A Crestfallen Sequel

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Being a fan of the Stronghold series, I waited a long time to see Stronghold 3 come to light. And I waited a long while to write this review too, hoping that all the patches would fix the many issues this game has. But I had to realize that no amount of patching would fix the problems Stronghold 3 has with its core gameplay. This is not a terrible game, but it’s frustrating because it could have been so, so much better than it is.

Here is a recipe to make a great Stronghold game. Take the gameplay elements found in the original, nothing more, nothing less. Update the graphics and sound for modern systems, and release the game. Developer Firefly apparently learned nothing from the failure that was Stronghold 2, with all those bad 3D graphics and complicated honor goods system. Heck, Stronghold Legends online has better gameplay than Stronghold 3.

But let’s start at the beginning. Stronghold 3 takes place ten years after the events of the original game. The boy hero of the first game is now a king, but the Wolf apparently escaped death and retreated to the Middle East. Now he’s back with some unruly friends, and wants revenge on the people (that’s you) who kicked him out of England. He’s also fairly crazy now, though he’s still brilliant with tactical strategy.

There are four ways to play Stronghold 3, not counting multiplayer which is pretty buggy. There are two main campaigns, one for the economic side of things and one for warfare. Both have elements of the other in them. You still have to grow food in the military campaign and you still have to fight in the economic campaign. But the emphasis is on one or the other. There is also a free-build mode where you can just create a town and a castle without worry. And there are historical sieges where you can either defend or attack in single battles. A map editor lets you create your own battles and share them with friends online.

The core of the game is the two main campaigns, and I was happy to find a nice introduction movie for each mission on both. This sets the mood and gives you the bigger picture. It gets you ready to drop in and start your mission.

Unfortunately, here is where you will begin to see some cracks in the Stronghold 3 armor. The biggest flaw in terms of gameplay is the need to put a grassy yard around each and every building you place. In the original Stronghold you could stack buildings together as much as you wanted, and I don’t see why you can’t in Stronghold 3. Show me any medieval city (or any modern city for that matter) where each building has to have a grassy border around it. The game even puts borders around clumps of trees and rocks, which prevents you from efficiently using your space. Some missions even flaunt this, giving you very limited space to work with, and forcing you to puzzle ways to turn and twist your buildings until they can fit just right (if you are lucky) within the little octagon or other weird shape created by the borders of other objects. What should be a natural process, placing buildings, becomes a frustrating exercise instead.

Walls also have borders around them, which makes them close to impossible to place they way you want for your fortress. The original Stronghold let you build walls wherever you wanted, right to the edge of the map, between buildings, whatever. So long as there was space for the wall, you could construct it. Not here. Walls even have to be spaced away from other walls, so you can’t easily join a wall into another one or your steward will complain that the angle is too steep or some nonsense, when in reality the little grassy lawns are simply touching.

The end result is that you are almost always going to have a hole in your fortification and even stupid animals like wolves are going to rush your town and shoot thorough those holes. So the spacing is really an issue when applied to walls, and there really is no good reason for it other than to frustrate players and not let them construct how they want. So what if you can dream up a perfect fortress with interlocking fields of fire and multiple gatehouses? You probably won’t be able to build it. Can you imagine if a game like Warcraft or Age of Empires put a stupid requirement like a border zone around walls and buildings on its players? The RTS genre may never have taken off.

On some missions you are supposed to have resource gatherer units go and, for example, cut down trees. This theoretically will remove the border around the clump of trees and let you build there. The problem is that you have no control over your peasants whatsoever. You can build a woodcutter camp near the trees you want removed, but that is no guarantee that they will target that group of woods. All units are like that. Your healer will run off into the deep woods to remove a plague cloud that is a danger to nothing but squirrels while ignoring another one that is hovering over your main campfire and killing all your peasants, preventing you from growing your town. I thought I was playing Majesty there for a second, but at least in that game you can bribe your people to do what you want. Here you just have to watch as they perform stupid and counterproductive jobs.

