There was – and probably still is – a particular trend among less-than-creative game-makers. This trend has them recycling the gameplay of their older games with sundry changes like new maps and artificially imposed challenges, and then labelling the final results with buzz-words before churning them out as price-tagged products.
Firefly Studios was caught up in that trend. (It still apparently has a tendency to get caught up in trends, even years later, if the “HD” remakes of its games do not suggest so already.)
LIMITED GAMEPLAY VARIETY:
Stronghold Crusader Extreme is essentially Stronghold Crusader recycled with an additional launcher. This launcher executes a modified variant of Stronghold Crusader.
(As for the “HD” revamp, it does not add much of anything new, other than to implement the gameplay element of “outposts” in the regular version of Stronghold Crusader.)
In Extreme, the player can only play in multiplayer, single-player skirmish, or yet some more Crusader Trail maps. The additional Crusader Trail maps are the main offer of Extreme, but they are really only there for particularly die-hard fans of Crusader.
ADDITIONAL SCRIPT CONSTRUCTS:
Stronghold Crusader touted itself as having computer-controlled players with their own habits and preferences. They were particularly featured in the Crusader Trail game mode as enemies or
(sometimes) allies. They can also be selected as opponents or allies in multiplayer or skirmish matches.
In practice though, they are little more than scripts with observable weaknesses.
Sure, they do have strengths, which are expressed as the capability to raise defences or armies particularly quickly (and obviously at speeds which far surpass that of the human player). Countering their strengths can be particularly difficult in Extreme’s Crusader Trail, but this is mainly because the scenarios in that game mode grant them initially tremendous amounts of gold, among other advantages which will be described later.
In terms of narrative (if they even deserve the use of the word “narrative”), they are little more than stereotypical archetypes – something which Firefly Studios is good at making.
CRUSADER TRAIL – IN GENERAL:
The ‘Extreme’ variant of the Crusader Trail is yet another sequence of battles against increasingly nastier odds. This time, the odds against the player are already incredibly nasty.
The game resorts to giving the computer-controlled opponent many artificial advantages: in addition to the usual large amount of initial resources, they are given existing buildings which churn out free units automatically (more on these later), a pre-constructed castle, defensible locations or proximity to resources, or a mixture of these.
Meanwhile, the player is hobbled with imposed disadvantages, namely a disproportionately lower amount of starting resources (though they are still considerable enough for very fast early-match build-ups), little space to build or a dearth of nearby resources.
More observant players would know that they need to discard all they have learned from playing Stronghold Crusader. The tactics and strategies which worked in that will not work in Extreme’s Crusader Trail. For example, laying down a stable economy just will not work out well; there is either little space for this to happen or the time taken to do so would have let the player’s opponent build up an army.
Considering that the Stronghold franchise has prided itself for combining real-time strategy gameplay with city-building gameplay, that the Extreme edition renders this moot goes against the supposed spirit of the franchise.
‘Outposts’ are practically a term which Firefly Studios uses for what are essentially automatic unit spawners. These are actually either the Barracks or the Mercenary Camp buildings, but minus the space which has been reserved for mustering grounds. These outposts appear in certain scenarios, usually in the Crusader Trail mode.
With that said, they tend to be in the employ of the computer-controlled opponents. This gives them a tremendous edge, because they can get a bunch of cannon fodder to keep throwing at the player.
Obviously, when these are around, the player cannot win a battle through attrition; such a battle is already in the favour of the computer-controlled opponent.
Of course, the player can destroy them. Indeed, taking them out makes scenarios a lot easier, but destroying them is easier said than done, especially if they can crank out units so quickly that assaulting them is a fool’s errand.
One would think that using catapults or trebuchets to knock them out would be a good tactic, but ultimately, these siege weapons are not particularly reliable at hitting anything smaller than a long stretch of walls.
One would then think that the ‘god powers’ which come with the Extreme edition are the solution, but they are not, mainly because of how the game limits their usefulness for the near-hypocritical purpose of gameplay balance.
Firefly Studios has never pretended that it is making a game with an authentic portrayal of the Crusades.
With the introduction of “god powers” in Stronghold Crusader Extreme, whatever intention which Firefly Studios had for believable portrayals of the Crusades is thrown right out the window.
God powers are meant to give the player an edge against the computer-controlled opponents in the Crusader Trail. The player has quite a lot of options, such as summoning in a bunch of free units, heal troops, get free gold and drop a hail of arrows or rocks on enemies.
