Whereas most expansions try to, you know, expand upon the core gameplay elements that made the base game popular in the first place, Stronghold Crusader Extreme goes in a slightly different direction: straight uphill. Developer Firefly Studios upped the difficulty in the new Extreme missions to such a terrifying degree that only the most hardcore need apply. But, says Firefly, that's the point.
We got our hands on the new expansion that will also feature the original Stronghold Crusader in addition to the limited edition content in addition to the new Extreme trail. That's a lot of content for a six-year-old game, but a solid bargain at only $29.99. That's assuming, of course, you can get past the first mission.
The first stop on the Extreme trail pits you against a malevolent Saracen bent on your destruction. No surprise there. You may be taken aback when a hundred mercenary stone slingers tear your quaint little hamlet apart within the first five minutes while you're simply trying to construct a working dairy farm. We adjusted game speeds. We built walls. We built a rock quarry. We hired slingers of our own, all to no avail. Firefly wants the Extreme content to "provide a stiff challenge to any hardened Crusader player." In that, it has most definitely succeeded.
Thankfully, the original Crusader content provides a nice starting point for new players. You can jump into a peaceful castle creator mode and assemble your own personal Camelot without worry of impending jihad, helping you to master the different resource chains. A skirmish mode teaches you the art of battle as you develop weapons, train a variety of soldiers, and utilize siege tactics like tunneling. There's also a selection of objective-based historical scenarios that act almost as a tutorial for the main single-player mode, the Crusader trail. There, you'll utilize all of your economic and battle strategies to make your way through 50 missions against a number of AI opponents, each employing their own brands of devious tactics.
So far, Crusader Extreme has been a fun challenge. Resource management, strangely, is one of the most interesting aspects of the game as there is a very limited amount of fertile farmland to be found in the arid regions surrounding the Holy Land. The result is something akin to the great Oklahoma land rush, as you sprint to claim plots of land before your enemies. As your society grows it will become increasingly difficult to keep the population happy. You'll need to continually increase the food supply to feed your new subjects, so you may need to cut rations. To fund the war effort and conscript highly trained knights and archers, you'll be forced to raise taxes. You can keep the population in line, however, by building a gallows, cesspit, or chopping block in the town square. More benevolent rulers may opt for a communal garden or a dancing bear as positive reinforcement, but where's the fun in that?
We noticed a few minor interface issues. It's particularly tedious to have to construct stairs to a tower that allow your archers to enter. While you're struggling to line up the construction icon just so, your AI opponent is efficiently plotting your demise, not having to deal with any such interface issues.
Visually, Crusader Extreme would be a great-looking game, if this were still 2002. The 2D graphics are definitely dated, but they do not detract at all from the gameplay. Firefly boasts that Crusader Extreme can handle 10,000 units onscreen, and while the result is something like an army of pixelated ants marching toward Jerusalem, it does lend the game an epic feel when battles eventually reach such a grand scale. It's also worth noting that more than one editor has stopped by my desk to comment on the lovely palm trees swaying softly in the wind, an effect that may or may not have inspired the foliage of Crysis. The sound remains a strength, with a fine epic score and effects that complement the action onscreen.
Hardcore players may appreciate the ridiculous challenge of the Extreme mode, but it seems unfair to charge $29.99 for the Extreme trail plus content these players mastered six years ago. On the flip side of the coin, Crusader Extreme is jam-packed with things to do and looks like a solid value for new players. We'll have a full review later this month.