Posts Tagged Stronghold 2
The Sequel That Shouldn’t Have Been
Star Wolves 2
With the original Star Wolves, russian developer X-Bow scored a critically acclaimed gem that quickly found love by the not-so-easily frustrated RTS enthusiasts. Challenging, but ultimately rewarding gameplay composed of tactical battles with RPG elements sprinkled over, decent graphics, gritty atmosphere and a surprisingly good soundtrack. When the time came round to making a sequel X-Bow had a pretty high bar to pass. They failed completely.
In an ill-fated attempt to improve what already was good, they decided that what the game really desperately needed was an open-world aspect. One of the important aspects of the formula that made the original Star Wolves mind-bogglingly great was the absolutely sublime balancing. Every single mission from beginning to end was challenging, but manageable. The open nature of sandbox aspects, however, is almost diametrically opposed to the notion of fully planned balancing. The fact that players can always simply do side missions until the current challenge ceases to pose one is a problem that developers of this sort of game often counteract by deliberately making the missions absolutely frustratingly difficult. At which point it may surprise to hear you that Star Wolves 2 went the exact different route. The first few missions, before you even have access to the open world side of things, were controller-smashingly hard, but after that they just kept getting easier and easier. Despite the fact that I ignored side-missions completely.
It seems even X-bow were aware of that problem, but the closest thing to a solution they managed to come up with is a new type of enemy that deals incredible amounts of damage, but has a very low chance of hitting. At this point they’ve officially abandoned any pretense of tactics or strategy and replaced it by luck. Enemy forces shoot you down? Reload, don’t change your strategy in the slightest and it’ll work out.
But what’s worse than the fact that their sandbox aspirations killed all the original greatness is that they brought nothing new to replace it. The open world aspect is half-baked at best: Sidequests, star systems and rewards have all clearly been generated, not designed. And the amount of time it takes to get from one main mission can easily be around a dozen eventless minutes.
At this point there was still a lot of potential in the Star Wolves series, and even this game has its moments. There’s a bit of true brilliance midway through the game when you destroy a space station responsible for spam mail, only to be congratulated by all the warring factions alike. But ultimately all the potential remains misguided and by what I hear about the recently released third game, it was part of a long-term development for the worse.
Bottom Line: Stay the hell away. In hindsight I wouldn’t even play this game if I was paid to do so.
Gothic 2: Night of the Raven
Dense atmosphere, decent gameplay, a consistent game world and believable characters who weren’t afraid to cuss when things got sour: Gothic II had all the makings of RPG greatness. The steep difficulty curve and old school frustrations alienated many people, but those who endured found that the reward was all the sweeter for the effort. While the fans wanted the series to continue in some way, it really wasn’t the kind of game that needed an add-on. The story had been brought to a point were a few more hours couldn’t be wrung out of it without opening a completely new plotline. So instead Piranha Bytes decided to have the add-on take place during, not after, the original game.
Of course this sort of decision comes with all sorts of issues. Like how you have to replay the game to access the new content or how there’s such a large area of the island that people didn’t even bother to mention the first time around. But for the better part they manage to meld old content with new content. The real problem are the changes in balancing. Gothic II was a difficult game, even for fans like me. I can’t even imagine what’s it’s like when you’ve been conditioned towards mainstream RPGs. But if you knew what you were doing (which usually meant you weren’t around for the first time), acted prudently and explored every corner of the game world, the game would continuously grow easier.
This was far from a dealbreaker: It was rewarding to see yourself able to take on previously frustrating challenges with relative ease and even by its end, the game still wasn’t objectively easy. But the people who were most affected by this slight dissonance in balancing, hardcore fans, also happen to be a very loud group. They complained about it. When Piranha Bytes started developing an add-on, they decided to take criticism by fans into account, and as it turned out this was one of the most frequently mentioned points. It’s unfortunate and a bit sad that their effort to genuinely improve their games was ruined by a group of obsessed individuals, but sadly that’s exactly what happened. The amount of complaints apparently led them to believe Gothic II was way too easy, not taking into account the silent majority that was fine with the balancing. Consequently, they ramped up difficulty to enormous heights.
Among their new design choices are the following: All monsters were made harder to kill and give less experience. Levelling up abilities takes between twice and thrice as much experience. Consider that the balancing had previously been close to flawless and you should begin to see why those extreme changes frustrated a great many people.
It does bring up an interesting point about my own personal taste though: While it’s true that the new difficulty curve ruined the game for me, it’s also true that one of the things I applauded the original game for, was the fact that the difficulty often forced you to use dirty tricks to get the job done. So, while I personally enjoyed pulling a few fast ones to eventually get to the top, I could also see why some might enjoy Night of the Raven, all dirty tricks, all the time. Because, safe for the new balancing, the original greatness was left intact. The setting is still gritty and realistic, gameplay is still decent and characters are still believable and don’t mind cussing occasionally.
Bottom Line: It goes way past my own guidelines of how much abuse I’m willing to take, and I’m sure the same thing applies for most of you. But if you find that Gothic II would be a great game, if only it was about twice as hard to beat, sign yourself in. Then maybe the next time your at the dentist, you may want to suggest that the experience would be a lot more enjoyable without anesthesia.
