those. So he can play against you, or with up to six other humans, one human versus seven AI, you can team them up, two versus two versus two versus two, one versus seven, as some people do!
What's quite cool for Crusader 2 is that we've also got some new things – you know, I imagine that other games do it too, but it's new to Stronghold – we've got a co-op mode. And what we mean by that is essentially two people share the same castle. It's kinda interesting because Stronghold's got the economy side and the military side, so it's up to the players how they actually want to manage that themselves. But it might mean that maybe someone will stay at home [laughter] doing the economy while someone goes out to attack, or it could be, like, when you're attacking – obviously a classic strategy is flanking – so if I take my troops around the left, you take your troops round the right, so to be able to do that together is a really nice mechanic.
So we're kinda just doing it [co-op] as a-- we're not saying it's sort of a major, major mode, but it's something to play with, and we want feedback because we-- it's something we can refine. We know that we've got to have some indicators in the game so you know what other players are doing, so that if they whack up the tax rate to crazy levels you can see what they've done. So it'll, like, log certain actions and things, and have markers on the minimap so you can see if someone's gone and done something stupid on the map. But we want people to use team work and see how that kind of-- see if that changes the dynamic of the game.
Strategy Informer: What are we going to see that's new visually?
Paul Harris: A lot of people played the original Crusader, but maybe, maybe they haven't actually played a 3D Stronghold before. So obviously the one thing that-- in the original Crusader it was 2D isometric, which meant you only had four rotations and you had essentially two zoom levels. So obviously the 3D engine means you've got full 3D: you can zoom in and out, which really brings the battle alive and really means that you can plan a lot easier. We really want the people who used to play Crusader to give the 3D Stronghold games a go because this is definitely going to be the best one.
Yeah, we're really, really trying to refine this to feel exactly like the old Crusader, and the challenge for us is, obviously, to make people forget Crusader 1 so hopefully everyone plays Crusader 2!
Strategy Informer: Speaking of which, you've released a HD patch and a HD version of the first Crusader and several other older Firefly games. How important is it for you to support your older products?
Paul Harris: The thing with our games is that they still sell now. I think there's a natural thing that on a budget there's an appeal to going into-- you see the box, it's got castles on it, so people who're maybe just, “I dunno what I'm gonna buy”-- it's a very easy sell, i.e. “Oh, I like the idea of sieging castles so I'll give this one a punt”, so we still sell-- the HD games are on Steam now-- they still sell really well.
So that's why, because the original games were-- original Stronghold's 2001, so back then people only had, what, 14-inch monitors or whatever, so we only supported resolutions up to, I think it's like, 1280... 1024? You know, 4:3 resolutions. We were thinking about it and thinking “well, we should really bring it up to date for the people who've got”-- at the show, these are 46 inch TVs [points to the Crusader 2 booth] and so the old HD games can go up to 30 inch essentially, so like, 2560, by whatever... 1600. So it brings the games, which still play really well, into the modern day.
Strategy Informer: How has Stronghold Crusader 2 been received so far here at Rezzed?
Paul Harris: Really good actually. We never ever used to publicly demo our games. Because of the nature of the games there's a steep learning curve – there's a lot of things to explain – but what we've found is that we went to Eurogamer and we've come to Rezzed now and it's great because people get something out of it even if they don't immediately get it or don't know Stronghold, and the feedback's been really fantastic.
A lot of people come up to us and say “Stronghold Crusader, man, I remember that. I was eight when I played that.” [laughter] you look at them and you go “wow, they're going to university now”, or they're at school. Someone yesterday said to me they were four when they played the original. So yeah, it's fantastic. There's a lot of nostalgia, a lot of people who weren't maybe aware of the game have come back to see it and have played it and are really loving it. These guys here [nods to a pair of young children] seem to be have been on for about an hour and a half so, [laughter] what I've thought is good are people coming back, to have another go on it, because there's a load of games here they could play, why-- there's no need to come back and have another go unless they've enjoyed what they saw.
Strategy Informer: And community feedback's important?
Paul Harris: Yeah absolutely. We've always had a strong community – very vocal. One of the things we've really tried is to strip back the Stronghold formula to its essential elements for Crusader 2 because that's what people wanted. We've stripped out things like the honour system from the standard Stronghold games because it's not really needed in Crusader because you just want to make troops quickly, you want to keep that really clear-- the game mechanics. And obviously these days we get a lot of Facebook fans that give a lot of feedback, and we've got forums. So I think we're really aiming for the fans, especially of the original, but hopefully new people will find it and love it.
Strategy Informer: And so, Space Colony 2?
Paul Harris: [laughter] Err, you see, Space Colony...
Strategy Informer: I'll buy it!
Paul Harris: [laughter] one of our programmers is, like, whenever we say we've got an announcement he always makes a joke “is it going to be Space Colony 2?” because he loves it so much.
Well, funnily enough, Space Colony is one of the games that, if you look anywhere, like Amazon or whatever, it's always got like four out of five review scores because, really, the people who played it really enjoyed it. But for whatever reason-- I think space can be a hard concept to sell-- there's something about it that just-- it didn't sell that well unfortunately.
Strategy Informer: I appreciate the HD patch though.
Paul Harris: Exactly. Well, actually, hopefully we can actually get it Space Colony HD on Steam and then, you know, it'll find a new audience, and, you never know, it might take off! Actually, Space Colony is the first one that I actually worked on; I came in towards the end, so it is quite an interesting project for me.
Strategy Informer: I think I'll leave you to it, but have you got a release window for Stronghold Crusader 2 yet?
Paul Harris: Yep. Basically we're at alpha at the moment so everything's in there but we just need to refine it, polish it, bug fix it. It will be out in the summer. So we're basically saying before the Christmas rush, is the idea.
For the first time, we're actually developing it ourselves, but are also publishing it ourselves on Steam. That's one of the reasons why we've got to get it right, because this is our money, you know, we need to directly-- not that I'm saying publisher money isn't important – obviously it is – but really, we're determined to get this one right, and we think it's really moving in the right direction and the feedback's been good.
So there you have it, a summer 2014 release date for Stronghold Crusaders 2.
Many thanks to Paul Harris for taking the time to chat and for giving a welcomed update on what will surely be one of the most anticipated strategy games of the year. It's not long now: Spring is already here, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and Stronghold Crusaders 2 is on its way.