A man’s home may be his castle, but if you want to keep your Middle Ages home safe, then it better be a stronghold.
Fans of the old Castles series will be overjoyed to discover a new realtime castle building sim for their PC. Players become the chief architect for wooden Motte and Bailey castles, advanced stone concentric designs or even fortresses never before seen. Of course you also have train archers, crossbow men, pike men, knights and others to man your defenses against armies that would like nothing better than to fill in your moats, climb over or bash through your beautiful walls and slaughter your people like caged rats. Truly, in the lawless world you find yourself in, a stone wall (and some dedicated defenders) is all that keeps your organized society safe from harm.
The game is amazingly well put together. Mission goals are read using realistic voices and most of the time they are accompanied by animations from the main characters in the game. Even the different histories of the bad guys you will face are well flushed out, even though their histories have little effect on the game other than to help set the mood.
The plot of the game is that four despots have taken control of England. You are part of a small rebel force residing in the last remaining free county. For the most part, you have been overlooked. You have to put together a hasty defense and beat off a few scouting parties. Then you strike out and start to take over new counties. The gameplay alternates between defending a territory by building up an infrastructure and defense, building up an outpost and then attacking a larger fort on the same map, and outright sieges where you lead hundreds of men against a fortified castle. Mostly, the game concentrates on defensive missions.
Those of you who have played the awesome Castles series will notice a lot of similarities and quite a few differences. In Stronghold you don’t really act as the leader of the land. Nobody will come to you with "wisdom of Solomon" questions about who should raise a child as was the staple of Castles. In Stronghold, you are in the territory to conduct a military campaign for the most part. And you aren’t the king anyway, so you probably could care less about matters of state. In Stronghold however, you will have to build up a thriving economy on every mission, except when you are conducting a straight siege.
Building up the economy means producing enough food for your peasants, mining enough stone to put into the castle walls, chopping enough wood to construct almost every building in town and brewing ale and making churches (separately we hope) to keep people happy. In return, your peasants will fill all available living spaces and work hard to bring in the resources you need to build your economy. It takes some balancing to get a thriving economy going because you have to decide things like if bringing in more peasants is worth the cost in food they will eat.
Once you have collected resources however, you can pretty much instantly put them to use. You can drag and drop stone or wooden walls into place as you build up your fortress, so long as you have enough raw materials in your stockpile and are not currently under attack. If you have the weapons available, you can recruit new men for your army as long as you have the gold to pay them and a free peasant.
Peasants taken out of the economy for army duty are replaced so long as there is free living space and your popularity is above 50 percent. Popularity can be kept high by feeding everyone, brewing ale, building churches and buying nice things like communal gardens for your people. Thankfully, once you pay to bring a soldier into your army, they are considered fed and happy until you get them killed, so you don’t have to worry about feeding your army. Apparently that is what the upfront gold cost is for during recruitment.
Once the pitch hits the fan, the game really shines. Attacking a medieval castle is hard work. So is defending it. Basically, if you build enough towers and pack them full of archers, you should do fine at the lower levels, though you wont be able to put guys on top of walls early in the game, because you can only build wooden structures which are just sharpened logs put tightly together. For beautiful castle designs, you need nice stone structures that come later.
The game is setup like a tutorial of sorts, as each mission gives access to new troops or structures like crenulated walls to help hide your archers, knights to run quick sorties outside the castle, pitch ditches that can be ignited to create a real painful barbeque for your enemies and powerful siege engines to topple enemy walls. In this manner, the player is never given too much information at once.
In addition to the combat campaign, you can also play a series of economic missions where you have to gather certain resources in generally mass quantities under adverse conditions. Some of the economic missions also contain some combat in the form of bandits trying to raid your keep.
You can also play in multiplayer mode against other castle builders. Multiplayer is pretty fun, but you have to play with a good group of people to avoid a rush. For example, if everyone agrees that no combat will take place for 15 minutes, then you can concentrate on building up some castles. In that case you might have one army trying to attack a castle meeting another on the same mission. Then you have a three-way battle going on which is great fun. There is a growing community of players who use the included tools to create new scenarios too, so you can find quite a few new castles online to defend or attack.
Unfortunately, the game right out of the box has more bugs than a medieval meat pie. It’s so bad that if the artificial intelligence can’t figure out a way to siege your new super-castle, the game will crash. A patch fixes most of these problems and is 100 percent needed, especially for multiplayer. The patch however is almost 8M, so users on slower connections are going to have to wait a while to get it up and running. Post-patch, the AI is still a little on the silly side when defending, especially enemy archers that can be tricked into getting shot at and not returning fire.
Minor AI issues aside however, this is one of the most fun games I have played in a long time. Late at night the game even had to tell me several times to go to bed.
"Sire, you have not slept in days!" the games frantic narrator would chime as I stayed up way past my bedtime playing. And that is the true test of any game.