Yesterday (06.12) was the very day when Firefly Studios showed us a 40-minute gameplay video of the upcoming Stronghold Crusader 2 game featuring CaptSkubba. Everyone knows that expectations are high and Firefly therefore made a statement that they would try to "make the game with the ultimate Crusader feeling". From the viewpoint of a casual player, I am going to share my opinions in the next few paragraphs.
A screenshot from the game:
1. The universe
Crusader 2 looks promising from a distance. It has detailed and nicely done objects, buildings and units, everything feels lively.
Units and workers have complete animations, which feel fluent. The Templar Knight moves very slowly in his heavy armour, while archers can run without any armour, making movements realistic. Flying projectiles like rocks, arrows and ballista bolts are heavy and speedy, feeling more realistic than the Crusader or Stronghold 2 projectiles. Stone walls are seen crumbling here and there, projectiles leave trails, fire burns with huge flames and disease clouds are more transparent than in the previous games.
Terrain is also more desert-ish and feels more arid. There are some trees here, a little oasis there and even a shipwreck appears in some levels, so variety is not a concern. It truly gives the feeling like as if you were fighting in the desert alongside hundreds of Crusader/Saracen troops, while a hot and humid weather makes you even more exhausted.
Huntable animals and livestock like venison and cows are yet to be seen, but I am certain it will not deduct from the overall experience.
2. Castle management
I would describe Crusader 2 management as mixed. It combines numerous elements from other Stronghold games, feeling imaginative but very limited.
Resource costs are much higher than in SHC. Apple orchards cost a whopping 20 wood and stone walls cost 5 stone per tile. That's insane and it suggests that resource producers bring more units of resources with each delivery. I do not really see the point of this change, but maybe it will be revealed by playing the game.
The population system is also overhauled, with housing capacity losing effectiveness with distance from the keep (derived from SH3). This means that you need to prioritize hovels in your building placement and you may conflict with other vital buildings like the stockpile, the granary or the armoury. In my opinion, this is a needless change since hovels are easy to place around and by spacing them out, your workers will barely lose effectiveness by taking a bit longer routes.
Popularity is another element borrowed from SH3. The cumulative 100 percent system is gone and now it is simplified to the sign of the popularity value: if you have positive popularity, peasants will come at a frequency rate and they will leave if you have negative popularity. Unlike Crusader, popularity effects take an instant effect, making your missteps less forgiving (while in Crusader, you have a little time to make up for it as peasants only start leaving when popularity falls under 50, assuming you had 90-100 popularity). I am not really fond of this system, yet it makes you consider your decisions before you make one, posing a greater economic challenge.
Moreover, popularity seems to have less factors. You can adjust taxes, rations and even housing capacity (overpopulation) can affect your popularity, but ale consumption and religion is also affected by rations: the former is based on ale, while the latter is based on candles. This system offers a good variety in terms of investment and challenge, although it requires more effort to maintain the same popularity level for different population rates.
3. Combat and AI
I can't tell much about combat just yet: special abilities are not really seen in action, except for the healer's heal ability and the slavedriver's moral boost. Trebuchets have pre-built commands that makes handling more convenient like hurling 5 stone to the same location or fling cows.
New units are introduced like the Slave Driver that whips and motivates nearby slaves providing them health or damage boost, the Templar Knight who is walking on foot but can mount a horse and the Healer that can heal single units in close proximity. There are surely other units, but they were not featured during the gameplay. Among siege engines, the burning cart from SH2 is reintroduced to wreak havoc and a giant catapult, the War Wolf makes an appearance.
I found catapults and virtually every unit firing more accurately than in Crusader. Range advantage does not seem to return. Barracks and mercenary post units appear instantly at their buildings, as well as siege camps build units the same way as in SH2. Control seems convenient and battles are going to be more dynamic and fast-paced, I really like that.
A huge disappointment is the AI. Although only Richard could be seen, he just feels silly and bad. The attacks he led against the human player were small, ineffective and they barely packed a punch. Deflecting an attack with like 40 ranged units and a single wall is mediocre at most. The defenses also seem a lackluster, stationing only a handful of troops on towers and defending the Lord himself just makes no improvement. With siege machines only, Richard's economy was quickly crippled (which was not that big, in fact). Reaction to the human player's attack was very poor and dynamic behaviour really does not matter if the AI builds small and weak castles.
Richard's character was more badass in Crusader: he was confident, he admired the player's skills and he was chivalrous. Here we got an older Lionheart, using phrases like "Talle Ho" and such. This was the Marshal, the old chap, the old friend, not Lionheart! He should attack more often, he should be more organized, he should have a better economy than that! Great that we saw catapults, trebuchets, war wolves and archers in action, but sending them in a huge plunder wave would be more efficient and magnificent rather than sending in small troops.
In the end, I feel uncertain about Stronghold Crusader 2. It has upsides like the graphics and combat, but the population system and the skirmish characters are more of a disappointment. The game could have a more potential in it if they revise the different game aspects over and over again and they will not just blindly jump into the cold water.