Last week, we took you on a brief tour of Firefly Studio's forthcoming "shot in the arm" for the dungeon-crawler genre, Dungeon Hero. It's a departure for the developer - but fans of the studio's best-known game, medieval strategy title Stronghold, shouldn't fret, as there's a major update to that in the works as well.
There are plenty of Stronghold fans out there, too. Firefly co-founder Simon Bradbury reckons that the series has sold four million units so far, spread over three releases - the original Stronghold, Stronghold Crusader, and Stronghold 2. That success has allowed Firefly to retain its indie status for almost ten years, so it's understandable that the studio's top priority is keeping its loyal Stronghold fans happy.
That's why Stronghold Crusader Extreme exists - it's very much one for the fans, and ought to keep them happily ticking over while Firefly works out where to go next with the series. Crusader was probably the best-received of the Stronghold games, and this is an expansion and extension of that game - but it's not Stronghold Crusader 2. Bradbury is very clear on this point - Stronghold Crusader 2 will be, well, Stronghold 3, which is a game that Firefly plans to make "in due course".
So it isn't a sequel, and it's certainly not an expansion pack. Designed for fans, both new and old (yes, there are new fans - Stronghold is one of those amazing "long-tail" retail success stories that still sells copies today, almost a decade after launch), it's really a homage to the original Crusader, and an exciting nod to the possibilities created by the advances in home PC technology since the game originally arrived.
That brings us to the first major change in Extreme - the unit count. Stronghold has never been a game that was shy about throwing around tons of units, with the whole point of its medieval siege warfare mechanic being that you threw forces at opposing castles by the dozens, if not hundreds. In Extreme, however, that concept is taken to the logical, well, extreme.
The unit cap in the game has been shifted by a factor of ten, lifting the maximum number of units on the battlefield from 1000 in the original game to a staggering 10,000 in Extreme. This is enabled by the fact that Firefly has chosen not to give the game much of a graphical overhaul - it's still resolutely 2D, with lovely detailed sprites and background tiles rather than the more resource-heavy 3D of more modern strategy titles. The visual effect is unquestionably old-fashioned, but has more than a certain amount of retro charm of its own.
Lifting the unit cap changes the games in some fairly fundamental ways. Up to a point. Stronghold Crusader Extreme will play very like the original Stronghold Crusader - but adding vastly more troops changes the balance as your armies swell, introducing far more complexity and significantly more things to keep track of at once. Stronghold has always been a manic click-fest when things got busy - Crusader Extreme seems likely to be the fastest way known to man to wear out your mouse, short of becoming a professional Korean StarCraft player.
In order to facilitate the production of such huge armies, the game also adds a large number of outposts to each map. Rather than just managing your main castle and surrounding town, you'll now need to keep an eye on the production of those outposts - they provide another source of troops for the battlefield, and defending your own while capturing the enemy's will be a major tactical element in each engagement. Moreover, you'll now have up to 16 AI players on each map - the maximum in the original game being eight - so the war will have many more fronts for you to consider.
The final really big change that fans of the original Stronghold games will notice is the overhaul of tactical powers. A bar down the right side of the screen gradually fills up as you play, and you can use a certain amount of this bar to unleash various tactical powers on your enemy. The simplest power, using only a small chunk of the bar, is a volley of arrows - but spend more of your bar and you could summon reinforcements instantly to a besieged area, or bombard an enemy building with catapulted rocks. It's not exactly a nod to realism, but these powers live up to their billing by providing you with brand new tactical options in tight situations.
Stronghold Crusader Extreme also deserves its "Extreme" name not only due to the huge number of units unleashed, but also because it's extremely hard. Rock hard, in fact. Although by no means a green recruit to PC strategy gaming, your humble correspondent got his arse kicked quite thoroughly by the very first battle in the campaign in the space of about two minutes. A few attempts later, with my head around some of the basic concepts - and the insane pace of initial base-building - I managed to hold out for almost ten minutes before watching my buildings burned, my peasants murdered and my fields ploughed with salt. Probably.
The sheer pace of battles - and the intelligence and aggression of your AI foes - is absolutely mind-boggling, and it's clear that the new missions and functionality created for Crusader Extreme are designed purely for veterans. Leaping straight into this content as a new recruit will simply result in humiliation and despair - trust me on this.
However, Firefly does still have newcomers in mind, and Stronghold Crusader Extreme will actually ship with a full version of Stronghold Crusader in the box. In addition, you'll also get all of the add-on content that's been created for Crusader since its launch, including the content from the "Warchest" pack, which was previously available only in North America. As such, it's certainly the definitive edition of Stronghold Crusader - and there's something here for new players intrigued by the combination of castle management and strategy, as well as for the hardened veterans of many siege campaigns.
With Firefly happily giving the nod to the fact that a Stronghold 3 is on the cards, fans have plenty to look forward to - but Crusader Extreme, if something of a snack between meals, looks like being a pretty satisfying package for those craving more of one of the PC's quieter, but nonetheless enduring, franchises.