But back to the odd spaces around everything. I might be going out on a limb here, but I think the reason for the gap is the horrible path finding AI in the game. Without a space around EVERYTHING, my guess is that units and peasants would get stuck every time they ran into an L-shaped building. But in fixing that problem, they really kind of broke a game where you are supposed to be able to construct, you know, strongholds.

The other huge issue is the lack of control over military units. Even if you somehow build a thriving economy spread out over a huge area with neat little spaces all around everything, you still will probably get stomped when you take to the field of battle. Units only have three stances, aggressive, defensive and hold ground. Aggressive is terrible because it means everyone will break ranks and chase down enemies forever, which means your units will probably be killed. Defensive is not much better. And hold ground works for wall defense, but means that troops will stand around watching their buddies being killed a few feet away.

Moving units is a bigger pain however. There is no way to lock them into formation. And they move at vastly different speeds. So you form your men up into a nice defensive square and have them begin to march. Only your lord runs ahead of everyone else like a kid trying to catch an ice cream truck. And if he dies, the mission ends. Light troops also tend to out-distance the heavy warriors that are supposed to protect them. So if you don’t watch every single footstep an army takes, you will end up with archers engaged in melee, your lord surrounded by wolves and your defensive warriors too far away to help. A simple "stay in formation" command would alleviate this. Knights may not be able to walk faster, I get that, but archers could walk slower. And your lord could certainly cool his jets a bit.

All this makes the game much more difficult than it needs to be. I don’t mind a strategic challenge, but dying because wolves are streaming through my walls which I can’t close even though I have the materials to do so, or not harvesting stone because it’s behind some woods that my woodcutters are ignoring, or watching my troops get cut down like tissue paper because the light and ranged guys ran forward is just frustrating.

Couple that with the fact that the tutorial is almost worthless for anything beyond how to move the camera, and you have a game that could have been really good, but just turned out not enjoyable. The tutorial should tell you things like, grain does not go to the granary. It goes to the stockpile instead. I learned a lot of these things by working in free build mode for hours on end, trying to create every type of building and watching where the peasants go and how they behave. And I’m a longtime stronghold player. Someone without a lot of experience with this series would be completely lost.

Also, after experimenting a lot with the walls, I did find out that stone constructions were a bit more forgiving than wooden ones. You can even put towers overlapping the walls, but still can’t easily create internal ones, like if you have two sets of walls and want one to run between them so your troops can have access to either one in an emergency. Still, if you put a lot of time into Stronghold 3, you can figure out how to make the game work with you. It’s a lot harder than it needs to be, but you can come to some sort of understanding where its more playable.

Even after studying the game, I found that after wrestling with the economic and military campaigns for a long time, I turned off Stronghold 3 and loaded up the original game, and its awesome sequel Stronghold Crusader, and remembered why we all loved the series in the first place. I built amazing castles and towns without restriction, placed hundreds of archers on the walls and watched as the enemy came over the hill. Or I lined up my catapults and went after an enemy stronghold, going "once more into the breech!" It was exciting and fun. In Crusader, I even took on eight enemy lords with my castle in one corner, and beat them in a tough fight.

Yes, Stronghold 3 has better graphics and a nice soundtrack (though the original game’s soundtrack is arguably better). But, Stronghold 3 loses out because the gameplay just isn’t there like the original game. Sometimes games will lose their focus in the rush to add in new features. But that’s not the case here. There really aren’t a lot of "new" things to tout. It’s just there were some very questionable design choices added in that kind of ruin the fun. I will say that some of the patches, there has been a flurry, have made things in Stronghold 3 more bearable, especially in the control of armies, but I doubt some of the core problems will ever get fixed.

As it stands now, Stronghold 3 is not even really an average strategy game. It could probably be an awesome game in the way that the original was, but I doubt that will happen. And that’s the saddest thing of all. There is so much potential right there below the grimy surface. It breaks my heart to do so, but I can only award Stronghold 3 an average 3 GiN Gem final score. I’m crestfallen, and so is this game.

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