Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stronghold 3 Review

Stronghold 3, developed by Firefly Studios and published by 7Sixty.
The Good: Multifaceted economy and production, robust castle construction, two campaigns, multiplayer, map editor, online leaderboards, you can make candles!
The Not So Good: Very few innovations, atrociously challenging and no difficulty settings, excruciating slow pace, imprecise mouse input, repetitive mission objectives, occasional bugs, light on content
What say you? Little more than a visual update of the classic series with many new issues: 4/8

This review also appears at

UPDATE, 11/23/11: Patches have fixed the mouse input issue, added difficulty settings, and allowed the user to adjust the game speed. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

While most strategy games has you go on the offensive, sometimes it’s fun to play the defender, carefully preparing your protection to fend off the unwelcome visitors. The ever-growing tower defense game cashes in on this concept, but I would argue that its origin was seen in the original Stronghold, an entertaining combination of harvesting resources, building castles, and dumping hot oil on unsuspecting enemies (I still remember the game addressing you by name, and reminding you when it was getting late). This solid first outing was followed by a series of increasingly disappointing sequels, but the “reset” button has been pressed in the newest iteration: Stronghold 3. Hoping to add more polished gameplay with updated graphics, does Stronghold 3 revive a series on the defensive?

Stronghold 3 transitions to 3-D with mixed results. The highlight of the graphics is the physics-driven destruction: castle walls plausibly fall towards the ground, which is much more effective than scripted degradation. This goes a long way to making some impressive combat where chaos reigns supreme. The buildings aren't the best thanks to some bland, low-resolution textures, and the terrain features too much green terrain and not enough detail. Animations are obviously repetitive but effective enough, while the units themselves are small but distinctive. Stronghold 3 features pop-in (namely grass and shadows) when zooming in, even when set to “ultra,” and objects clipping through each other (namely massed military units) is much too common. The interface hasn't changed much in ten years (in fact, the build menu is identical): while I like the concrete breakdown of your approval rating, the minimap is terribly uninformative. In addition, the using the mouse for orders is inconsistent: sometimes you need to point below a unit, sometimes above, and sometimes directly on them in order to attack, which allows units to completely ignore nearby enemies simply because you can’t figure out where to point (this adds significantly to the game difficulty). Stronghold 3 also suffers from the occasional crash to the desktop and oddity, like the inability to change the screen resolution from the main menu (it must be done while playing a mission). The sound design is nothing spectacular: appropriate battle sound effects with over-the-top and repetitive voice acting when units are selected. The music is appropriate and entertaining, however. While some aspects of Stronghold 3's graphics shine, most is a assortment of highs and lows.

Like previous titles in the series, Stronghold 3 features both military and economic campaigns to fulfill both sides of the castle management equation. In the eight economic scenarios, you must collect a specific number of goods within a time limit. In the seventeen military missions, you must take over enemy castles (or defend your own) within a time limit (usually). The variety leaves a lot to be desired, and the story isn't interesting enough to pay attention to. You are supplied some optional hints before you begin, which are recommended because the scenarios are outrageously difficult, typically involving extremely high resource requirements, brief time limits, and magically spawning AI at the most inopportune times. Of course, you are not offered any difficulty settings to tailor the game towards your experience level. Hey developer: who are you to say how good I will be at your game? Does everyone have the same level of skill? I would think not. And the developers seem to have completely missed the mark for me, as I was unable to beat any of the scenarios except for the first one (luckily, I edited the profile XML file so that I could play all of the missions without having to beat the previous one). In addition, Stronghold 3 does not feature time acceleration; not only does resource collection take a really long time (thanks to multi-step processes that are each executed at a snail’s pace), but you could be wasting your time since you might not pass the scenario anyway. Stronghold 3 does feature a neat online leaderboard, complete with a map displaying where each score originated around the globe, for the lucky few that have experienced success.

Beyond the twenty-five campaign scenarios lie (only) two free build maps with no objectives, (only) five historic sieges where you can attack or defend, and the ability to create your own custom maps using the editor (buried in the Steam install directory) and then play them. Stronghold 3 also comes with multiplayer for four player deathmatch; a patch expected soon will add additional game modes (king of the hill and capture the flag) and more maps (beyond the four current offerings) for up to eight players. Finally, Stronghold 3 has a decent tutorial to teach the basics of the game to newcomers.

