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On September 23rd, Stronghold Crusader 2 was released, not long ago! I really waited for this game and the trailers+spoilers whispered that the game would be more groundbreaking than Crusader, stating the countless new units, new AI characters and more content. Let us see how is Crusader 2!

1. The gameplay

Crusader 2 is very different than its predecessor. It is very fast-paced and is less forgiving for the player's mistakes. Also, strategies that are/were common in Crusader 1 don't really work. This is because of two things: revamped economy and revamped battlefield mechanics.

The economy now no longer orientates on gold but goods. Everything sells for very low gold and most buildings have a huge cost, so it should be chosen wisely how and what to build. 10 gold is actually a normal price for selling 5 iron and a mill costs a whopping 200 wood. In return, producers deliver more goods accordingly. The most profitable product is arguably food, as bread and cheese sells for a very good price. Weapons are less reliable, but if someone builds enough workshops, selling them can be reasonable on a price.

The popularity system is inherited from Stronghold 3, making a sum of several popularity factors and affecting peasant migration accordingly. It can be affected by taxes, rations, ale and candle consumption rate, but free housing capacity also grants bonus popularity. Dynamic events may also occur in some scenarios. Getting a high popularity rate and taxes can prove quite a challenge though, as maps feature most often limited grasslands, making not enough room for farms and ale facilities. Housing is a simplified version of SH3's, netting a different number of peasants based on the distance from the keep.

The units now are more valuable than in Crusader 1, mostly because their finance is harder due to the value of gold. There are stronger units like the Sassanid Knight or the Templar Knight that cost a fortune to recruit, however their presence is potent and they often possess such statistics and/or abilities that boost your army greatly. Weaker units like the Archer or the Horse Archer die very quickly and their price is reasonably low, yet they are very effective in numbers and needed in the early-game.

2. Units and combat

As rumours said, Crusader 2 adds a ton of unique units. The Crusaders get two types of knights, a Sergeant-at-Arms who boosts unit defense and the Ranger, who has decent ranged and melee combat capabilities. The Arabs are almost completely redone, all new units gaining a special passive ability that can turn tides of battles.

Offensive units are the Whirling Dervish, a weak attacker who can repeatedly whirl his blade for deadly area damage; the Sassanid Knight which has tough armor and can charge into enemy ranks and the Slave Driver, who can gather up his own slaves and motivating them with his whip, greatly enduring them in battle. These units cost a bunch of gold, however they are worth trying and tossing them in the right time will greatly help you to win! The Arab healer is also very useful to retreat to and recover health for your wounded soldiers.

The ranged units in Crusader 2 behave way different than in the prequel. Bowmen actually prepare their arrows and aim before discharging their shot, making themselves less effective against charging units and switching targets. In return, their arrows fly very fast and they almost always hit their target, making micromanagement very hard. In the same manner, catapult stone and hurled haybales/grenades fly with a much heavier mass and faster. Range advantage is also potent on high ground and towers.

Engineers are no longer recruited at the guild but all siege equipment is created in the siege camp. A mixture of old and new machines appear, such as the burning cart from SH2 and the old catapult, however the new engines offer some new strategic possibilities. The Hussite War Wagon brings an unseen ability for the player, as it can transport up to 6 units in it, providing defense while passengers can fire from the inside. The War Wolf is an upgraded version of the catapult, which can move in and bring down small wall sections with only one shot. The AI also makes use of these devices so be wary of them!

In my opinion the best addition to the siege engines is the new haybale launcher, which can be mounted on a wooden tower to provide additional defense. It fires a big bale of burning hay in middle range, which spreads a huge area of fire, roasting enemy units that contact with it. Also, the fire damages buildings and if one is unprepared with wells, can set his own settlement on fire! The Sultana, who uses haybale launchers in her defenses, tends to light up her own buildings this way :)))

3. Campaigns and the AI characters

Crusader 2 has a total of 6 skirmish trails, plus some learning campaigns for practice. The skirmish trails feature various AI opponents old Crusader-style, who must be defeated in order to progress. The trails themselves are very short, therefore no chickens are present and there is a periodic autosave which can be recovered later (as of the time of writing this, it is impossible). The campaigns become harder and more challenging with doing missions, as well as the harder AI's also get introduced. No background story is featured as in the Crusader 1 skirmish trails: the objective is simply destroying all opposition.

The AI opponents are potent and very aggressive, as well as they employ different strategies in order to win. All characters use siege equipment and even the measly Rat can be quite a challenge for the unprepared player, who can swarm with the small suicide squads he sends from time to time. The AI focuses much on harassment and attacks much more often, in an attempt to steamroll the opponent, even sending troops two by two. This makes them weak in the late-game and very potent in the early-game, forcing the player to defend and turtle until he stabilized his position. While some characters are very bad at harassment, others can be so effective that their siege timings can hit very hard. For example, the Wolf likes sending crossbowmen and swordsmen until he decides to launch a siege with a good number of these units and pounding your units as early as the 10th minute mark with a War Wolf. I classify the characters in three difficulties:

- Easy: these chars are the Rat, the Slave King and the Shah. They use weak troops and harass very often, their castle designs are also not the best.  The Rat prefers conscripts and spearmen, the Slave King uses hordes of slaves with slave drivers and the Shah uses Arab bowmen and Arab swordsmen.

- Medium: they are the Sultana and the Caliph. These opponents orientate around defense and put up quite a resistance, however their attacks are not the best-coordinated and they harass less often. The Sultana is basically a higher-scaled Shah, while the Caliph uses the minor units as horse archers and slave drivers in attacks.

- Hard: they are Saladin, the Lionheart and the Wolf. These players have great economies, use tough units and usually pack a punch in attacks. The Wolf is particularly dangerous with his crossbowmen and swordsmen, while Richard prefers sergeant-at-arms, swordsmen and rangers.

4. Conclusion

As seen above, Crusader 2 improves a lot over Crusader 1 and brings in new elements both strategically and tactically. I really like this trend and although the new system is hard to get used to, it is very entertaining and even the AI can give a good boost to the singleplayer. This game is definitely worth pouring some hours into.

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