Developer: Firefly Studio
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive (original release)
Release date: October 19th, 2001 (original release), November 1st, 2012 (HD update)
Available on: PC
When my family first got a PC I wanted a few games for it. Starcraft, Halo, and Red Alert 2 were the games I settled on, but my dad also wanted to get Stronghold since it looked interesting to him. I originally wrote it off, but in the years to come it was a game I constantly found myself going back to. Years later it’s updated in HD and I wonder if it still holds up like it did in my head.
I will admit that I am a little disappointed that the game doesn’t hold up nearly as well as I remembered. Stronghold is a castle building sim/RTS hybrid. You have to gather resources to make buildings and walls, keep your people fed and happy, and create an army to siege other castles and defend your own. You need to build places for your people to work for them to do this. A large portion of the game relies on creative placement of buildings to maximize their efficiency. If you build a dairy farm too far from the granary, for example, then there’s a ton of time wasted when your farmer needs to travel between the two points. Of course you’ll want your leather workers close to the dairy farms, since they need to gather cows to slaughter them for leathers, though that does take a hit on the ability to produce cheese. Are you sure you want to go through all the trouble of making bread when you can just get a few more hunters? But maybe the deer is taking too long to get and it’d be worth it. Or maybe you can squeeze out the room for an apple farm. Careful base building forces you to make decisions like this.
Even the act of training soldiers requires careful resource management. Lets say you want to train an archer. First you need to get a woodcutter to cut down a tree and provide you with wood. After that you need to get a Fletcher to create bows and bring them to the armory. Finally you need to spend the gold to turn one of your peasants into an archer. Despite the long process to make them, units can die easily and you have to be sure to utilize all of their special abilities and pay attention to their weaknesses and strengths. Swordsmen may be a powerhouse against most enemies, but crossbows and maces make short work of their armor. Pikemen may not be good against much, but they absolutely devastate knights. Spearmen may be the easiest to kill and weakest unit in the game, but they have the ability to fill in moats and push ladders off of walls, and can be created much faster than any other unit. You have to be sure to have a diverse force of many different units and use them all accordingly.
The game’s 21 mission campaign does a pretty good job of teaching this to you as well, introducing new buildings and units each chapter and letting you best learn how to use them. Unfortunately the plot that ties the game together isn’t very interesting. After a rebellion overthrows the king a group of lords attempt to negotiate with the rebels. Unfortunately the lords are betrayed and most of them, including your father, is slaughtered. Now you and your two trusted advisers need to rally up the men and take back their lands from the leader of the rebellion known as The Wolf. Most of it is relegated to mission briefings, but really it just serves as a way to tie the missions together and show off some of the colorful personalities of the lords. Those not interested in the campaign may find the one-off siege missions to be more up their alleyway. Here they are tasked to either defend a castle from an attacking force, or to invade and conquer the castle. Both sides use pre-set forces and to be honest unless you turn the difficulty up they’re not very challenging. Those not interested in the combat may instead float to the five mission economic campaign which gets rid of combat all together and has you gathering and managing resources. Similar to the combat missions there are also one-off economic missions.
Sadly it’s not all as great as it sounds. The game suffers from issues, the biggest of which being the borderline retarded AI. People won’t react to being shot, just letting archers and crossbowmen pick them off from range with no difficulty. If you ask your ranged units to attack someone they won’t move in range and then attack. They’ll see if they’re within range from where they’re standing and, if not, just not do anything. There are also times when the game is just unbearably slow. Some early missions require you to do some almost painfully simple tasks, but a lot of them take far longer than they should leaving you to mostly spend time sitting around waiting for the task to finish. Since you can’t order the resource gathering units what to do exactly, the AI handles all that, you also get to watch them do some borderline retarded things. More than once I watched woodcutters ignore the trees I placed their shacks right next to, and instead wander halfway across the map to get a tree close to the enemy’s forces for some reason. The same goes for hunters, who will often kill a deer and then wander off to go kill more deer for some reason. I also really wish the game had an attack-move order of some kind, as managing units to make sure they actually attack their targets becomes difficult. I also want to take a moment to note the game’s almost comically bad voice acting. It’s like they’re trying their hardest to over act everything.
If you can manage your way through the bad AI and sometimes slow as hell gameplay then you may enjoy Stronghold’s blend of castle sim and RTS gameplay. It’s a fun game at times and has creative ideas, just don’t let the peasants get to you.