You can't go home again. That's the lesson of Stronghold Crusader Extreme, a revamping of Firefly Studios' classic 2002 real-time strategy game Stronghold Crusader. This minor reimagining of an oldie but goodie is several years late for the party, a real-time relic based on antiquated game mechanics and production values. It doesn't even add much in the way of new old-fashioned game content; it simply goes after hardcore fans of the original game with a new Extreme Trail mode of play that takes you up a ladder of impossibly murderous medieval skirmishes.
This is essentially a straight rehashing of the first Stronghold Crusader. Gameplay shows every bit of its age, so what you've got here is an old-school RTS game in which you build bases, gather resources, and grind out soldiers for endless combat. You take on the role of a medieval lord commanding a settlement in the dusty lands of the Crusades-era Middle East, and must build it up by constructing the usual barracks, farms, armories, and mines. Of course, the ultimate purpose is to use this economic backbone to fund an army of knights, spearmen, bowmen, and the like, and proceed to wipe your enemies off the map.
As with most RTS games from earlier in the decade, the skirmish maps in the 20-mission Extreme Trail campaign are all about speed, not strategy. The winner is always the one who can click the quickest, which makes matches play out more like fast-forwarded street brawls than real military engagements. This is actually one of the zippiest RTS games of all time, and spectacularly tough when compared to the nonextreme trail campaign in the original Stronghold Crusader. The pace has been so amped up and the maps so packed with enemies that the combat is frenzied and chaotic.
Expect to be toast early and often if you don't have some heavy playtime with the first game under your belt. Even with this experience (which you can gain here because you get the complete original game along with the supposedly new one), it's amazingly tough to emerge victorious from even a single one of the scenarios. Multiple enemies target you in all but the very first campaign mission, and this array of foes kicks off every match by immediately hurling columns of troops at your puny little village.
Maps cram all of the factions into such close quarters that it's impossible to get started on a reasonable army before the onslaught begins. Enemy armies are typically coming over the hill within no more than a minute or two from the start of a game. It's hard to figure out what you're supposed to do to stop these assaults, given that you're always stuck battling these massive forces with just the handful of knights and archers that you start with. You have the option of dropping in companies of spearmen and macemen on the fly at timed intervals, and can erect walls to somewhat stem the tide, but this seems to only delay the inevitable as steams of enemy columns constantly rush toward your keep. All you're ever doing is keeping your head above water, not building enough strength to take the fight to the enemy.
It feels like you're being asked to jam a square peg into a round hole, too, because the speedy scenarios don't fit the ponderous underlying game design. The Stronghold series has always been more of an economic simulation than a purely military one, considering its strong city-building flavor. So you can't just whip up barracks and start mass-producing knights and bowmen. Instead, you have to build mines and lumberyards to gather the ore and wood needed for weapons, along with farms to produce the cows needed for leather. Then you have to build armories, fletchers' huts, and tanneries. After that, you have to make swords, bows, leather armor, and the like. Finally, you can order troops into production...if you've got enough manpower by way of your peasant population. If not, you need to take a moment to toss up some hovels. After all of this, you can build an army. Or at least you would have been able to build an army if the bad guys hadn't already burned your keep to the ground.
Other aspects of the game don't fit with 2008. There is an online matching service, but it's hosted through the rather clunky GameSpy Arcade system, and some sort of conflict or bug with our initial install left us without the icon needed to activate this option on the multiplayer screen. The isometric visuals of the six-year-old original haven't been enhanced at all, so you're stuck with pixelated units and a maximum resolution of 1024x768 that stretches the display to the point of blurriness on a widescreen monitor. Not that there's much detail here to blur. Units look like scrambling insects that convulse their way across the bland, blocky landscape. Audio is just as dated. The music is a repetitive martial loop, battles are loaded with tinny metal clashes, and order acknowledgements are repetitive exclamations as bombastic and dumb as something you might hear during the dinner show at Medieval Times.
Only someone who has just stepped out of a time machine will have much patience for Stronghold Crusader Extreme. Aged, formulaic, and spectacularly difficult, the game isn't remotely appealing to a modern RTS audience.
Editor's Note: This review previously stated that there is no online matching service when in fact GameSpy Arcade support is available. GameSpot regrets the error.