By Joseph Luster
It’s been 12 years since the original version of Stronghold 2 followed up the first game, so it’s time to pay it a return visit in the form of Stronghold 2: Steam Edition. Those who haven’t had a chance to dig into the series before will find an abundance of strategy to get lost in, while those who have will either be pleased or miffed to find some very familiar visuals at the forefront. That’s because Stronghold 2: Steam Edition is an enhanced re-release, not a full HD remaster. Thankfully, though, there’s still plenty going on below the surface.
Stronghold 2: Steam Edition
Publisher: Firefly Studios
As you may have surmised from the title, Stronghold 2 is all about protecting your keep and the lord within it. That means you need to develop a mighty base, which is definitely one of the strong suits of the experience. Once you establish the essentials like your keep, granary, and stockpile buildings, you’re free to go in pretty much any direction you desire within the specific scenario’s constraints. The trick comes in balancing defensive structures with construction and resource management that benefits your peasants and keeps both the general populace and your soldiers happy. You also have to watch out for the Honor system, in which Honor points are generated through events and activities that please your peasants. Accrue enough points and you’ll be able to put them toward hiring more troops, buying land for autonomous resource-generating villages, and so on.
Balancing this and other methods of currency and power is one of the most engaging aspects of Stronghold 2, so it’s disappointing to note the same can’t be said about combat. Taking part in sieges can be kind of a mess, and the AI of your units leaves something to be desired. Strategies also take a hit when, as long as you have the relatively meager funds to do so, you can pump out Archers and line the castle walls and towers for almost effortless defensive measures. This is great news for you if you’re doing the protecting—especially since archers even seem to have superior range to catapults—but it’s a real drag when a crafty opponent happens to have the same idea.
Despite the lack of truly upgraded visuals, Stronghold 2: Steam Edition does support widescreen and a handful of other nice additions. The user interface has been greatly improved, six new maps have been added, and the release features Steam Workshop support for custom map making and sharing. This version also marks the return of multiplayer, which is where most of your hours are likely to go. The original Gamespy Arcade service that provided multiplayer for the old version went down in 2014, so the return of this mode will be worth celebrating for long-time players.
Fans of the series will want to jump on this, especially those who no longer have The Stronghold Collection, which was previously the only way to get it on Steam. Stronghold 2 may not look quite as glorious as it did in 2005, but building elaborate castles, raising armies, and defending against would-be sieges are all activities worth engaging in today.
Publisher: Curve Digital
There’s nothing adorable about war, but games like Runner Duck’s Bomber Crew certainly do a good job of lightening the mood through colorful, tastefully implemented visuals. The latest WWII game to don a cartoony coat of paint, Bomber Crew is billed as a “strategic survival sim” that tasks players with commanding the crew of a Lancaster bomber. Every member of the team gets their own job assignment, from piloting to blasting away at enemy fighters and even boldly (or foolishly) stepping out onto the wings to put out potentially catastrophic fires.
Design-wise, Bomber Crew is reminiscent of Cannon Fodder, with gameplay elements that occasionally bring FTL to mind. The reality is somewhere in between, and it definitely seems like chaos reigns supreme whenever things start to go wrong for your crew. That’s one of the main hooks here, because the crew you go out on missions with is a procedurally-generated bunch, offering up a different experience every time you play. That also means—you guessed it—death is permanent, giving players more incentive to be as careful as possible when soaring through the unforgiving skies.
At the time of this writing, Bomber Crew just hit Steam, so we’ll have to wait for a deeper dive of its high-flying strategic action. so far this seems like a war game that might be worth looking into if you’re on the hunt for lighter fare that still offers a sizable challenge and incentive for multiple playthroughs.
Taking us back to a more grounded historical depiction is Oriental Empires, which is finally available after spending a year in Steam’s Early Access program. Any Chinese history buffs out there no doubt had their interest piqued at the title alone, and Oriental Empires aims to deliver on the promise of taking your nation from its humble beginnings all the way through its expansion into a full-blown empire.
Oriental Empires takes place in ancient China and Mongolia, starting in 1500 bc and barreling across 3,000 years of progress in the realms of military advances, cultural development, and technological innovations. Over that extended period of time you’ll have to persuade other factions to bow to your rule through diplomatic means or pure military force; whichever strikes your fancy at the time or seems the best strategic option, really. Each of the game’s 16 factions have their own unique bonuses or penalties, and the large-scale battles take place on a sprawling, historical map of China, or on your custom campaign’s own randomly-generated maps.
Your work doesn’t end when you become Emperor, of course. As the leader of the land you’ll need to balance power through the establishment of various laws, edicts, and decrees, while deciding whether you want to conquer the world with others or betray those who foolishly chose to create an allegiance with you. This dynamic will be especially potent in the multiplayer portion of Oriental Empires, which supports up to 15 players. As with any board game or online war game, this sounds like a great way to make friends … and quickly turn them into enemies.