Greetings, my liege!
Today's article is going to cover Stronghold Crusader 2's stories and missions. Let us get started with it!
The importance of story of the Stronghold line
Since Stronghold came out in 2001, every game in the franchise so far has put an emphasis more or less on the story. Stronghold and Stronghold 2 are notorious for their unique storylines and memorable characters.
Storytelling in Stronghold is the bread and butter of the singleplayer. There are about 20 missions covering the story of the Boy and his aids removing Duc Volpe and his clan from their reign all over England, which really deserves a mention. Between each mission, a storyteller was reading the story aloud from a scroll, while the actual episode's characters were having dialogues in front of a table and a fireplace, instantly summoning the medieval-ish 11th century feeling. The characters further interact during missions and it just makes the game lively and original.
Stronghold 2 further improves the experience by showing short video clips and scenes within the game's own engine. The camera setting and the 3D world enabled the developers for film-like shootings and it truly feels if you are a part of the game's world. Talking about the Path of War, the story feels simpler compared to SH, but it is still very detailed and more or less composes a good story with some brand new characters (independent from the original Stronghold). Most importantly, it is once again the atmosphere what matters. Every now and then, a wandering storyteller settles down during the campaign and summons his trusty book and lute, telling us the main storyline in brief pictures and simple sentences. The graphics also rejuvenate the medieval feeling, completing the circle of story and atmosphere.
As seen above, both games pack good-sized content within their singleplayer and thus they wanted it to become a backbone of their gameplay. While Stronghold had no programmed AI players for multiplayer, Stronghold 2 could have well afforded to have one: instead, the AI players were a feature of solely SH2's offline skirmish mode, Kingmaker.
Background role in Stronghold Crusader
When Stronghold Crusader came out, there were several points that could well affect development.
The first idea is that the game put a heavy tone on the dynamic skirmishes over the static campaigns. Crusader introduced a couple of new units and characters fitting in the desert theme, and fighting battles over and over against the simplistic, but unique AI players became much more favourable. While in Stronghold the AI was basically non-existent in the form of invasion missions, here it exists and behaves like a real player (in appearance, not strategy :D), each having different personalities and tactics. With the Warchest expansion, there are 16 different computer players for the player's big demand for fun.
Campaigns do exist in Crusader, however their stories rather recreates the desert warfare and several important points of the Crusader campaigns, having become much shorter. The original story seen in Stronghold makes no resemblence, as the game is set in a different timeline. Instead, the Wolf and their players make another appearance, even having their own campaign. However, this campaign is intended to show how rival Crusader warlords and families were battling over land in the Holy Land.
The 50-mission skirmish trail is meant to replace Stronghold's invasion campaigns, but it only carries the feature of fighting and castle-building: the battles have no background story at all. This setting is more or less followed into Crusader 2.
Crusader 2: is there any story?
The response is: "not really". Crusader 2 contains many short campaign trails that are basically small chunks of the SHC trail. Missions now merely represent actual storylines in their titles, and variety is intended to achieve by smaller portioning of battles. The Historic Trails of Richard and Saladin, as well as the DLC campaigns all appear to have some reference for events, but not the "classic" campaigns. Even the AI characters have little to no indication to their roots in their description: they are designed for gameplay, not story purposes.
... and is it that detrimental?
To answer this question, we need to look at the role of story not only in SHC2, but in any video game. Since RTS games exist, stories became staple for most games, as they can be relived by anyone, by enjoying an interactive performance and contributing to its flow to a certain extent, much like acting in a theatre piece. A good story has the positives of acting as a source of motivation to play the game more, primarily to move the player to a new dimension against AI and human enemies, as a next step of entertainment.
The lack of story definitely gives some blandness to Crusader 2. It is hard to be objective about this aspect, but everyone can agree that it definitely deters some newcomers from the game, who don't want to be any bit competitive or purely want to enjoy the singleplayer game. Crusader 2 only has some not-really-talkative characters with short descriptions to offer, and that does not equally serve people's needs for fun.
Salvaging the situation
Even though the lore is missing, the missions however, pack enough variety and introduce some great elements into gameplay. Crusader 2 missions mostly form up from preset skirmish scenarios against various opponents. The player is usually playing from a disadvantage and gradually more difficult enemies, like in the original Crusader, but here come the new aspects: map variety and the occasional random events.
The maps are generally well-designed and provide various challenges for the skirmisher. Team compositions are usually in favour of the AI, several resources are missing from the map and most of the playtime is spent on the defensive. Map features like lion dens, Beduin settlements and lightning storms really top up the gameplay, effectively giving a third participant to the game. Lion dens and outposts are perhaps the most important features in the earlier missions keeping the AI in bay, particularly in the mission where you are put against the Slave King and an outpost protects you from his attacks. Finding out the castle layout, the troop usage and getting familiar with the maps themselves ensures that none of the players will complete skirmish missions in the first attempt.
Crusader 2 demonstrates the side it picks: focusing entirely on the gameplay, while delivering little story. There is not much more to missions than it ever was: missions have always been about having fun defeating opponents and gameplay, and Crusader 2 does not fail at it.
This is it for article #2. The next article will be published next week, discussing the AI characters of Crusader 2.