Tested on an AMD Powercolor R9 290
There’s a simple pleasure to be had in colony building games. Crusader 2 works hard to make sure this feels right with the start of each game involving building centres for wood harvesting, apple growing and stone or iron mining. Once your peasants are working away you can start to think about creating some weapons or perhaps some fortifications to fend off early attacks. After a while you’ll be ready to start creating more terrifying weapons of war and you’re in a situation where your immense war machine can roll out across the map.
In general the resource collection feels like Settlers or Pharaoh, with resource chains and transport being vitally important. Your peasants walk ridiculously slowly so minimising the time they spend walking around (or building ox stations to get animals to do the work for them) significantly improves your economy. Unfortunately there’s none of the nuances to production you see in games like Age of Empires. There are wild animals wandering around and you’ll kill plenty of lions early on, but you can’t go harvest them for meat or any materials. Similarly you can’t ask a peasant to go mine from a rock or chop down a tree, they will only do it automatically if the right building is there. Building itself is a mixed bag. The buildings all look right and fit nicely together (something that’s off in many real-time strategy games) but there’s no construction time, you just build instantly. Considering how long everything else in the game takes it’s probably a blessing but it feels weird after twenty years of the genre and being used to seeing things go up over time, even in faster paced games like Starcraft.
There is a very interesting feature in the way you attract peasants to your castle. There’s a number of meters in the population tab and if you have a positive reputation peasants will come to your castle (up to the maximum based on how many houses you have) if you are unpopular they will leave, decreasing your pool of workers and possible soldiers. Some things are obvious and have been seen before, like setting food rations or taxes. More interesting are the availability of ale and religion or if there are lions nearby, or even tornados and locusts. This is a really interesting idea and prompts strategies like lowering taxes after a disaster or burning through a food supply so you can raise taxes to pay for a new army you need right now, but ultimately it’s far too easy to keep it positive. As long as you have food they don’t really care about anything else and food is really easy to produce. While in the tutorial we were shown the peasants being put off by a nearby lion, in a later game there were numerous lions eating their faces and the same negative modifier didn’t appear. It’s representative of the game as a whole that it’s a good idea ruined by some bad design and numerous bugs.
Resource gathering ends up being the most important part of the game. You can create surprisingly huge armies incredibly quickly (units, like buildings have no build time) but when you attack, despite an amount of micro being possible (although irritating due to the units’ tendency to clump up) you will still consistently be beaten by an enemy who can produce more than you. Players will also quickly realise that units have a surprisingly long lifespan, especially once armour is added into the mix, but buildings are oddly weak, even if an archer is stabbing it. This means a suicide raid with a set of high damage units to destroy all of the wood production and houses can be brutally effective, while standing battles between armies are often a waste of time.
This leads to the biggest problem with the game. It doesn’t feel authentic in any way, and it doesn’t feel like the original Stronghold. The joy of the first game was building an impressive castle with outrageous defences and then holding off sieges. In Crusader 2 sieges rarely last very long and your defences crumble far too quickly. There’s not that much point in spending resources on them because while a wall filled with archers can be effective against unarmoured units, sending those archers to go destroy production would be a much better idea. You’ll also run out of trees and other resources quite quickly so expanding is very important. If you build a defensive line at the start of the game it’s going to be completely useless to you later on.
In all of the games we’ve played so far against both real players and the AI, the winner is evident within the first ten minutes, then the rest of the games gradually plays out what you already know. An early strike on resources can leave you crippled for the rest of the game with no real way to get back into it. When all the gathering and transport takes so long, games begin to drag out and simply aren’t any fun.
On the plus side, there’s not been many games set in the period lately and the graphics engine, while initially looking like something from fifteen years ago, does show a sense of scale surprisingly well. Turret tower above your units and large enemies can be visually very impressive. Unfortunately the engine isn’t really optimised for current hardware so without V sync on our 290 was running at hundreds of frames a second and heating up to a ridiculous temperature, with v sync on large battles could occasionally slow down and there were numerous pauses, stutters and even full system crashes in the games we played.
Overall Stronghold Crusader 2 is an entertaining enough game if you can play it with friends and maybe agree to a no-cheesing rule. Unfortunately the gameplay isn’t satisfying or deep enough for competitive play and the things it got right within the city-building side get repetitive and uninteresting far too quickly. For £29.99 it’s very hard to recommend, but if it comes down in price later and you’re interested in the period and the genre, it’s good for an evening’s fun.