The idea couldn’t be more appealing. Build your own castle. Castles being the best type of building you could ever hope to live in. Massive stone walls built on precariously steep hills, occasionally broken up by large towers to place a group of archers or crossbowmen on top of. Add a ballista or two and it turns into a indomitable fortress few would ever want or hope to attack. Why has it taken so long for someone to make a game based on such an immediately compelling concept? Actually, why has it taken Firefly Studios so long to produce a sequel to one of the only games that has truly been successful at doing so?
Ten years on since it’s release, Stronghold still has few competitors, the Total War games perhaps coming closest but only really beginning and ending at the battles, not the actual building of the castle itself. One duff sequel later and we finally get given a successor that, on the face of it, gets a lot of things the original game did right. But before long what it gets spectacularly wrong taint what could have been the re-emergence of a series of games that could have ushered in it’s comeback in a triumphant fanfare, rather than the endless forum posts of disappointment and despair it has already received.
Stronghold 3, then. What was to be the sequel to Stronghold that it’s predecessor, number 2, couldn’t be, instead falls at the first hurdle and looses it’s balance the rest of the race. Once again you are a medieval lord who must eventually build a giant castle to protect against your enemies while attempting to topple their walls. It begins however, with peasants. Those lowly folk you need to actually gather the resources needed to raise a castle and who in turn must have their every wish seen to before they storm off in a strop.
Early games revolve around the micromanagement of the starting settlements, where peasants are invited to live and stockpiles of food and building materials gathered. Initially simplistic in it’s approach, Stronghold 3 walks a fine line between casual ease of use and mind numbing confusion. Buildings can be placed without them needing to be constructed first, so there’s no time wasted on waiting for construction queues. Some of the structures you can build don’t even take any resources, and for the amount of time I spent in the campaign, I actually found it more difficult to loose money than to gain it.
But this is a game that doesn’t seem to think you’ll need to know basic, often important, information. You get given no insight into how many materials are being gathered. None of the industrial building give you any information on anything that the people in them are doing, no estimates on when a particular good will be crafted, not a peep about how many of those wooden planks or slabs of stone will be ready. Given that some mission objectives depend on you gathering a particular amount of resources to complete the level, not knowing these things can be mildly infuriating at times.
Less so than the controls, which tend to be buggy. I’ve already played some games where my mouse pointer decided it didn’t want to click when I told it to, so those soldiers I needed to move in order to protect a strategically important target sat there as Stronghold folded it’s arms and told me in no uncertain terms that I can’t play the game until it decides. Even without these frustrations, grouping military units can still be problematic. Clicking on units feels clunky, the game seems to have trouble registering how close the mouse cursor is to a particular unit, making the act of selecting small groups unnecessarily complex when it needed to be simplistic.
When it’s not broken, the game can often feel dull. Management is slow at the best of times with townsfolk all wandering their way to work as slowly as possible. The entire pace of the game feels glacial. Combat, which does improve things slightly, especially with sieges, can veer wildly in difficulty. AI is dense to the point where soldiers simply won’t attack the enemy unless they’re touching noses. One battle I even won because the enemy forces, having slaughtered all of my main infantry units and leaving only the weak archers behind, took the time to smash down a wall that was in no way strategically important and wasn’t blocking their way to my keep.
Once it eventually gets to the all important castle building stage, things do improve significantly. No other game throws this amount of options at your feet. You’re free to create a huge network of study walls and towers, adding a few defenses for those unsuspecting attackers. Not even the Total War games allowed you to lure enemies into elaborate fire traps, where entire groups of enemies could be burnt to death with a well placed fire arrow into hidden flammable liquid left just out of reach of the walls. Stronghold still understands the importance of that core idea of the game, but that’s all it seems to understand.
Often feeling half finished, there are several game modes here including two separate campaigns that focus on military and economic growth, but with little substance to any of them. The separate historic siege battles are often blighted by game breaking bugs, the Free Build mode has only two small maps to play on and the multiplayer gives you one game mode and a pitiful four maps. Crucially, and what might be considered a deal breaker for past Stronghold fans, there’s no skirmish mode.
We’ve come a long way in ten years, yet Stronghold 3 often feels like it’s taking several steps back rather than leaps forward. There’s enjoyment to be had once you dig beyond the myriad of technical problems and lacklustre game-play features, but it doesn’t stop that overwhelming sense of crushing disappointment. This is a genre still ripe for the plucking, no other game out there has ever succeeded where the original Stronghold did, so to see it’s eventual successor turn out like a half hearted pretender rather than a true sequel is nothing more than shameful.
With time, maybe the problems burdening Stronghold 3 might be fixed, it’s castle building antics still appeal and, in spite of it’s numerous flaws, work. Building castle remains the high point of the game and it can still be easy to loose yourself in Stronghold 3 if you overlook a lot of it’s problems. Yet for everything that’s done right, there are dozens of other problems that take the focus away.
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