Improving on a classic can be a difficult thing, especially when the classic in question is over a decade old. But this is precisely what strategy videogame veterans Firefly Studios are attempting to do with Stronghold Crusader 2, the follow up to 2001's fan favourite Stronghold Crusader. The Firefly gang made their way to this year's EGX Rezzed to show off a Stronghold Crusader 2 alpha build. Naturally, Strategy Informer was there to give it a whirl.
First off, it should be noted that only one small, one-versus-one map was available to play. As far as I could tell, most units were already available to train/build and a sizeable starting army and a pre-built castle were supplied. I played against a fellow EGX Rezzed visitor and the match was over in approximately 20 minutes. I won, but only barely.
Packing your walls full of archers is a good start
The objective was simple: kill the opponent's Lord, housed within their castle, while protecting my own Lord from enemy advances. With that in mind, I quickly constructed some additional buildings for resource gathering, extra hovels for a boosted peasant population and some basic defensive structures, such as additional walls, an extra gate, wooden spikes and siege weapon traps.
From there I worked my way through each of the military buildings i.e. the barracks, workshop, stables and mercenary camp, to set myself up with an assortment of different offensive units. Out they popped, one by one, and before long I had a small, rag-tag army patrolling the grounds outside my castle. Needless to say, the Stronghold Crusader 2 demo was remarkably accessible and basic commands were simple to find through the game's icon-based, in-game menu; a menu which will be more or less instantly recognisable to real time strategy game players, regardless of their experience with the Stronghold series.
Navigating my way around the small map was also effortless, with the uncluttered mini-map and processing power of Firefly's computers instantaneously taking me to the desired location. Stronghold Crusader 2's new 3D engine also allows for full 360 degree rotation and lets players zoom in or out to whatever degree is needed. The 3D engine offers some other visual perks as well, such as Havok engine-fuelled crumbling castle walls and rag doll physics, which are particularly satisfying to watch just so long as you're the one dealing the damage. Individual unit models are fairly well detailed and are fully animated, although many of them seem overly clunky or, alternatively, seemingly moonwalk over the desert.
On the topic of peculiar unit behaviour, most units seemed to travel at a very slow pace regardless of the units they were grouped with. It's entirely possible that somehow an on-foot pikeman was muddled in with my group of horseback archers, or that the speed of the gameplay was reduced by Firefly to accommodate newcomers, but all to often I felt as though both mine and my opponent's units weren't moving as quickly as they should be. Additionally, there were times where units of all types would fight their own battles rather than targeting the unit they'd be instructed to.
I wish my army was this organised
Although it would have been nice to have taken in the scenery a little more, my attention was drawn to a wave of attackers sent from my opponent's side of the map: a selection of horseback swordsmen and a couple of catapults. Pulling myself from a particularly serene-looking oasis, I quickly ordered the archers posted on my castle walls to bombard the oncoming attackers while I slipped my newly built army around the back to take out their siege weapons.
The game was on, and the rest of the match was spent sending in and defending against small waves of attackers until a sizeable hole had been blasted into each of our castle walls. Admittedly, a noisy, crowded gaming expo isn't the ideal place to play an RTS, especially when time is limited and the map is so small. As such, there wasn't any real opportunity to experiment with units and find winning combinations. This also meant that the game's economic, tax and popularity systems never had a chance to take effect, thus removing my ability to comment on them.
It was at this point that both my opponent and I had realised our dwindled resource levels and crumbling castles exposed our Lords to attack. A helpful Firefly developer showed us how to trade our unusable resources at our respective castle markets for cold, hard gold.
From there the match devolved into a frantic race to employ as many units as possible so as to defeat each others' Lords. I sent my sluggish Lord up and onto the castle walls while defending the gaping hole in the same wall from my opponent's aforementioned slow moving units. While they were distracted, I sent a small group of particularly robust knights into the enemy castle, slaying their Lord and winning the match.
Stare in awe of the wonderfully crumbly wall physics
All in all, my 20 minute romp across the desert was fun, but was ultimately hindered by the environment in which I was playing and the small size and scope of the map on offer – it's difficult to properly strategise when Broforce is blaring away behind you and your in-game castle is literally a stone's throw away from your enemy's. But from the experience that I had, I can say that Stronghold Crusader 2 is a robust, fast paced and enjoyable throwback to classic RTS games, with eye-pleasing, modern visuals that add just the right level of flair without becoming obnoxious.
According to our talk with Firefly's Paul Harris at EGX Rezzed, Stronghold Crusader 2 will be out on Steam in the summer of 2014. This gives Firefly a few more months to polish what is already a fairly robust alpha build. With a bit of luck the version available at EGX Rezzed will take shape and offer the classic RTS experience Stronghold Crusader fans have been craving since 2001.
Most Anticipated Feature:Having access to much larger maps and getting stuck in epic eight player battles.