Review

Stronghold 3 Review (PC)

If there’s one thing I can say that’s positive about Stronghold 3, it’s that the game has a lot of charm, an awful lot. In fact, Stronghold 3 is so charming it would have Cinderella’s pants off before Prince Charming even arrived at the ball.  Yet afterward, when Cinderella rose from the bed, lit a post-coital cigarette and turned to face her lover, she would recoil in horror as she found herself faced with the broken body of a lecherous old man, his dead eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, his mouth twisted in a leer of ecstasy.

That's a lot of beer. Unfortunately, for the moment, Stronghold 3 ain't getting any prettier...
And between the black gaps where his teeth should be, Cinderella would glimpse a gleaming tongue of solid silver, just in time for Prince Charming to pop his leonine head around the door and whisper “is this your slipper?” before screaming in despair at the terrible scene spread before him. That’s what playing Stronghold 3 is like.

You are lured by its beguiling charisma into something which underneath is a truly unpleasant experience. It’s a massive disappointment, beset by crippling bugs and broken design. Yet how exactly have Firefly studios got it so depressingly wrong? Dry your eyes, step into my pumpkin-carriage and I’ll tell you on the way home. As I already stated, nothing seems to be out-of-order at first. Indeed, for the first hour or so Stronghold 3 is a positively lovely game. Like the previous instalments, the objective of Stronghold 3 is to build an increasingly complex series of castles which are economically self-sustaining and militarily advantageous to your cause.

In this game, that cause is split between a military campaign defending your realm against the revenging Wolf Knight, and an economic campaign that seeks to rebuild the war-ravaged land. But they can be played in any order and both involve military and economic gaming to varying degrees. Upon initially playing the game, however, none of this will be of significance. Instead you’ll spend your time in the tutorial merrily placing logging-camps and apple-orchards, watching your peasants go about their daily business. Firefly have clearly spent a huge amount of time fleshing out the details in the peasant’s daily lives.

Woodcutters chop down trees, carry the logs back to their camp, saw them into planks and carry the planks to your stockpile. Dairy farmers rear cows from sprightly calves to healthy and powerful heifers, before milking them, turning the milk into cheese and transporting said tasty curds to your granary. All while the mellow soundtrack – including a fantastic version of the folk song “John Barleycorn” – play soothingly in your ears.

At this point, all is well. Cinderella’s undergarments are dangling from the chandelier and everyone is having a good time. I could happily watch my lowborn subjects mill about all day if only the game would let me. But it doesn’t, for there are wolves at the door, both human and animal, and it’s up to you to defend your land against these bestial invaders.

Unfortunately, the moment you send a group of armed peasants to deal with a couple of wild wolves, the game’s broken nature will immediately become apparent to you. See, this is a slow game, and it takes a huge amount of time to build even a small force of military units. To create spearmen, for example, you need wood from the logging camp, a spear-maker to make the spears, idle peasants who don’t already have jobs around the castle, and sufficient food to feed them.
 
Those walls might as well be made out of paper
Personally I don’t have a problem with the ponderous pace of the game. I’m quite happy to while away the hours building up the required resources to progress. However, you simply don’t reap the rewards of the effort you put in. Take the aforementioned peasant/wolf scenario. It seems to me that a group of five peasants would realistically be able to fend off a couple of wolves, even if they are unskilled and armed only with cudgels and sharpened scythes. Not so in Stronghold 3, that wolf will tear out the throats of at least four of your peasants before finally succumbing to the fifth’s attacks. Equally, one bear can take out about five disciplined soldiers.

This is partly because commanding your troops is nigh-on impossible. Simply selecting them doesn’t work half the time, and when the game finally registers your selection, actually directing them to attack an enemy is extremely idiosyncratic. You have to wait for the cursor to turn into a sword, which represents an attack command, yet often the sword will only appear if you move the cursor several centimetres aside of the enemy you want to attack. Even then, there’s no guarantee that all your units will respond.

The main problem, however, is that the balancing of the game is completely off. The best example is the castle walls themselves. Being on the ramparts doesn’t seem to give your soldiers any discernable advantage over the enemy whatsoever – which is only the entire point of building a fucking castle. They’re just as vulnerable as they would be in open combat. Worse, a solid stone wall can be dismantled by a group of enemy soldiers in a couple of minutes, without siege equipment of any kind. This is absurd. Even a well-built wooden palisade would provide a significant obstacle to an invading force.

