by Take 2 Interactive/Godgames
For the last three years we have been treated to a quality historic RTS. Impressions have given us Caesar 3 (1998) Pharaoh (1999) and Zeus (2000). However the historic RTS comes from a different source this year as Firefly Studios brings us Stronghold. Medieval siege warfare is the name of the game as Stronghold deals with both the battles to hold on to the castle and the economic running of the community between the castle walls.
Stronghold calls itself a castle sim, which it is of course, but it would be silly to merely think that it was solely about castles. The main focus of the game is siege warfare but because of the completeness with which Firefly Studios have created the game it contains a lot more than castle battles. The game contains both a military campaign and an economic campaign. In case you're wondering the economic campaign isn't free from military responsibilities and the military campaign isn't free from economic responsibilities. It's more a case of changing the ratio. The economic mode requires you to maintain a small amount of military units for defence purposes whilst the military campaigns require you to run a minimalistic economy to support the production of a large military force.
The variety within the game is astounding. As well as the two campaigns there are economic missions, sieges, invasions and a free play mode. The sieges are what most people are going to interested in and they are a joy to behold. Trebuchets, catapults, battering rams, boiling oil pourers and pitch pits are all here and very authentic they look too. After watching several programs on medieval siege warfare recently I can honestly say that Firefly have done a remarkable job on recreating the atmosphere of these battles. Creating a castle in Stronghold is brilliant. All the options are here. Pitch ditches, a variety of towers, turrets, traps and crenelated walls are all at your disposal. Moats can also be dug around the castle to further increase your defence
The resource element of the game will be very familiar to those of you that have played other RTS games. Wood is the primary resource as it is needed for virtually everything. There are hunters, dairy farms, apple orchards and wheat farms that are available for you to build to sustain your people. Stronghold will surprise many gamers by just how deep into detail the game has gone with none military units. Healers, jugglers, market traders, the list goes on and on.
The key factor within the game is popularity. In the Impressions games that I mentioned earlier you had to keep your city appealing in order to keep and attract civilians. While these games had several factors to keep an eye on Stronghold has streamlined the suitability to just one popularity statistic. Popularity ranges from 0-100 and anything below 50 will probably see people leaving your settlement. The major factors that affect your popularity are tax rates, the supply and variation of food and fear of attack.
Graphically the game has gone for the classic 2D isometric view. This does give the game a dated look but it is hard to argue against it as it has proved so successful with games of this type. What can be argued against though is the poor rotation mechanism. Hold down the right mouse and up pops a control interface. This allows you to rotate the map, zoom out, drop the control panel from the bottom of the screen and temporarily collapse the tall buildings. They all work fine apart from the rotate choice. By placing the mouse pointer over the icon the map rotates through the possible angles. The only trouble is that it feels fiddly. You can hold down the Ctrl key and use the left and right cursor (arrow) keys which is smoother but a better onscreen method would have been better.
The real beauty of the game is that it is fully accessible to deaf gamers. The only blip being that the introduction is not subtitled. All information within the game is provided textually. Warnings of approaching enemies are given in text and you're never left to feel like you don't know what's going on. The in-game help is also excellent and provides important information on the various buildings and units. The manual has been well done and gives you a concise description of the basic elements of the game. Rather than just passing you off with a leaflet, like so many of today's games do, Stronghold has a manual that answers any questions you might have about familiarising yourself with the game.
Stronghold is a very well rounded strategy game. The game is familiar enough to appeal to RTS veterans but yet refreshingly different. The emphasis on building a strong defence really gives the game an original slant. If you are at all interested in RTS games, you're going to be bowled over with the gameplay on offer here. From Explosive castle sieges to the tranquil free play mode Stronghold has something to offer everyone.
Overall Game Rating: 9.1/10 The greatest castle sim ever.
Quality of text: 9/10 The only real fault I could find was the missing subtitles on the cutscenes.
Graphics: 8/10 Although pleasing the 2D isometric view is a bit long in the tooth now.
Visual Presentation: 10/10 The game presentation is beautiful.
Interface: 9/10 Superb. The only fault being the rotate map method.
Gameplay: 9.5/10 Whether you're defending a castle or firing the trebuchets, Stronghold will keep you glued to your monitor.