Genre: Strategy Developer: Publisher: Classification: M Release Date: 25th Oct 2011 Platforms:
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The Good bits
Can be enjoyable planning nasty castle defences or hurling boulders into enemy castles.
It didn’t crash, I suppose.
The Bad stuff
Extremely poor play-balancing.
Awkward sound design.
Broken mechanics in many places.
How the heck do I start this review? Describe the way I feel? I often start reviews with a story in some way relating to the game - or perhaps about the way it makes me feel. Some in-universe paragraph describing the experience of the game as it was to me personally.
I can’t do that, because the game never grabbed me. I was never in the world of Stronghold. I was staring at graphics that’d make a first-year game student wince and fighting an unbalanced system that made me scratch my head at what it was trying to achieve.
The Stronghold series doesn’t have a proud heritage. It started with a great idea relatively well-executed. I know this because not only did I really enjoy the original when it came out, but I actually re-played a few hours of it as a lead-up to Stronghold 3 coming out. After the first game came out, a second, less impressive title was quickly forgotten by most fans.
So really, this is a sort of last attempt to resurrect the series - and boy, does it fail. These games simply seem to get worse and worse.
In Stronghold 3, you plan out a medieval town and construct castle-inspired defences (or even build full castles) to keep your badly-animated townsfolk alive long enough to win the level. There are two sides to Stronghold 3 - the basic idea is to manage an economy of food, luxuries and resources in order to raise armies and smash your enemies into pulp. However, like earlier games in the series, there’s the option of ignoring the smashing-into-pulp component and just focus on the economics system - something to grab the interest of fans of games like Caesar, Pharaoh, or, I suppose, Tropico.
It’s a pity, then, that neither the combat nor the economy actually works well enough for either to be enjoyable. The fighting is hugely simplistic, and moving troops around has you dealing with such difficulties as units moving at different speeds to each other - and not remaining in formation. If you select a large number of men and move them somewhere, you’d best hope there are no enemies at your destination - because your scout troops will get there first and surely die.
There’s no real warnings that anything is happening in-game, either. Once, I failed to notice that a single bear was going on a killing spree in my village until I happened to glance at my status bar and realised that my peasant-counter had dropped from 26 to 14. There was no alert, sound, complaint or symbol on the map to indicate that something like a terrifying bear-related massacre was taking place.
It’s certainly not one-off, either. In the single-player “battle” campaign you often have to move to specific way-points - but when you do so it takes a hugely long time to actually, say, realise you’ve done so and remove the “move here!” icon.
Units magically blip into existence as they walk out of the ‘fog war war zone’, and sometimes appear standing bolt-upright with arms outstretched until you give them your first order.
The balance of the game’s economy seems pretty stilted, too. Like almost everything else in Stronghold 3, it’s not out-right broken so much as just... awkwardly flawed.
You end up spending almost half your peasants on food production jobs just to support a handful of soldiers - and which foods are easy and efficient to create don’t even make sense. I think the general understanding of the medieval ages is peasants eating meat and bread. In this, bread requires three stages (more than any other food source) to produce - a farm, a mill and a bakery. That’s three workers and it doesn’t even produce enough volume to be worth while, really. You’ll probably find yourself feeding your workers almost exclusively apples and cheese.
There’s a sort of luxuries system as a hold-over from earlier games, too. Instead of a hunter producing meat to feed to people, he stores it up and you magically translate it or similar luxuries into “honour” points - required to create military units - by clicking the animation-less “banquet” button.
Another frustrating thing is how flawed the logistics of moving things around your township is. Unlike other, similar games (such as the enjoyable The Settlers 7 or the the last two Tropico games) there’s no role to simply transport goods around to make your stronghold more efficient. You can place your whole three-building production chain for bread right next to each other and then watch with a dejected sigh as the farmer slowly waddles his grain all the way across the map to your single (!) storehouse. Then, the miller will hop to life, making the equally slow trek to collect the grain... instead of having gotten it from next-door in the first place.
Once you have a full economy going, you’ll need to build weapons to arm soldiers with. However, instead of having a sane system of being able to order the number of weapons / armour you require or simply have the game auto-build them based on what units you’re building... they just keep turning them out. Didn’t need all your iron to be turned into swords? Too bad. You need to constantly turn buildings ‘on’ and ‘off’ in order to manage the flow of industry.
The music is hit-and-miss, too. The best tracks are pilfered from the original games, and as much as I love the drinking song that randomly played once (there’s huge gaps between music tracks, which can be confusing) I’m not sure what a medieval stronghold has to do with a turn-of-the-century Irish pub.
