“Wench! I ordered the fine platter of Stronghold 3, why d’ost thou come bearing Stronghold 2?”
“Begging your pardons, my lord, but this is Stronghold 3”
“Hogwash! Look closer and you can clearly see that… Wait. Oh deareth me. If you need me I’ll be in ye olde pube.”
Anyway let’s dispense with frivilries and get down to brass tax. I had to genuinely check I had the correct game. I do recall a game called Stronghold 3 being released on Steam recently but initial impressions made me double-check I had the same title. You see, I’m first bluntly alluding to the look of the game. The very first thing I do in any game is go to the graphical tab to set the resolution up from the feeble default. Oh, no 1920 x 1080? The first red flag. After opting for some strange resolution I jumped straight into the military campaign. After a quaint black and white comic-book story section I soon understood the lack of resolutions was not the only graphical shortcoming here. Despite some individual structures looking relatively attractive the low geographical detail and downright shoddy character models made me think I was back in 2006.
Unfortunately the graphics are not the only aspect from medieval times. I’ve been an RTS player for a good 20 years; I’ve seen it all. If I had to date the UI (control method) of Stronghold 3, I’d probably be going back to about the year 2000 when this would be acceptable. Early on you are expected to control your troops to garner the greatest strategic advantage. If you were to click on a unit, nothing would happen, you have to draw a control box around the units you want to select, from there you can right-click to select a target, seems a bit poor. The same goes for a lot of the buildings too, to select my barracks I would have to draw a neat little box on top of the building, unless units stationed on the roof, as it would select them instead, hmm. Luckily apart from the barracks you’ll have little need to click on any building, its only function being on or off, no possible tuning available, compunding the ever fragile economic system.
An army marches on its stomach i.e. a kingdom’s infrastructure is just as important as the army itself. The universal worker of Stronghold 3 is the peasant. Depending on thier overall happiness, a peasant will spawn from your centre roughly every 15 seconds until there is no more living space, when your people are happy, through meeting their needs, they will continue to spawn. The art of balancing food production and resource gathering with amenities while still leaving enough free peasants for your army is a tricky business. When all is flowing nicely this is an elegant system where subtle changes will gradually lead to significant changes. However with the aforementioned lack of building control or production feedback, often is the case your entire economy will collapse without any apparent cause. Recovery is possible, however with the high mission difficulty you may as well restart sooner rather than inevitably later. Another unpleasant consequence of this fragility is the lack of possible variety when it comes to building your stronghold. You will find a balanced economic build and have to stick to it rigidly lest it go all Greek. (not in that way you filthy gits)
Ah the missions, what a ball-ache they are. Taking the form of either military or economic campaign modes with story interludes, either set of missions are infuriatingly difficult and often unfair. The military missions are the continuation of the main story arc which sees you (The Boy) and a gang of rebels as the only force against the dominating Wolf and his unpleasant allies. Being on the rebel side often means you are on the defensive, trying to build up a sizable army while holding back the aggressive enemy forces. Though later missions see more advanced units, the ever-present fragile economy mostly restricts your use of them. If you do produce one unit though, be sure to get a trebuchet that can sling a sack of diseased badgers over a wall. It never feels that you are fighting your enemy though, the constant battle is inside your own walls, unrealistic production demands stifle your ability to field a force you’d be proud of. The economic campaign takes a slightly different role but no less difficult, instead you often have to gather a certain number of a resource in a strictly timed mode. The timers are so tight it seems the onus is to quickly procure the items than rather building an economy with a strong backbone, somewhat contradictory to the name. Overall Stronghold 3 squeezes you too tight, I can see the need to add tension to the scenarios, however the underlying systems are so temperamental that experimentation isn’t advised.
None of this would matter though, all of the faults mentioned above could be downgraded if Stronghold 3 got one thing right: the stronghold building. Nope, sorry to disappoint but you’ll be found wanting here too. The small size of the maps coupled with the finicky geography takes any real joy out of castle construction. Given the fact that the required number of buildings to sustain your economy is so high, any construction feels cramped and unaesthetic. Couple this with the fiddly controls for building walls and the seemingly random positions you can place fortifications and gates along them means that an unnecessary amount of work has to be put in to generate anything of beauty.
Ultimately Stronghold 3 fails to deliver. One could excuse the minor faults, however the real crushing blow is that the core concepts are so poorly implmented. A game called Stronghold should concentrate on the fortifications and warfare. Through poor design and too constrictive victory criteria Stronghold 3 has poisoned its own well with many changes that seem a genuine step back from the previous games in the series.
MLG Rating: 5/10
Platform: PC Release date: 25/10/11
Disclaimer: A digital version of Stronghold 3 was supplied by the promoter and played over the course of one week on a high-end gaming PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.
Post Patch re-visit.
Having suffered from issues straight out the gate, Stronghold 3 has received a bunch of recent patches to improve the experience and smooth over the bugs. And brilliantly they’ve made significant steps to making a promising title realise its potential.
By concentrating on the UI niggles Stronghold 3 feels like a different game – to be more accurate it feels like a game. The faults before broke any kind of immersion, in particular the ability to click on individual units/buildings. This isn’t the largest fix in the world, but its effect is instantly appreciated. It lets you get on with your business without having to double-check every time you click on something.
Various other tweaks have come along to smooth over the worst offenders. Several difficulties have been added and normal feels slightly easier. Lower food consumption allows some flexibility in the economy of your stronghold. However, the greatest tweak is the defensive bonus of fortified units. It always felt odd when a unit on top of a 50ft stone tower was only slightly better off than a man on the deck. Although it seems all troops are a descendant of Robin Hood i.e. every projectile always finds its mark, the buff to garrisoned units, however, helps mitigate this.
It’s still not a perfect combat system. Unfortunately nothing short of a complete overhaul to the ranged/melee system, including relative accuracy of a unit depending on factors such as terrain, height, living conditions and possibly even morale, is required to iron out all the issues, but it’s certainly much better.
Coming back to the economic side of the game, the lower food consumption rate has added some leniency to the build order. Before the patches it really was a chore to balance production with new building lest you crash your economy, this small change helps a great deal in maintaining a positive economy. Slight economic leniency is not the gold standard, however. I feel for Stronghold 3 to realise its greatest potential a more detailed and complex market system needs to be put in place, one that allows flexibility in castle builds and taking advantage of local resources in a buy/sell capacity.
Overall the general fixes in the last month have radically changed Stronghold 3. In fact it’s such a drastic change it warranted this post-patch write-up. Taking the patches into account Stronghold 3 has easily become an above average game, and whilst we stand by our original score for the release version of the title, with the patches we would grant it a 7/10.