The First Stronghold exploited that innate childhood desire most of us have, to build big things and knock them down. The big things in this case being giant stone castles, complete with their own array of security devices for deep frying approaching invaders. Not only this, but inside your castle walls you could build a perfect little medieval economy that whittled, baked and shovelled shit all day long.
Less than a year later Stonghold: Crusader is about to be released. It's neither an expansion pack, nor a true sequel, but more accurately the second part of the original game, with a much stronger focus on skirmish play. The graphics and basic gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of the original Stronghold, as they are virtually identical except for the new units. The environment is different though, being based in and around the Arabian deserts during the Crusades, but all this really means is sand and rocks where there was previously grass and trees, the odd marauding herd of camels and the constant threat of fire.
Burn Baby Burn
Although fires do spontaneously break out in your castle quite often, the primary use of fire is as a weapon for the Arabian troops, and a damn effective one it is too. New units include fire slingers, who hurl flaming pitch onto the ground (particularly good for incinerating slower units) and kamikaze slave units who amass in great numbers and spill into your castle setting fire to buildings - and often themselves - causing mass damage.
There are still a few glitches in the gameplay, such as unit collision with the scenery, ocassional pathfinding problems and the seemingly unresponsive Al of some of your units who don't always automatically engage the enemy, even if they may only be spitting distance away and gleefully turning your troops into mobile pin cushions.
Crusader features a historical campaign, which is played out through both the European and Arabian sides, but skirmish play, which has never really been fully utilised in an RTS, is what the developers are keen to push. There's a 50-mission skirmish trial where you face bigger and stronger forces in a kind of castle bake-off. You also get the chance to ally with some of the Al warlords, and there is a customisable skirmish mode where you can set up your own battles and pick your sides. This works well, and the developers have ensured the Al opponents have distinct ways of approaching castle buildings and different warfare styles (with seemingly better Al than your own units), so it feels like you're playing against a real person.
You get the feeling that Crusader is a more complete' game than before, and certainly much more strategic. In many ways it's what Stronghold should have been. There's an unfortunate lack of polish to the basic game mechanics, and the gameplay, aside from skirmish mode, is almost a carbon copy of most of the missions in the original. But it also retains the fun gameplay of the original. If the first Stronghold was the meat and two veg, then Crusader is the best dessert a fan could wish for.
Download Stronghold Crusader
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode