Summer Overlord: Stronghold: Crusader

Waiting patiently for his final year at college, Declan is in the midst of a four-month summer holiday. He is quite bored. Unemployed and at home, to stave off insanity, he is playing through fifteen management/tycoon games from the last decade in a series of articles in which he will attempt to become the ultimate Summer Overlord, master of routine and efficiency and pro hirer of vomit-sweeping janitors. Join him every Saturday on a journey which will take you through some of the best and the worst that the obscure genre has to offer. 

*  *  *

Such a manly snarl.

Lord Smug

I am a student of history, did I ever tell you that? Oh, I didn’t? Well, now that you ask, yes, I do have a penchant for medieval studies. I like to think Duke William II of Normandy was the rightful heir to the English throne and that murderous usurper Harold got what he deserved, i.e. an arrow right through the eyeball. What’s that? Was Henry IV of Germany really such a bad ruler? Well, I suppose it’s a matter of opinion and you could muster a decent argument for both viewpoints, but let’s face it, the ducal families didn’t make it easy for him. Plus, most historiography paints him as a tyrant, skewing the facts, much like Richard III’s portrayal in theatre. Thanks for being an historically inaccurate arsehole, Shakespeare.

“Was there any point to that wildly pretentious opening paragraph?” you ask, as you struggle to suppress your gag reflex. Well, not really, I’m just being a bit arrogant, but should you find yourself at a “rave” (or whatever they’re called) and end up boogieing on down to the Bee Gees with an attractive lady, refer to her as “fair maiden”, fire out a few sexy facts on the Saxon Wars and the Battle of the Boyne, and I guarantee you’ll be storming her keep by the end of the evening. Seriously, it’s worked for me a million times, hence me writing for a videogames website.

Ah, yes, Stronghold: Crusader! (I knew there was a point to this lengthy introduction.) I’m going to get all out-of-character and sentimental on you and confess that Crusader holds a special place in my Halls of Nostalgia, deep within the recesses of my icy gaming heart. Technically speaking, it’s no masterpiece and frankly, it’s often keyboard-smashingly infuriating, but if you can’t envisage your thirteen-year-old self enjoying building a castle and watching the cogs in your medieval industrial machine turn like well-oiled cogs in a medieval industrial machine,  you may be an empty husk with no soul.

I prefer my castles grander, but compact works on a small map.

A Real Overlord

A sign of a good management game is freedom of approach, and thankfully, medieval overlord sim Crusader offers a variety of modes to fit different playing styles. The “Crusader trail” and various historical missions march you across the Holy Land building settlements and battling both angry Muslims and Christians; the more tranquil Castle Builder mode allows you to construct your walled town in peace without harassment from other players, and the option to call in an invasion to test your defences;  skirmishes can also be played against a full roundtable of opponents under the usual deathmatch  provisions.

Indeed, Stronghold: Crusader is rather an odd breed. It’s management-cum-RTS, and its subgenres appear in that order: only after you have a functioning economy does the chaos of siege warfare become feasible. Grand visions of a sprawling medieval metropolis are quickly evaporated by the realities of a pleasantly realistic economic system, much akin to the ruthless golden oldies, Caesar and Pharaoh. Place too many hovels early on and you’ll end up with a settlement that consumes more than it produces. Your popularity (which alters with food provision, religion, ale and taxes) will fall, people will leave the castle, and you’ll be stuck in an unscalable rut. Though some goods, like stone and wood, can be used unfinished, raw materials like wheat must be ground into flour at a mill, which in turn must be baked into bread at a bakery. Before armies can be raised, you must have peasants to spare and enough wood, iron and leather to make weapons and armour, unless you opt to hire mercenaries, a costly alternative. Lack forethought and fail to take cycles of production into account and you will be punished: Stronghold: Crusader hates your gloopy mortal brain, but in a good way. Do as it says, and you will be rewarded with a bountiful supply of goods, with the surplus  traded for extra coin at your market.

Religious buildings help your popularity; shrines, gardens and statues give a positive boost to your "fear factor", but encourage idleness.

