Stronghold Review (PC)
There are a number of minor problems with Stronghold, the new real-time strategy from Firefly Studios/Godgames. However, these flaws don't detract from what is, overall, a thoroughly entertaining experience. This game is in no way groundbreaking, and my guess is that this sort of real-time strategy is about to be superseded (if it hasn't already) in graphics, AI, and depth of tactical play by, for instance, Commandos 2 or the next Shogun installment. Although it has even been said -- and it’s probably true -- that the AI is better in Microsoft’s two year-old Age of Empires II, Stronghold nevertheless offers a more immersive experience, without overwhelming the player with micro-management. Moreover, Stronghold goes a long way toward capturing the mood of the Middle Ages – at least, the Middle Ages as imagined from the theoretical vantage points of Romanticism and Enlightenment reason (with a dose of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a Medieval Times theme restaurant thrown in for good measure). Idyllic communities, rife with friendly farmers, joking jesters, and prancing pikemen, clash with might-makes-right militias, whose superstitious and uneducated soldier-sadists would sooner boil a helpless peasant’s already toothless visage in oil than dance around the maypole.
There are two basic types of scenarios possible: the military and the economic. Military scenarios dispense with most of the town building enterprise and allow the more bloodthirsty among us to focus completely on tactics and the intricacies of medieval siege warfare. The historically based sieges that are offered are well designed and seem realistic, although I have to admit that I know next to nothing about the actual historical engagements. Combat is as exciting as that found in Shogun, although somewhat diminished by the isometric/pseudo-3D design of the game. One can switch between only North-South-East-West perspectives to observe the scene, and there are a mere two degrees of zoom. For the overwhelming majority of play I remained close to the action and zoomed out occasionally to the rather graphically challenged view in order to turn a brief eye toward the forest and not the (beautifully rendered) trees. The rousing cheers of spearmen as they were given orders to charge into a rain of boiling oil, however, called me back to what was always a thrilling fight.
Even economically based scenarios will require at least a modest militia, however, and a barracks, a blacksmith, and other arms producing structures will spring up sooner or later to ward off angry bears, infestations of rapidly multiplying rabbits, and nihilistic local rogues with low IQ’s and compensatory growls. Unrepentant peaceniks will nevertheless find a comfortable niche with the “free build” option, in which a miniature medieval hamlet can be constructed from the ground up and seemingly without any pressures from raiding bandits or ravenous wolves. Choose this mode if you wish to recline with a mellow but engaged mind, issuing sigh after sentimental sigh as you watch simple rustics pool their efforts gleefully to build a better future.
Strategically speaking, some might criticize Stronghold for being too simplistic. Keeping the people happy and well fed is crucial, but not too difficult to master in a short amount of time. Once one gets the knack, it becomes second nature and never varies. For the most part low taxes, -- and not really religion, increased rations, or ale – get the job done. (In this respect Stronghold is undeniably modern.) Nonetheless, I find that the socio-economic system is on the whole quite balanced. Not getting bogged down with tedious micromanagement allowed me to turn my attention fully to dispensing with invaders when they charged through the dell.
Unfortunately, in-between mission taunts by your opponents are the only continuity between the each segment of the campaign. Completion of one battle or economic goal brings new types of military units and structure possibilities, but one must build a keep, town, and army from scratch. Stronghold would have been improved immensely if units carried over from previous conflicts, with surviving soldiers improving their proficiency as in Shogun. At the very least, the ability of the lord of the castle to influence his people’s morale could increase with each new victory. The greatest weakness of this game is that the campaign is just a succession of scenarios, each win merely coloring a division of the Risk-like map of Britain. Manipulating troop units with any significant finesse was difficult, if not impossible. The interface here is rather clunky, and I found myself frustrated when attempting to align soldiers for a neatly orchestrated offensive. Placing them defensively was a much more satisfying affair, although the AI for their patrolling leaves much to be desired. Dedicated strategists looking for a serious challenge will quickly avail themselves of the map/scenario creator option and most likely design a last-ditch fortress holdout, manned by a greatly outnumbered force. Multiplayer mode might add more interesting strategic possibilities, although my guess is that players will have to spend a significant amount of time finding the proper balance of forces.