Last year, Firefly Studios released the original Stronghold, an unusual real-time strategy game that, at a glance, bore a striking resemblance to an advanced session of Ensemble Studios' more-conventional Age of Empires II. That's because rather than focusing on churning out hordes of units to pummel enemy soldiers into the ground, Stronghold focused on laying siege to huge castles. While Stronghold didn't have the great variety of soldiers or the many different architectural wonders of Age of Empires II, it did have scaling ladders and boiling oil. The original game featured two primary modes of play--economic and military--as well as a free-form castle-building sandbox mode. While Stronghold's economic mode was a bit simplistic, the overall game was so varied and so unusual that many fans still had fun storming the castle.
The successor to Stronghold, Crusader, will improve on the original game by including only the best parts of the original game--besieging and defending castles--and it won't bother with any purely economic missions, which tended to be a bit too straightforward in the original game, anyway. Stronghold: Crusader will instead focus mainly on battles loosely based on the Crusades, the campaign in medieval Europe that brought the likes of Richard the Lionheart into the Middle East to do battle with Saladin, King of Syria. You'll be able to play through one of four single-player historical campaigns on either side of the Crusades and will also be able to play through an additional crusader campaign, which will consist of a whopping 50 scenarios. And Crusader will also feature the original game's sandbox mode, which will let you build either a classical European castle or one of the game's new Arabian castles.
Historically, the Crusades were characterized by invasion and siege campaigns. Though European armies had previously swept eastward and captured the holy city of Jerusalem, the Syrian ruler Saladin and his armies besieged and sacked the city in 1187 AD. Two years later, King Richard of England set forth to retake Jerusalem, but his campaign was unsuccessful--the siege ended in a stalemate. The first three campaigns of Stronghold: Crusader will follow these events. In the first campaign, which will comprise the first Crusade, you'll play as the European armies on their mission to seize Jerusalem, while in the second campaign, you'll play as Saladin's armies, and you must drive the crusaders out of Palestine. In the third campaign, you'll take up the standard of Richard the Lionheart and attempt to retake Jerusalem, while the fourth and final campaign will consist of fictitious skirmishes among various nobles who fought to control small crusader states after the major campaign came to an end.
In both the game's campaigns and its improved instant-action skirmish maps, you will be able to take up crossbows and Damascus steel and fight on the side of King Saladin. The Arabian side will have eight brand-new military units, including assassins, which can scale walls and open gates from the inside (rather than having to beat down walls with a battering ram), and the fire ballista, a new kind of siege weapon that can set buildings and walls on fire. That's in addition to standard siege engines, such as catapults, trebuchets, and mangonels, which both sides will have access to.
The Sultans of Swing
In the original Stronghold, one of the most common ways to breach a wall and attack enemy castles was to send a slow-moving battering ram to pound away at the battlements, punch a hole in the wall, and swarm in. But in Stronghold: Crusader, fire-using units like the fire ballista will be able to set enemy structures on fire, which is highly damaging and can be countered only by using up your precious supply of water. Water and fertile land will be scarce in Stronghold: Crusader, since the game will take place in the arid deserts of the Middle East. Though water itself will be an important resource, oases--grassy plots of land near the region's sparse rivers and streams--will be even more important. While the original Stronghold took place in the generally grassy, verdant fields of Europe, Stronghold: Crusader's oases will represent the only fertile ground in the game. Since the oasis will generally be the only place on which you'll be able to build farms to grow crops to support your townspeople and armies, you can expect your enemies to not only attack your soldiers, but also to covet your farmland.
And as with the original Stronghold, you'll need to be mindful of your peasants' food supply and their general morale levels. Feed them, provide them with churches to attend, and build a comfortable inn or two, and they'll flock to your banner, but if you starve them and overtax them, they'll become angry with you and may even desert your town. And just as in Stronghold, peasants will also form the backbone of your army, so it will be best to try to retain the favor of your citizens. Fortunately, content citizens will work continuously as long as they have enough supplies to ply their trades--just like in Stronghold--so that you won't have to micromanage their activities.
But managing your town and economy will be only one aspect of Stronghold: Crusader. From what we've seen from our time playing an early version of the game, Firefly Studios might have decided to get rid of purely economic missions, but the developer had no qualms about including both challenging economic and military elements in the new game's campaign and skirmish games. Stronghold: Crusader's computer-controlled opponents are more aggressive than in the original game and will quickly scramble to build up a fortified castle, a bustling economy, and a powerful army as soon as possible. In addition, Crusader will let you include computer-controlled opponents in multiplayer skirmishes--when set on the highest difficulty, the game's computer opponents will doubtless pose a considerable challenge, even for Stronghold veterans.
Stronghold: Crusader has come along quite nicely--its new additions, historical campaigns, and huge crusader campaign should provide plenty of hours of play for its fans. The game's sweeping symphonic music score and colorful decor (which includes beautiful hand-painted art for the game's cutscenes) should help lend the game as much atmosphere as the original game. We'll know for sure when Stronghold: Crusader is released later this month.