The worst thing about Stronghold 3 has to be this - it’s not entirely bad. It’s not the worst game ever made. It’s stable, ran without slowdowns for me and occasionally made me laugh with its Monty Python-esque peasant voices - and I have, in the past, enjoyed games almost as buggy or strangely balanced as this (The Guild 2 springs to mind).
Some people - die-hard fans of the sub-genre spring to mind - might be able to get some entertainment from it, but for me and (probably) most gamers it simply gets bogged down in its hundred and five minor flaws and doesn’t have enough ‘fun’ to make it worthwhile... it dies the death of a thousand tiny paper-cuts.
When you finally click ‘Quit Stronghold 3’ at the main menu, a shocked and hurt voice calls out, “Quit Stronghold 3 Melord!?”
Upon being inspired by this review and a recommendation from a friend about how bad it was, I decided to go and spend a day at his place to see if was actually as bad as people were saying it was. It was.
-rubbish game mechanics
The start of the game was reasonable, with the advisor and the villagers using the "morning m'lord" and "the food stocks are dwindling, my liege" lines from the original game, unfortunately this was a clue of things to come. I quickly noticed that while sounds and animations from the original game had carried over, they had possibly carried over a little too much...
The stockpile implementation strangely still doesn't have the teamster idea implemented, which while mentioned in the main GA review as being in eg tropico, was also in Space Colony, which was built on their original stronghold engine. They have the ox teams to bring around the piles of stone and iron, but unfortunately the old method of placing them right next to the quarry so they can load up faster is nullified when you have multiple quarries and/or iron deposits, and have to sit and watch the ox team walk from their tether post next to a quarry all the way across your castle to the furthest iron mine it can find.
The game is in a 3d engine, which while nice (ok, it's terrible, they made no attempts to hide polygons on eg hexagonal bread) also has the problem that plagues most of these games - the inability to snap to a grid for optimum placement, and the inability to see what is buildable terrain; much frustration occured when I was unable to place a bakery due to the last square inch in the corner of the build site being 99% grass and 1% mountainside-gray.
The buildings in general are also disappointing, with the houses being the prime contender. Instead of the simple-but-efficient one-size-fits-all approach, they scale up in cost and bedspace via distance, so while it is a bit nice to see the quaint -sorry, pathetic serf shacks in the distance from the keep, it also ruins your planning because you can't place anything near the keep in case you want more of the best (most cost/space effective) houses, and this also stacks with 3D placement as the houses need to be RIGHT next to the keep to get the most population.
The cost of these houses (almost 100 wood, compared to the original 10 or so) also spills over to the costs of other buildings such as the bakery. While there is the convenience that one wheat farm will supply many bakeries, there is also the problem that each bakery (and the mill) requires 50 wood - when your input capital starts stretching into hundreds of planks of wood just to stock the granary, it's little wonder bread becomes a delicacy in the peasants' usual meals of far-cheaper cheese and apples.
The last part of the economy that required attention was the good old happiness meter, which told you how fast your characters were arriving or leaving. The old meter was out of 100 that would dip with bad policies or misfortune over a period of time, so if you lost all your apples due to blight or something you had some time to get them back. The new policy is a direct yes-no rating system, where the random occurrences of sunny weather or a rainy day can make people that unhappy they want to leave - or just as bad, slow down the already painfully-slow recruiting system, which I think tried to stretch it out to a more 'realistic' level of one peasant at a time walking off your neighbour's property 10 miles down the road. Which brings us to...
-no army micro
Army management also suffers from other reasons, such as the aforementioned recruitment times, but also for things such as targeting. Spearmen now apparently fight with a knife, and use their spear as a roman pilum to throw at the enemy before charging, which while useful in the early missions as a way of defending walls, also leads to stupid combat where everyone sits at range pelting each other. There is also the problem where in one mission I had to wipe out a bunch of wolves, who can now climb ladders and attack people in towers, and lost 10 archers when I went around a ruined wall to attack 2 wolves due to them first walking past them, then standing around like a bunch of idiots and finally deciding to use their knives instead of their mystical overpowered homing arrows. Unfortunately, this ai also carries over to the enemy ai, which in one mission ignored the direct route into my open base in favour of going past it and around the map to try and bash down a gatehouse that had been installed on a back-route.
-In summary, rubbish game
I went into this expecting an average game, and was disappointed. I soon found myself playing the campaign for the sake of playing the campign hoping to find a decent mission, but with the initial missions (survive a handful of attacks, stockpile some wood) lasting almost an hour and feeling far too dragged out, and the following ones not much better, I was not going to waste more of my time on such a boring game, not for $40 and especially not for the $80 they want you to pay for it. Ironically, you can buy the original games for under $10 and they provide far more entertainment value for a far cheaper price. Don't buy this game, not even on a sale.