What kid doesn't remember growing up with LEGOs and creating the perfect castle with every brick in his or her box, then swiftly laying waste to the entire thing in a siege with some other action figures? Come on, I can't be the only one. Stronghold Crusader 2 lets you relive those youthful days of creation and destruction while mixing in some clever gameplay and strategy elements to keep you coming back for more.
Stronghold Crusader 2 is set during the 12th century in the middle east where you take control of "the lord" - set to build a castle in the desert and overtake the heathens that inhabit the area. To accomplish this you'll first need to establish a base camp with some bare necessities; a stockpile for your goods, and a granary to feed your people. After that it's time to chop some trees for lumber, set up some mines for stone, and of course plant some apple trees and wheat fields for food. What sets Crusader 2 apart from the other games in the series in this manner is the limited space you have to work with - only oasis areas are capable of housing trees and food growth, so you'll need to strategically layout your land to match this.
As you build up your realm there are several other layers in the onion to peel back and discover what you need to manage. First up is actually arming your troops. Building any unit will require a person, gold, and a weapon for them to use. For instance if you need archers, you'll need to make sure you have a fletcher to build bows and enough gold to hire them. More complex units, like the crusader, require both armor and maces, both which come from different smiths. Of course, if your townspeople aren't working fast enough to arm your troops, you can always purchase the items needed from the coffers, which are funded by taxes. Run out of money and you can raise the taxes higher. But if people aren't happy they'll stop coming to your little desert paradise and you'll slowly begin to dwindle when human resources are required.
For me the star of the game in Stronghold Crusader 2 is the actual castle building itself and of course the castle destruction. Castles require stone and consist of walls, towers, tower defenses,and gates. Walls come in two varieties; thick and thin with the former able to house troops on the top for defenses. You can create some pretty large and intricate designs and even fortify the castle further with extra defenses like spike pits, exploding oil canisters, or cages filled with rabid dogs - my personal favorite.
Laying waste to an opponents castle is just as fun as building your own. You can arm yourself with catapults, trebuchets, and flaming heavy arrow launchers. There's even a battering ram or giant catapult with the head of a wolf. You'll definitely be striking fear into the heart of your opponent as you roll up. The walls tear down in impressive fashion as individual bricks crumble and break apart giving your troops access to the main keep inside. Once inside it's onto the hand to hand combat to defeat the opposing lord.
And while that's the meat of what Stronghold Crusader 2 is, there's obviously a lot more here in terms of variety with troops and buildings. There's a lot of rock, paper, scissors going on picking the right troops for the right battle. The game features a campaign that spans a handful of missions that serves as a tutorial, and then a main campaign that spans over twenty missions. While there's no story, the campaign tries to set you up in different scenarios on a variety of maps. For instance an early map has a singular mountain path between the two keeps, while one later one puts the computer a disability with no access to certain resources so you can try to bleed them dry.
While you can't play the campaign missions in co-op, yet, you can recreate them in the game's skirmish mode. Co-Op in a sense can be played two ways. The first is more traditional comp stomp where each player has their own keep and army but they are teamed up together. The second and more interesting way is two players teamed up controlling one keep.
What ends up happening is a division of labor where one player can focus on keeping peasants happy and supplied as well as building up the defenses, while another can work on building the army and attacking. In the co-op games I played we tended to call out what the plans were and figure out the resources required. If I'd hit a wall while building troops, I'd ask what the status was on the weapon required. Perhaps it was better to buy more instead of wait for them to be made, I'd leave the decision up to my partner because I was too busy worrying about breaking down the first line of defense in the enemy and didn't want to scroll back to town.
The game gives no limits to who can control what, so you can easily switch off duties, take control of individual troops or units, and do just about whatever you want. I think the only change I would have liked to see for co-op would be my partner's mouse cursor, though there is some slight feedback when they complete an action. Overall co-op is a ton of fun and for more complex skirmish missions against multiple opponents it's a great way to make it more manageable and less chaotic.
While I've been having a lot of fun with Stronghold Crusader 2, the game isn't without its problems. While it touts many different types of AI opponents, I haven't seen much difference other than their castle setup, what kind of troops and when they'll send them to attack. I ran into multiple quirky bugs too, though there's already been one patch released and I've seen several fixed. I've seen some path finding issues and just plainly weird AI choices in their strategy.
Overall I've found Stronghold Crusader 2 a great strategy game with plenty of payoff moments and a fun co-op mode that also helps people learn the ropes of the game. While there's quite a few missions available to play, it all boils down to basically the same skirmish style of gameplay. Luckily you can break things up with a sandbox mode that allows you to play LEGO castle builder until your heart's content. I think in the age of Steam games and cheaper digital downloads, Stronghold Crusader 2 feels a bit light for it's $50 price tag, but none the less is a solid and engaging title.