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Stronghold Review

publisher: Gathering
developer: Firefly Studios
genre: Strategy

PII-300, 64MB RAM, 750MB HDD
ESRB rating: T

release date: Oct 21, 01
» All About Stronghold on ActionTrip

November 16, 2001
Dusan "Lynx" Katilovic

Medieval times have more than often been used as a setting for various video-games, especially real-time strategies. This historical period and its spirit of chivalry, and forgotten warrior ethics are most inspiring. Stronghold is quite a strange medieval strategy for that matter... It won't let you lead your army to victory, but rather build and organize a feudal estate and its economic aspects.

Stronghold can be categorized as a RTS, but I have to emphasize that it practically contains two separate games. You can choose between the Combat Based Games and Economic Based Games, which will allow you either to concentrate on building up your little world or on fending off attackers.

The economic game can be played in one of three modes: The Economic Campaign, Single Missions and the so-called Free Build mode. In each of these modes, it will be less than easy to satisfy the ever demanding people - however, if you keep the people well fed and do not tax them too much, you may as well hold them in your hand. The first thing you will have to do is set the foundation for your keep. It is very important to do this properly, as the foundations and their location determine the displacement of other structures, and hence even their efficiency. The next building you have to build is the granary, which will trigger population growth, and the stockpile for gathering resources.

The people on your feud are not exactly tied to it the way they should be. If they are too dissatisfied, they can just leave, and the number of people you control is the key to victory in this game. Their satisfaction directly depends on the quantity of food they have at disposal, so you'll always have to take care your of your people's desire for food. There are four types of food in the game: meat, cheese, apples and bread. The simplest way to acquire food is to build a couple of hunting cottages, but bare in mind that hunters are very vulnerable to bear or wolf attacks and that the territory can easily run out of deer. This is why you will soon have to start building other food structures; the cattle farms are a generally good solution, but if cows get ill for some reason, they will stop producing cheese. Thanks to all this, you will have to turn to bread as the primary food type, in spite of the fact that it is the most complicated one to produce. You first have to set two farms of fertile land (which is scarce). Then, you have to build a mill, and finally the bakery. Only when you are finished with all this will your people start eating bread. Orchards will produce apples fast, but they are spent even faster, and the fertile land is better used for wheat. Plants can also succumb to ailments.

Food is only one of the important elements in Stronghold. If you want to finish either the military or the economic campaign, you will need other resources: wood, stone, iron and gold. The granary serves as a kind of a distribution centre for food where you can determine rations given to your people (which are one important element that helps determine how satisfied they are). If you want to produce military forces or build structures, you are going to have to gather taxes, as they present the only way to gather enough gold to do so. This is where you have to be careful and balance things out - you have to provide enough gold without causing unrest and dissatisfaction. If the satisfaction of your people goes below 50%, the peasants will start leaving you, which will induce a slowdown or even a collapse in you economy and food production. If the satisfaction goes below 30% you can expect to see the 'Defeat' message on screen soon. There are other methods to balance the situation. You can buy the satisfaction of your people by building them a religious structure, public garden, monument or well. On the other hand, if you go too far with this, your population may become lazy and the production will start dropping. This is where you can use the well-known instruments of persuasion like gallows to sort the situation out. The lower right-hand part of the screen contains the data on the general disposition of your people and other statistics.

If you choose to play Combat Based Games, you can choose between the military campaign and specialized missions - Siege or Invasion. In the military campaign, food production is but logistic support for your defensive and offensive forces. You will initially be limited to wooden castles with wooden defense structures. To exploit further resources, you will have to build a woodcutter and a quarry. In time, you will be able to build stone walls, towers and trenches. You are free to design your castle whatever way you wish, but you will be sometimes limited by the terrain configuration.

The first type of units you will be able to create are the archers. Before you can create your troops though, you will have to have a certain quantity of weapons in the armory and build barracks. You will need gold to recruit your peasants and turn them into military units.

Wood will be your basic military resource, but you will later require iron and leather for armor production. As the game progresses, you will be introduced to more and more units: knights, crossbowmen, spearmen, mace men, sappers and men with ladder who charge the walls of a fort and climb them using ladders. Engineers will help you construct siege engines. As for the unit control, it comes down to standard RTS command method with all standard commands (go, stop, attack) and formations.

As for the graphics, they are satisfactory to say the least. The rich colors and numerous details will give you an impression of real world. The castles look great and powerful, and it is a real pleasure building them. The only annoying thing here is the view. The view is isometric and can be rotated in 90 degree steps. This sounds like an optimal solution, but it certainly is not. Until you get used to it, it will frequently cause you to leave holes in your defense. The rest of the interface is rather good. When you press the right mouse button a menu appears giving you useful options (zoom in/out, full screen on/off...). The worst thing in the game is the speed with which the engine responds to your commands - in order to select something, you will have to hold the left mouse button uncomfortably long and hard. This is not only annoying; it also slows the game down and makes it harder.

Unfortunately, a large part of the military campaign looks like an extra-long tutorial game. Enemy AI varies from unit to unit - siege engines (primarily catapults) act in a highly predictable way, but some other units proved to be surprisingly creative when it comes to combat tactics.

Stronghold's replay value was further increased by three additional factors. First, the game features a military multiplayer mode; second, the game ships with a powerful single and multiplayer scenario editor; and third, the economic game features the Free Build mode which is limited only by your imagination. The long winter night must just fly. Throughout the entire game you will listen to a great medieval soundtrack that substantially improves the atmosphere.

Stronghold is a long way from an ideal game, but most of its flaws are minor. Its versatility, non-linearity and great replay value make it an excellent choice nevertheless.


8.1   Very Good

Mission and campaign versatility, great graphics and sound, high replay value;

Slow command response, poorly designed view, slow gameplay.



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