Into the Breach

Though I enjoy RTS games, I’ve never been particularly good at them. I’ve always been a fan of  “turtling” (and no, I’m not going to insert any crude toilet humour here, you philistine), a tactic which I am led to believe infuriates the sort of gamers who bring up “actions per minute” in casual conversation. Because I am a quivering bitch afraid of conflict, by employing the turtling tactic, I build up an impregnable walled fortress and amass a vast army of high-quality units – occasionally pausing for a delightful round of tea and jam scones – before marching them all at once at my enemy, making it very boring for my hyperactive 14-year-old opponent. It’s inelegant brute-force lacking even the smallest inkling of strategy. In Crusader, the quality of the AI opponents means pursuing the vulgar Way of the Turtle is rather easy. (I never tried online multiplayer in the days of dial-up, and today, its GameSpy-hosted lobbies are so quiet that I was afraid I was clicking into some sort of internet ambush where lovable hacker rogues would steal my credit card details and strum merry jaunts on their cyber lutes.) Though computer-controlled historical personalities like Richard the Lionheart and Saladin provide significant challenge from the start, others, like “The Rat” (who I’m convinced was coded to think like a carrot with Down’s syndrome) and  “The Caliph” (a raspy-throated fellow who never builds his castle bigger than a Nissan Micra) are varying degrees of “pushover”.

When your units do come to blows, mêlée soldiers will converge in a clipping mass, making it incredibly difficult to tell what’s going on. It’s made even harder by the fact that group selection and formations are virtually non-existent. Whilst pitched battles are dull (and thankfully rare) affairs, besieging castles is where Crusader truly shines. A good defender will have made his castle a bastion of evil, corralled by round towers with ballistae and mangonels, with a moat, pitfall traps, and ditches of ignitable pitch to roast laddermen foolish enough to test your integrity. A good assaulter brings with him a healthy contingent of engineers to build old favourites like the trebuchet and siege tower, and a host of soldiers large enough to withstand withering fire from a relentless hail of missiles. The more resourceful attacker will fling diseased cow carcasses over their enemy’s walls, spreading plague, and hopefully inflicting economic damage, ceasing the flow of unit production. Fighting and succeeding from either standpoint is hugely fulfilling.

Sieges are thrilling.

Save or Delete?

Stronghold Crusader is two games stitched together. The first is a precise management/city-builder simulation, one which forces you to take into account supply chains, expansion, trade and urban design, or pay with your life. It is polished and rather hard to fault. The second is RTS-lite, let down by habitually handicapped AI and an unsophisticated unit system, but vindicated by its fun and punchy sieges.

The most tragic thing about Stronghold: Crusader is its pox-ridden bastard spawn: 2005’s Stronghold 2 was an abomination in comparison, which took its forebear’s perfectly balanced economic simulation and turned into an excruciatingly complex farce, introducing crime, rats and sewage, with an ugly 3D revamp to boot. We can only cross our mailed fingers in knightly vigil that Stronghold 3, when it releases in September, learns from its mistakes.

It’s hard not to like the game, really. While there are some maddening glitches and stupid design flaws (take, for example, not being able to build a wall through trees, or being forced to build additional stockpiles and granaries adjacent to others), Crusader is charming. The atmosphere is nailed exquisitely, with a healthy dose of pantomime-like humour, a pleasant Arabian soundtrack, vibrantly coloured graphics, and enough varying pace to keep your mouse hand teased. Beat your chest, hoist your banner and sally forth to fantastic entertainment, fellow gamers.

<- Last week: Beach Life                                                                                                             Next week: SimCity 3000 ->

One Response to “Summer Overlord: Stronghold: Crusader”
  1. Chad M. says:

    When I hear “Crusader” I automatically think of Origin’s isometric shooter with the red-armored badass. But this is acceptable.

    This one reminded me a lot of the first two Lords of the Realm games. Which were great for their time, and are still a lot of fun. I want a game with a virtual throne room, though. And a “have the Jester executed” button.

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