Flatout: Ultimate Carnage
Out of all the sequels I highlight here, Flatout: Ultimate Carnage is probably the best. It stays faithful to the great gameplay and experience of the first game: Graphics were improved, driving still feels nice and simple, crashes and explosions are still plentiful and the puck rock soundtrack continues to amaze. But one of the things a sequel needs to do is take original gameplay to new heights, and that’s just were this game fails.
Sure, it’s a good game, but it’s not much of a sequel. Pretty much the entire track lineup has been copypasted from Flatout 2, as have been big parts of setting, campaign mode and design. You know there’s something wrong when the new soundtrack feels like the biggest change made. Of course I’m exaggerating a bit, there’s some new content involved in Flatout: Ultimate Carnage: There’s a new campaign called carnage mode, consisting of a series of clever little challenges that try to make the most of the destructive physics engine. Just like the new and improved destruction derbys, its great fun, but is that really enough?
Flatout: Ultimate Carnage doesn’t so much bring something new to the series as it does realign previously seen content, and that’s a little thin for a full priced installment. Once you strip it down to its core, pretty much the only novelties are the improved graphics engine and windows live support, both of which can be seen from two entirely different perspectives. The new graphics engine, for one thing, does improve the visual quality quite a bit. Real time reflections and light effects are nice to look at, but on the other hand the game has lost its modesty in terms of processor mistreatment. The system requirements have been ramped up in no proportion to the actual visual improvement and the game also seems to be running a lot less smooth than before. Though that may have to do with the second addition: Windows live.
I throw a great many complaints at windows live here, like how it requires you to login, even if you want to access the single player part of the game. Or how I don’t like the fact it adds several seconds to loading times just to tell me I currently rank 2548th out of 8756 on this track. Or how stupid it was to have us navigate the whole confusing menu system using just our keyboard (So, left can mean left, but it can also mean “back to previous site” depending on what exactly?). But the worst thing that can be said for the system is just how unnecessary it is. Safe for achievements it really doesn’t contribute much to the game, especially when you take into account what it destroys.
I had fun with Flatout: Ultimate Carnage, but it was largely ruined by one niggling thought at the back of my head: Essentially, what I’m playing is a rerelease of Flatout 2 with nothing but a new mask and a little achievement glitter sprinkled on top to obscure this fact. The newly added vanity doesn’t make this game full price material, nor does the lack of new content. I guess the whole shebang I’m making is rendered equally irrelevant by the fact that the game has long since dropped to bargain bin prices, so it may just be worth checking out anyway. But if you’re expecting to get an actual sequel to Flatout 2 you should stay away.
Bottom Line: Despite the way it was marketed and sold, Flatout: Ultimate Carnage isn’t really much of a sequel. If you can appreciate it as just a visual update you have to pay for, then hooray for you. If you’re looking for another full-blown title, you’re sadly out of luck.
Stronghold had plenty of things going for it, but there was really only one reason to play it. Sure, the gameplay was nice and planning your own castle was a challenging task with plenty of things you needed to consider. But ultimately the one thing that defined Stronghold and ingrained it in the hearts of gamers was its charm. Do you want to take a guess as to what Firefly Entertainment ripped out while developing the sequel?
It’s both fascinating and slightly unnerving to see how much charm can contribute to a game, or to be more precise, to witness what the lack of it can ruin. By gameplay changes alone, Stronghold 2 should be a vastly superior game to the original. It brings plenty of interesting concepts to the table, like a Battlefieldesque territory control element for neutral cities, and all of them are functional at the least. The new units are nice, then new traps and buildings are nice, the new campaign is nice. But the same thing can’t be said for the new graphics engine.
Stronghold had completely amazing graphics, because it was entirely two-dimensional. It’s art was beautifully drawn, the castles and structures merged seamlessly into the landscape and the buzzing atmosphere of large cities had something strangely calming about it. Stronghold 2, by contrast, upgrades to a full-blown 3D graphics engine, and despite its technical superiority, the actual graphics are all the worse off for it. The game trades in lush meadows for samey greenish textures and detailed peasants for origami figures. But what’s worst is that castles and structures now have this unnatural feeling to them, as if they had been slapped onto a landscape instead of slowly erected on it.
But it’s by no means the only example of how the developers have made their game less appealing. I understand that the original Stronghold wanted to somewhat realistically simulate the medieval life, but it always kept this childlike innocence to the subject matter. And what does Stronghold 2 add? Rats, slurry and crime. It’s no longer the vision we have of the middle ages, with all their chivalrous glory, the game is now closer to a historically accurate portrayal. This may be good news for the few historians among us, but for those who associate medieval times with valiant knights, impressive sword fights, benevolent kings and scheming dukes, it’s a reality check we didn’t ask for.
After the tolerable, but innovation-free Stronghold Crusader, Stronghold 2 is the point were the series fell from grace, and Stronghold Legends and Stronghold Crusader: Extreme only added injury and insult to the case. Initially I felt sad to see an upstart developer stumbling, but since Firefly Entertainment has made it very much apparent that it intends to live off this series, and this series only, we may be better off without them.
Bottom Line: Stronghold 2 isn’t technically a bad game, but without the charm of the predecessor it is just one good strategy game out of plenty. Worth consideration if you’re into medieval times.