E3 2014: Launching Diseased Farm Animals in Stronghold Crusader 2
Storming the castle.
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Stronghold Crusader II is a whole lot like the original Stronghold Crusader, and that's by design. Firefly Studios knows its audience, and it knows that by pleasing its fans, its fans will drive word-of-mouth advertising. This is the series' primary means of audience penetration: people who love its games tell others. The audience propagates on its own accord.
At E3 2014, I caught up with Paul Harris, Stronghold II's senior producer, as well as Firefly marketing manager Nick Tannahill. When I set eyes on the game, the fact that it was a Stronghold game was immediately apparent, with its stony castle base, its slowly swaying trees, and its medieval setting. "It's a city-builder meets RTS," Harris told me. "That's what a Stronghold game is." So as per usual, you have to build a village economy in order to support your military campaign. What makes Stronghold Crusader different from a typical Stronghold game is that there's more emphasis on battle and less on specific objectives. But the economy is still vital to success, and so you set up the necessary supply lines and stockpile food, wood, stone, and so forth.
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"It's all about skirmish," said Harris. And to make skirmishes satisfying, Stronghold Crusader II will support matches for up to eight players at once, with each AI-controlled player sporting a different personality. For instance, in the match I watched Harris play, the single enemy forces were commanded by RIchard the Lionheart, who mounted an aggressive campaign against Harris. I was curious though: would the game let you play against seven Richards if you wanted to? Actually, it probably will. "We're at an age where players want as many options as possible," Harris told me. And if you want to face seven Richard the Lionhearts, then go right ahead.
My other concern was whether personality-driven AI characters would become too predictable. Would I be able to use the same tactics to win against Richard over and over again? Said Harris, "He has a set of behavior. Depending on the size of the map, where he's positioned, what kind of routes you've blocked off, he'll adapt the strategy according to that. He'll pick one from a sequence of different behaviors, so you won't be like, 'it's Richard, he'll send out two catapults and 10 archers and five swordsmen.' He'll mix it up, he'll choose from a range of different options."
Another element of Stronghold Crusader II I particularly enjoy is its sense of humor. One of your defensive structures is a caged pack of dogs that you can release by pressing a button that says "release the hounds." (It's best appreciated if you imagine yourself as C. Montgomery Burns when you press that button.) Whirling Dervishes holding dual swords swirl into groups of units and slash enemies to bits. You can even catapult diseased farm animals into the enemy's village and spread sickness. (That might sound preposterous, but the idea is based on actual historical events. It didn't just happen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!)
This sequel might seem remarkably similar to the original, but Tannahill wants to make sure Stronghold fans have a reason to make the leap. "We can't make the same game all over again," says Tannahill. "There are some new things in there. In the original you had, like, two units with special abilities. The assassin could scale walls and cloak, the horse archer could shoot while riding, shoot at any angle. Now over half the units have special abilities. Units can charge in, the pikemen can form a sort of defensive line, and so on." Harris adds, "One of the things we wanted to do was make sure everything from Crusader 1 is in Crusader II. That's the kind of starting point. Obviously, the old game had a 2D engine, four rotation points. It's bringing that kind of old-school RTS into 2014, so you know, with the [new 3D] engine, it's so much easier with the Havok physics and the walls, it feels even more like a castle simulation now."
Indeed, Stronghold Crusader II does a great job of capturing the medieval tone that made earlier games in the series such a hit. The Stronghold games have always had dedicated players, and Stronghold Crusader II seems like another game with a long life ahead of it.