I wondered how good Stronghold Crusader II actually was, since it didn't get as much negative buzz around it unlike pretty much any Stronghold title that are not the 2001 original or the first Crusader from 2002. It was really cheap on GOG recently, so I decided to give it a go. Mind you, these are my impressions based on about 6 hours of play, and a lot of singleplayer experience in the first two games in the series (but not the “bad” ones much), so there might be more to it than what I have presently experienced.
Even taking into consideration the fact that Crusader II was the first mainline title FireFly published on their own, and that they tried to have a Gambitious crowdfunding project fund a part of the game but failed, the game shows corners being cut in many aspects. Animations are 2003-level stiff, physics are poor and clipping issues happen everywhere, LOD range is pathetic, the iconic lord messages are amateurishly rendered (hey, remember the Bink video format? FireFly does) and annoying, the scribe's responses are inexplicably scarce where they would previously tell you every bit of information on time, not seeing a single visual glitch in a match is more an exception than a rule, and there is even a strange distortion affecting the sand surface when scrolling and zooming for some reason. Even learning campaign missions are comparatively more punishing than those of pretty much the entire first halves of Stronghold 1 and Crusader 1 campaigns. Also, peasants don't speak their minds when clicked on anymore, which makes the game lose a lot of its charm.
All things considered, it's still satisfying to fill up the area around your keep with all these various buildings.
And I did not even reach the worst part. Compared to its 2002 predecessor, the economy has been drastically changed. Walls are more expensive than before, ending up in far longer castle construction time, which is contradictory to Stronghold's original idea as a castle simulation married with an RTS formula. The most effective food production system, the one around bread, is now incredibly more expensive to create, as the cost of a single mill has been cranked tenfold and has one operator instead of 3, while wheat farms and bakeries are also harder to build! Sure, this makes the food production lines more viable, but going from one extreme to another is not really how balancing is done properly. Resources can be bought and sold directly from the stockpile/granary/armoury, so the market is now a 500-gold decoration that “generates gold” and has a not-that-useful auto-sell feature. Hovels have smaller capacity depending on the distance from your keep, and churches/mosques need candles to work, which were changes ported from Stronghold 3. Estates from Stronghold 2 also make a sort-of return. The fear factor system is completely removed, as are all customization options except for the player's shield and the Crusader/Arabian lord appearance toggle. At least you can choose your color in skirmishes and multiplayer now.
Thankfully, for all these steps back, there are steps forward. Firstly, the UI is probably the best one so far in the series, since it can be configured to show no, some, or all resources in the top left, so you don't need to scroll back to your stockpile/granary/armoury to see how your economy is doing. The same goes for the popularity meter, which can now be expanded at will to manage food and ale rations, tax levels, and worship frequency. Then, we finally have the ability to transport iron by ox tethers, which is was frustratingly not possible in the originals, and the much-needed ability to repair buildings and walls instead of just replacing them for full price, which especially comes as a good trade-off for the increased wall prices.
William knows that before doing any physical activity, including waging war, you need to do a good stretch.
Then there is the subject of units. I've seen some complaints on how the changes in this aspect have been made – some completely new units were added while others were removed. To that I can only reply – well, no shit. Other RTS titles, in particular the Command & Conquer series, have done this exact thing long before Crusader II did, and that did not diminish the overall unit variety or gameplay. On the contrary, both the Crusader and Arabian armies now have quite a few interesting options with their new units. Crusaders got cheaper swordsmen and more varied and apparently sturdier late-game heavy infantry as well as the versatile Rangers that are both ranged and melee fighters, and the weak Conscripts, which need no weapon production and are easy to spam. Likewise, the Arabian forces have replaced some of their useless units (Slingers, anyone?) with really cheeky oil pot throwers and the admittedly situational whirling dervishes. Slave drivers are a new unit that buffs the existing cannon fodder slave unit, and healers are a most welcome (if really slowly working) addition. Crusader Spearmen (now called Men-at-Arms for some reason) are semi-ranged in the sense that they first shoot their spears at range, and then proceed in a knife fight for a while, not unlike antic Roman legionaries, but they can't seem to miss their spear shots. At least Horse Archers are no longer OP.
Engineers are no longer separate units, and since oil pot throwers do the same as old engineers with oil pots in the originals, they can now only be seen hauling siege engines. Now, these siege engines have also been altered and I don't think I like the way they did that. They are less durable and are more vulnerable even to simple arrows, but they no longer seem to require stone to fire rocks (which now insta-kill infantry on walls if precise enough), and there are now four types of diseased animals you can throw at your enemies in a way that you can fire the others while the cooldown on the previous ones is filling up, which is a really odd "balance" decision.
Even without the free DLC map pack that you get by joining FireFly's mailing list (seriously, this is how you distribute it?), the map pool is pretty decent, and you get a map editor like before, only in a separate executable this time around. Retaining the differentiation between balanced and imbalanced maps is a great touch as well.
Just what I need in a time-limited siege is a vastly superior wave of enemy reinforcements. A periodical and ever-stronger one at that.
You get 8 different lords to fight against in the base game, which is around as many as the original Crusader had without the freely-downloadable ones and the Warchest compilation exclusives, but there are also 4 DLCs that give you two new lords each, so "thanks" to FireFly for not going over their own bar for no-DLC players. However, in my transition from the classics, I did struggle with the weaker ones on Normal difficulty initially, so I suppose I can say newcomers can learn something from all available lords, even if it means a match will last for a good while longer than they may expect at first. Hence, longevity is not something you should worry about if you're already into Stronghold.
I cannot in good conscience claim that Crusader II is a bad game. Even with everything described above, I have had my share of fun with it, believe it or not. All things considered, it is fundamentally the same as before, but with odd decisions made in regards to the economy, build costs, and I'd even dare say personality (peasant responses, characters etc.). Same as everyone before me except the developers themselves, I would recommend going for Stronghold 1 and Crusader 1 instead, but also at least consider taking a look at this title when its price drops again. If you already like Stronghold and want to see it in 3D, this is the game to do it with before Stronghold Next (still the working title as of writing this) comes out. Let’s just hope that FireFly learns not only what was bad in this game, but also implements all the genuinely positive aspects.
PROS: units (yes, I said it), map variety, UI improvements, largely unchanged core of the game, minor mechanical additions
CONS: technologically rudimentary, strange economy changes compared to the original, siege engine balancing
6.5 / 10
Developer: FireFly Studios
Genre: real-time strategy
Release year: 2014
Tested version: 1.0.22714, with only a free Crusader 1 map DLC