Western troops are being deployed to Syria, Egypt, Israel and Palestine to combat a perceived rising threat from Islamic militants. Establishing a number of forward bases from which they can resupply and plan operations, the western troops conduct a number of raids with the goal of eventually wearing down the entrenched defenders and capturing key population centres.
That's the basic premise of Stronghold Crusader 2, and yes, it sounds eerily like it could be a modern shooter. Because bad feeling between the West and the Middle East is... well, it's not a new idea. Naturally, though, Stronghold Crusader is thin on Patriot missiles and drone strikes, heavy on trebuchets and curtain walls.
It seems like a simple enough idea. For the most part, maps are designed with a kind of multiplayer feel, with two or more players in set starting locations building up from a tiny keep, harvesting raw materials like wood and iron, and gradually building bigger walls, stronger defences and hardier troops with which to withstand the assaults of the enemy. The endgame hopefully sees your enemy wearing himself out against your impregnable walls, leaving an opening for your proud legions of shiny templars to storm in and burn the heathens to the ground. Most of the time, the goal is the death of the enemy's lord, while keeping your own lord safe, and these heroes are so tough it's tempting to just sling them at the front of your screaming hordes to make combat time a little simpler.
But simple it ain't. In the single player game, Stronghold Crusader 2 has three difficulty settings: Infuriatingly difficult, frankly ridiculous and sob-inducingly merciless. At least, I assume that's what the top skill setting is like. There was never any need for me to try it, as even the lowest setting was mostly beyond me. I've got to be completely honest - while I tried out all of the different modes and match types, I massively struggled to even complete even the tutorial campaigns.
At first, of course, it all seems nice and straightforward. You have a number of peasants who are automatically assigned to work in the buildings you create. All buildings appear as soon as you place them, there's no build times to sit through. So long as you have the raw materials, they just pop out of thin air and a spare peasant heads over to start work. Food is stored in your granary and raw materials such as wood and stone go into your stockpile, so positioning these near to the appropriate work areas speeds things along. Eventually, you will need happiness-increasing buildings like inns and churches to support larger populations, and there's a simple building chain required for training new troops: Iron mine, then armourer and sword smithy, then the armoury, and finally the barracks from where your freshly-trained troops appear. Or you can usually build a mercenary camp and just rely on the sweet tang of gold to attract local troop types. If you've got the population and the happiness, you can tweak tax rates up for a bit in order to reap a little more cash when necessary, and of course, it's really a good idea to bung a massive wall around whatever you build and pop a couple of archers and ballistae in the guard towers in case him-next-door comes calling.
So far, so straightforward. It's a simple system to pick up without any complicated concepts to wrap your head around. But if you play single-player, pretty quickly it becomes clear that the AI isn't messing around. There isn't really any fog of war - you are perfectly allowed to watch in horrified amazement as your enemy throws walls and infrastructure up at the speed of thought while you're still trying to place your first couple of farms. It felt a little like a 'Weeping Angels' type of thing sometimes - I check up on my neighbour and his guys are quietly sawing wood and everything seems pretty peaceful, then I concentrate on my own stuff for a few minutes, and then when I look back at him he's somehow put together this gigantic fortress of terror complete with catapults, watchtowers and loads of screaming troops.
No tactic seemed to work. Early assaults before you've even got your town together sort of had some traction in early levels, but only a few maps in and you've got no weak targets to hit, and before you've raised the money for siege weapons he's already burning down your woodcutters' houses and iron mines with his bomb throwers and horsemen. Trying to build up troops in order to defend yourself from assault is equally challenging, as he just seems to be cranking them out faster than you can struggle to throw your defences together. Even in the tutorial levels, where you're supposed to be the besieging army, your foe is merrily spanking your meagre assault force long before your trebuchets are in range of his walls.
So I guess I sound like I'm moaning, and like I'm sort of a loser. I had visions of building a mighty fortress and manning the walls with well-equipped and specialised defenders, ably turning away wave after wave of Saladin's best troops before wheeling a formidable array of siege engines to his walls and launching a vicious assault. But what usually happened was a line of lightly-armed raiders stormed over and around my half-built wall and proceeded to murder a handful of farmers and their one ox while I was still struggling to build a forge. These painful memories are unlikely to fade soon.
Sadly, this difficulty level detracted from how much I was able to really enjoy the single-player game. As a multiplayer game against a similarly non-robotic intelligence, there's lots of fun to be had here. There are a couple of significant design and development flaws though - the interface doesn't tell you how much stone or wood you have in stock, despite these being numbers you need all the time, for instance, and I suffered endless CTDs - but overall it's a solid-if-straightforward town building game with a view toward martial combat with another player. My problem wasn't the game itself (although to be honest it's not a groundbreaking work of genius, merely 'playable enough'), rather the painful and unforgiving learning curve.
Perhaps the point is to highlight the futility of foreign conflicts that fuel endless generations of inter-religious strife. And if they do introduce a 'baby/village idiot' difficulty level in a later patch, I might revisit. Otherwise, the only crusade I'm going to sign up for will be the one against fixed save points in PC FPSes.