However, the use of these powers is limited in many ways.
Chief of these limitations is a charge meter. The meter must be filled to specific levels as indicated by the icons next to the meter; the icons, of course, represent the god powers. Using any of these powers empties the meter by the amount which is measured from the bottom of the meter to the notch next to the icon for that power.
Summoned units can only be summoned close to the player’s own keep, which limits their reliability to defence purposes. (The player could attempt to gather an army using these powers of course, but getting them past the hordes of enemy units which would have been built up from outposts is easier said than done.)
In Stronghold Crusader, and Extreme too, units often die rather quickly when they come under attack. Therefore, the healing power is just too expensive to be considered as efficient use of the charge in the meter.
The free gold is handy, but if the player is forced to use that in a Crusade Trail scenario, he/she is probably losing already. If the player has run out of his/her initial reserves of gold without having gained a considerable advantage over opponents, this is usually a sign that he/she has already squandered the reserves on ineffective tactics.
The cheapest god power, volley of arrows, may seem useful against the hordes of enemy units which come out of outpost, but using them too much means that the player will not be able to build up the charge to use the others.
On the highest notch of the meter, there is the rock volley, which can destroy both units and buildings. Putting this power at the top of the meter may seem a good idea from the perspective of gameplay balance, but the Extreme Crusader Trail is certainly not about balanced match-ups between the player and the computer-controlled opponent.
DEFEATING OPPONENTS IN CRUSADER TRAIL:
Despite what has been said above, defeating the powerful opponents in the Crusader Trail is not impossible. However, the player must be particularly experienced with the habits of the script construct which he/she is fighting and what it does with the hordes of units which come out of the outposts.
Unfortunately, having learned this is not likely to change the player’s regard for the game, if he/she is not already a Stronghold die-hard.
Most of the time, the opponents simply send units from outposts as cannon fodder. The player must find a way to redirect, stall and whittle them down, catching any which might trickle past defences and thus get to the player’s lord.
The computer-controlled opponent is not very creative in how it uses these free units.
Then, the player must decide on whether to pursue an early-match rush before his/her opponent completes its fortifications, or to focus on taking down the outposts. The latter will obviously take more time, allowing the opponent to raise an army, which may complicate things.
Of course, the player might just get to see the “Extreme” gameplay of the Extreme edition, namely hordes of sprites moving and fighting. Still, it is in the player’s interest to achieve victory as soon as possible to prevent the match from turning into a slog.
Yet, even if the player has found a way to win a match incredibly early, one would have the impression that he/she has resorted to cheesy tactics.
Even then, these winning strategies would have to be formulated by a lot of observation and trial and error, as well as a lot of game-saves (and reloading). Guides would help, but even then, the player might want to re-adapt tactics.
The player will be doing such analysis for every scenario in the Crusader Trail, over and over. Perhaps such an experience might please an RTS veteran of the days when the genre offered artificially difficult single-player challenges. Yet, other veterans would prefer to leave these days in the past after having had so many of them.
VISUAL AND AUDIO DESIGNS:
Since the Extreme edition is just a modified variant of Stronghold Crusader, there will not be much to see or hear from it, even with the “HD” upgrade.
There would appear to be some new visual effects for the god powers, but some of them are actually cobbled together from pre-existing art assets. For example, the rock volley is actually a deluge of sprites for the rocks launched by catapults.
There are also some sound clips for the god powers, such as the rallying cries for the summoning powers.
There are voice-overs for the additional script constructs, but as mentioned earlier, they are little more than stereotypical archetypes. There would not be any sterling performance to be heard from them.
The Extreme edition introduces the Outpost mechanism to the scenario editor, for better or worse. This can be used for both the regular version of Stronghold Crusader and the Extreme edition.
There are maps which can only be played with the Extreme version of Stronghold Crusader. Most of them are unbalanced maps, a fact which is probably intended to contribute to the “Extreme” theme of the Extreme edition.
This is perhaps the most convincing appeal of the Extreme edition. For example, taking down an opposing human player who starts with a major advantage with superior tactics can be satisfying.
Yet, these maps could have been implemented in the regular version of Stronghold Crusader in a content update.
The Extreme edition of Stronghold Crusader typifies old RTS gameplay which has not aged well and “content updates” which are little more than rearrangements of pre-existing gameplay elements. There may be some fun to be had from the tough Extreme Crusader Trail, but this would only appeal to die-hard fans of the “good ol’ days” of the RTS genre when artificially-imposed challenges were the norm.