Most irritatingly, the majority of these problems could be fixed simply by altering a few numbers in the game code, but there are other issues too. The tutorial is useless, giving you only the most rudimentary information required to play. And the game almost always fails to inform you of new buildings and what advantages they bring. The apothecary, the storehouse, the sheep farm, the fletcher’s workshop, the alehouse…the game either doesn’t tell you about them, or waits to inform you until a considerable length of time after you initially gained access to them.

The structure of the missions is often irksome. The game likes to harass you with regular small forces of enemy units. These tend to spawn randomly from nowhere, meaning the AI is not bound by the same economic rules as you. At least, I’m guessing they’re supposed to harass you, because they actually end up doing quite a lot of damage. This isn’t helped by the so called “random” events which aren’t actually random and are often devastating to the fragile economy.

My personal favourite came on the fifth level of the military campaign. All was going well. I had a decent army, my economy was sturdy and…“OH NO YOUR CASTLE IS ON FIRE AND YOUR PEASANTS ARE BEING ATTACKED BY BEARS!” The end result: half my military force was eaten by two bears and half my castle burned down because the game had failed to inform me that I needed to build wells on that level. Oh, and the enemy smashed my castle to bits because my army was busy getting nommed by bears.  There’s also no apparent way to individually alter the tilt or yaw of the camera, you can only do this by zooming in and out. There could be a separate control for this, but the game doesn’t tell you about it and I couldn’t for the life of my find a control-setup in the options.

Is that everything? I think…oh hang on, the game frequently crashes, and sometimes when you load a level unit animations fail to kick in, so peasants and soldiers float across the land as if they’ve been nailed to invisible crucifixes. I think that’s…oh no wait, it features timed missions. TIMED MISSIONS. In a game where it takes half an hour to make one sword. What were Firefly thinking? This is the exact sort of game I want to take my time with. If you think I’m being harsh on Stronghold 3 because it’s not my thing, or I that I might not like this genre, think again. Economy/settlement building games are some of my favourite strategy games.
 
You can reward or punish your peasants to keep them in line

I was particularly looking forward to Stronghold 3, so much so I requested the review months ago, and I still find it difficult to believe that Firefly have so spectacularly fouled things up. Firefly have promised to fix some of these issues, and there’s potentially a very fun game in here somewhere. But to release it in this sorry state, to charge £30 for a fundamentally broken game and a few promises, is frankly insulting to their fanbase. In short, don’t be fooled by Stronghold’s charm, and remember what it did to Cinderella.

Top Game Moment: Those first thirty minutes of oblivious innocence before you encounter all the broken stuff.

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Comments

By nocutius (SI Elite) on Nov 09, 2011
nocutius
So we wait for the 'game of the year' edition?
Too bad, i liked the old strongholds, they were not my favorite games but i remember them fondly.

Breaking down a stone castle without any seige equipment really sounds totaly ridiculous, that alone is enough to kill a game about building and sieging castles.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 09, 2011
Kres
I can't believe they messed it up. I was so looking forward to this and now it has to be skipped. Thank God Skyrim is coming out...
By noobst3R (SI Core) on Nov 09, 2011
noobst3R
I LOVED the first game, I really did, it was excellent. I didn't even bother with S2, but then S3 promised some more "old skool" gaming. It failed indeed, like the review says, it's full to the brim of imbalances and bugs.
By Arrecoolast (SI Core) on Nov 10, 2011
Arrecoolast
I loved Stronghold 2, I was looking forward to this. Shame that they fucked it up. :(
By JustCommunication (SI Core) on Nov 10, 2011
JustCommunication
First SOTS2, and and now this. It's a shame, I covered both at the preview stage and they both showed great promise.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 10, 2011
Kres
I hope that SotS2 will be ok... Eg that they can patch it up properly. Fortunately didn't went beserk and buy it right away.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Nov 10, 2011
nocutius
They'll fix it for sure Paradox has a great track record in that regard, i'm sure they won't let Kerberos leave the game unfinished.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 10, 2011
Kres
Yes I talked with a certain Paradox person about something else related to SotS2 and they mentioned they're fully aware of the launch issues and are all working on it. Eg pushing Kerberos to sort the issues. Altough she didn't made it sound like they needed any pushing. They're working on it. So I hope all will be done soon as I was going to play it!
By bollo (SI Newbie) on Jan 07, 2012
bollo
...yeah, it's a mediocre game, but it's quite more stable now with the latest patches...but it still nothing without the skirmish mode...it has no replayability.