The key to success in Stronghold 3 is to have a thriving economy. It takes lots of work to make an imposing castle! Raw materials (wood, stone, iron, and oil) must be gathered (very slowly) by peasant workers and carried back to your stockpile. Additionally, everyone must be fed, so apples, cheese, meat, and bread must be grown and processed (wheat makes flour makes bread) at different buildings. It can be difficult to determine exactly how much food is being produced and consumed, as the numbers change in real-time as items are produced; there is no access to long-term average to figure out whether you can increase the rations. Any resource deficiency can be traded for using the market (at a huge expense, though), and estates that (rarely) dot the landscape can be captured for supplemental goods. Peasants must be housed, and the game determines which house you want to construct based on (I think) the distance from the keep. Peasants cannot be reassigned in their jobs, so if you need more stone than wood, you have to completely shut down the woodcutter and hope the peasants choose the quarry instead. Upgrades are earned by having banquets, and those require even more specialized goods like venison, vegetables, honey, wine, and clothes. Tax income in the form of gold is used to purchase troops (you must also produce each weapon at a specific building from the raw goods).

In order for people to move in to your quaint castle in the woods, you should make a happy little village by supplying food, beer, and church (the three pillars of medieval society). Churches now require candles (produced by a chandler), so that’s something new to worry about. Of course, you can choose to be a total jerk and adorn your castle with torture devices and severed heads. Why? Even though the cheerfulness will obviously suffer, your minions will work harder. If you can afford the happiness hit (by lowering taxes or providing more food), you can get those peasants to produce faster. Occasional events (rain, sun, wolves, bears) can also have a daily impact on the happiness of your settlement; these are nice touches that make you scramble just when your economy is balanced. It is difficult to keep things flowing smoothly, as it’s very easy to “crash” your economy by not producing enough of something, causing people to leave, preventing you from producing that particular good even more. If all this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it was all in Stronghold 1, outside of the candles, vegetables, and estates. I wish Stronghold 3 brought more innovation than that to the table.

Stronghold 3 gives you all the tools needed to construct your temple of solitude while storming others. Walls, gates, towers, bastions, traps, moats, ditch, oil, logs, and flaming arrows are all there, and you are given a good amount of freedom in constructing your castle, and connecting walls, gates, and towers is straightforward. Military units are created by manufacturing the weapons and then outfitting spare peasants with those tools of death. Typical medieval choices are present: bows, crossbows, spears, pikes, maces, swords, and armor. Units are controlled using typical RTS-style commands: group selection, stances (aggressive, defensive, and stand ground), and movement orders (attack, move, dig moats, use ladders, and, of course, launch cows). Formations are poorly implemented: square and line groups will not move at the same speed, negating the point of placing units in formation in the first place. Your AI opponents are good enough, attacking vulnerable portions of a castle and then using appropriate units most (but not all) of the time. You’ll mostly be battling the clock and resource requirements, though.

Unfortunately, Stronghold 3 doesn’t add anything significant to the series. Candles are required for churches, honor is needed for upgrades, and estates can be captured (when they are rarely placed) around the map to secure some additional resources, but the remainder of the game is virtually identical to previous efforts. While this will appease fans of the series, you would also like to see something dramatic and pioneering in a sequel beyond a simple graphical upgrade. Stronghold 3 centers on collecting raw materials so you can make food, buildings, defenses, and weapons to repel enemy attacks while keeping your population happy. The relationships consist of several steps (like wheat to flour to bread) produced in different buildings, but they are easy enough to grasp. A variety of defensive structures and military units are available, and the open-ended nature of castle design is appreciated. The direct relationship between your economy and military makes providing a solid fiscal footing important, which is generally impossible given the high, unwavering difficulty of the game coupled with the ease at which you can completely destroy your economy. The multiple campaigns highlight either the production or combative portions of the game, and the objectives are repetitive and, frankly, insane. You can't adjust the difficulty to your liking, and thus you must obey the stringent, unrealistic requirements bestowed upon you by the developers. If you are not completely efficient, you'll have to retry missions time and time again. The ancillary features are brief: two free-build maps, five historic sieges, and multiplayer that may feature non-deathmatch modes in the future. The game is also rife with curiosities such as infrequent crashes and imprecise mouse-driven attack orders that really compound the difficulty. Personally, I'd just rather spend $6 on Stronghold than pay eight times that for disturbingly similar content and difficulty issues.