Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stronghold Crusader Extreme Review

Stronghold Crusader Extreme, developed by Firefly Studios and published by Gamecock Media Group.
The Good: Huge battles can be fun, includes the original version, special powers
The Not So Good: Few additions that will only appeal to extreme fans, interface not updated to handle large quantities of troops, really outdated graphics, no tutorials to explain the new enhancements
What say you? Unless you love the Stronghold series, there’s no reason to get this stand-alone expansion of a six-year-old stand-alone expansion: 4/8

While most strategy games focus on offensive maneuvering, one series has taken a stand by taking a stand (defensively, that is): Stronghold. The series first appeared way back in 2001 and spawned three follow-ups: Crusader in 2002, Stronghold 2 in 2005, and Legends in 2006. I like the series and its balance of resource management and defensive posturing, plus the sense of humor. Well, the it's back with Stronghold Crusader Extreme, an more extreme version of the second game that offers more extreme (meaning difficult) missions. Is Stronghold Crusader Extreme extremely fun or extremely boring? Either way, I'm sure it will be to the EXTREME.

Unfortunately, Stronghold Crusader Extreme features the same exact graphics as Stronghold Crusader did way back eight years ago. This means we are stuck with 2-D sprites, poor textures, and a low resolution (1024x768 maximum). It would have been nice if the developers had incorporated the graphics of the much-more-recent Stronghold 2 into the game, but instead they have chosen the easy way out and gave us extremely archaic graphics. The sound design is the same as before as well, so find any review of Stronghold Crusader from 2002 and that's all you need to know. We've seen expansions that came out a year after the original game and added better graphics, so not having any enhancements in the presentation after six years is simply unacceptable.

If you are not familiar with the Stronghold series, here is how the games work. First, you need to collect resources: wood at huts for buildings things, iron and stone at mines for building more things, and pitch for boiling oil traps (ouch!). You will also need to feed your population by producing apples, meat, cheese, and manufacturing bread from wheat and flour. There is precious little space for farms (thanks to the arid climate), so maximizing your space is important. Plenty of rations will keep your population happy (and recruit new workers), in addition to low taxes, religion, beer at inns, and, of course, dancing bears. Once you get your economy working and population happy, it’s time for the military focus of the game. Weapons are manufactured from raw materials (for example, two wood for a pike) and then you recruit people from the barracks. If you don’t have the resources (or don’t want to wait for weapons to get made), you can also recruit mercenaries for a high fee. There is a good variety of units, from ranged to melee to mounted troops. You will also have access to defensive structures (walls, gates, turrets, towards, maots, boiling oil) and siege equipment (battering rams, catapults, trebuchets) to protect or storm castles. As you can see, the basic gameplay of Stronghold Crusader Extreme is identical to previous games in the series, as the enhancements are made in other areas.

Anyway, what's new in Extreme, you ask? Well, sadly, not much. The whole “Extreme” thing in Stronghold Crusader Extreme comes from the extremely difficult 20-level campaign that features an extreme quantity of units. This campaign is very difficult and should only be attempted by people who have successfully completed the original game (which, by the way, is included). The new additions made in Stronghold Crusader Extreme are not outlined in a tutorial and are given a lonely page in the PDF manual. In addition to the campaign, you can play custom games against the AI or online. There are a lot of maps to choose from and you can customize the teams, so there is definitely some replay value here.

Other than the campaign, the other major addition of Stronghold Crusader Extreme is the power-up system. As time goes by, you will be able to use a number of different spells (the better spells require more “power”) that fall into one of three categories: attacks (arrows, rocks), units (spearmen, engineers, macemen, knights), or support (heal, money). These are meant to offset the obscene difficulty of the campaign missions, and the tactical aids are mildly interesting, but nothing we haven’t seen in any halfway-decent RPG. Stronghold Crusader Extreme also adds a new building (ooooo!): the outpost spawns continuous troops, but they are not placed by the player (rather, the level designer). Outposts just serve to increase the quantity of troops on the map and serve no strategic value whatsoever. And that’s it. Seriously.

So how do these two-and-a-half new features (campaign, powers, outposts) affect the game? Well, Stronghold Crusader Extreme does offer some very big battles: they look bad because of the 2-D sprites, but watching literally thousands of units on the screen at once is still impressive. However, the interface has not been modified to allow to you maneuver them. There is no “select all units” key and you can’t even zoom out far enough to select them all: you can only zoom out one step (which isn't enough) and the minimap scale can't be changed at all. A selection box is woefully inadequate in controlling these troops, and you’ll always have stragglers and forgotten units scattered all over the map. Six years and you can’t add a button to select everyone? Please. The result is a downright silly game that simply devolves into a mess of units hacking and slashing at each other. Stronghold Crusader was not built to handle this quantity of units, and Stronghold Crusader Extreme was not modified to do so, either. Fortunately, the AI seems to be able to handle the large quantity of units, although it’s hard to tell since the campaign missions are somewhat scripted (with starting bases and whatnot). The slow movement speed makes combat tedious as well, which makes moving your humongous army across the map even more frustrating. I found myself wanting to enjoy Stronghold Crusader Extreme, but finding it prohibitively difficult to do so. I would have liked the powers to be in the normal Crusader (which, admittedly, would probably unbalance the game), but Stronghold Crusader Extreme is kept as a separate executable and the standard game is left unchanged. $30 for an overly difficult campaign, new spells, and units you can’t control? No thanks.

It’s clear that the whole point of Stronghold Crusader Extreme was to make a larger and more difficult version of Stronghold Crusader. And they succeeded, but they also succeeded in making the game unplayable thanks to the insufficient interface and devoid of any other content. Quite simply, you are better off finding a cheap $10 version of one of the Stronghold games rather than getting this feature-deprived expansion. Even those players who enjoy Stronghold Crusader will have a tough time justifying paying $30 for a measly campaign, special powers, and a large amount of units. Yes, Stronghold Crusader Extreme can be quite fun when you have an insane number of troops, but managing those troops can be quite trying and ultimately frustrating. I do enjoy the Stronghold series, but this extreme version just doesn't offer enough content. In fact, I found myself playing Stronghold Crusader more than the Extreme version, which is kind of sad. This is mostly due to the fact that the content Stronghold Crusader Extreme offers is poorly handled. What’s the point of having a thousand units if I can’t effectively control them? If you are going to have huge armies, you had better allow the interface to cope with huge armies, and cope it does not. Stronghold Crusader Extreme is more like a free patch or, at most, a $10 expansion, not a $30 game. In the end, Stronghold Crusader Extreme will be a bit too extreme for most players unless you are very adept at the previous Stronghold titles and can handle thousands of units scattered across several screens.