A Storm of Swords: Stronghold 3 Preview

By Alec Meer on June 28th, 2011 at 4:00 pm.

I'd never build a castle that neat. NEVER.

I went to see Firefly’s long-awaited strategy sequel Stronghold 3 last week. It’s a game about constructing some castles and destroying others, and it looks rather jolly. But jolly in a ‘squalid medieval life and constant war’ kind of way. Here’s some details, impressions and even some trailers for you…

They had me at ‘sacks full of diseased badgers.’ Game devs – if you want an instant way to my heart, include badgers. I fondly remember going to see Neverwinter Nights back in the day and being delighted by the inclusion of Dire Badgers, then persuading passing Bioware chaps to show me how to use the toolset to create a level featuring a badger invasion.

I digress. One of castle sim/medieval strategy game Stronghold 3’s many smaller features is the option to hurl plague-infected animals over the walls of a hard-to-siege enemy fortress, thus sowing horror, sickness and despair among the populace. The choice is yours: one cow, a couple of sheep or a sackful of badgers. Each results in a different kind of disease-cloud, and a different sort of disgusting. The badgers, incidentally, were voted the winning carrier by Stronghold fans presented with a choice of third beast. They chose well.


All this talk of badgers might seem to be ignoring what Stronghold 3 really is, but actually it shines a light on exactly why it’s so appealing. 2001 castle game Stronghold pushed proper building front-in-centre in a strategy game, with the emphasis being on designing, erecting and expanding a stone fortress that could both sustain its own economy and fend off invading armies, rather than on prefab insta-buildings that spawned magic soldiers. However, the sequel opted to go for masses of over-complication – nobly so, but feature creep is feature creep. An example the devs note is how petty crime cropped up within your settlement almost right away, which required you to build a guardhouse to protect against more of it, a dungeon to house captured crims in, a court to trial them in, a torture chamber to rehabilitate them in… All told, a whole lot of fussy micro-management that kept you distracted from building a bloody great castle and winning a war.

Stronghold 3, then, aims to take the best of both games, striving for a back to basics approach with the best features of 2 retained alongside new elements which genuinely add to the whole affair rather than just add busywork. Features like using sacks of diseased badgers as a weapon.

Features like a fog of war that actually makes some kind of logical sense. In the daytime, you can see pretty much whatever’s going on, but the thing about night-time is… well, it’s dark, right? Really, really dark. If you don’t have some lights out there, you’re not going to be able to see much. No night-vision in the 11th Century, see. So, a sensible thing to do would be the build another couple of watchtowers then get an archer to lob a flaming arrow at the beacons on top of ‘em. Tada – instant light. Or, at least, in a certain area. Chappies wandering around with olde worlde torches will also offer you very small-scale illumination, but it might well be the difference between spotting an enemy siege is on its way and suddenly discovering that your ramparts are so many stone crumbs. The night sieges, if all goes well, will be atmospheric, tense standoffs in grim, claustrophobic conditions, with the element of surprise potentially turning the tables for even an impeccably-defended fortress.

Speaking of stone crumbs, let me offer you a phrase: procedurally-generated walls. How about that, huh? Smack a bloody great boulder into an enemy’s fortifications and you won’t see a neat square of pseudo-stone vanish and leave behind an all-too-angular hole. Nope, you’ll see the rock eaten way and showering stony splinters onto the ground, with a bit of help from Havok physics. Focus fire! Bring that wall down! It looks like a siege, rather than a canned animation. It’s exactly what a game about attacking and defending castles should look like, and its engine (the same one that Ubisoft used to fine effect in the most recent Settlers) seems very much up to the job.

The procedural funtimes extend to construction as well as destruction, with walls and buildings now become fully rotatable and gently deforming so that they neatly match up with whatever you’re trying to attach them to. This, if all goes to plan, will be your castle, and not just something you’ve managed to make fit the grid. (Speaking of which, map-sharing will be enabled, and a service to quickly grab third-party creations provided. How they’re going to filter out all the inevitable genital-shaped castles remains to be seen, but they’re aware of the terrible potential).

This being a strategy game, there’s obviously a fair amount of fighting in there. Economy and war are closely interwoven, with chopped wood going towards arrow-making and that sort of thing, but more nervous souls will be calmed by news that it’s not just a war game. Beyond the need to build, upgrade and defend your own castle then siege others, there’s also citizen happiness – affected by anything from tax rates to crappy weather to a visit from the king. Take advantage of the cheer caused by the latter to bump up taxes for a while and stock that warchest, or realise that constant rain and battle is getting spirits (and thus efficiency) down, so ease up on the money-grubbing.

In fact, the game’s even promised to have a bonus, economy-only campaign with all war removed, for those who (like me) prefer a bit of interrupted sandboxing instead of the pressure to shed blood. This will allow you to double down on stuff like the honour system, which enables you to convert nearby settlements to join up with you without so much as raising your voice. An estate might provide bonuses such as cheese or pork, so pick what’s going to make your own guys happiest and work on winning its provider over.

There’s a ton of for-the-hell-of-it detail in there too, such as old ladies bashing rats (or their layabout husbands) with brooms, or kids kicking chickens or jeering at sadsacks locked into the torture devices in the town square. It should be satisfying to build up your world and watch it live.

The fighting does sound pretty promising, though. I might have to get off my weak, pacifist fence and have a crack at it after all. If only for the option to release cages of angry dogs at incoming swordsmen. There’s a problem with angry dogs who’ve been kept in cages, of course. They’re angry. And just as likely to attack the guys who kept them in cages as they are the guys who are walking towards them. Use your angry dogs wisely, and preferably from a safe distance.

Also in the mix are stake traps, which messily impale those who walk over them and, even better, whittle away the health of any soldiers who are locked in place by an obstacle or opposing force. Then there’s the burning logs you can chuck over your battlements at your besiegers. It evokes a little bit of Dungeon Keeper’s sadistic strategising, and that’s something which will always grab my attention. (The in-game advisor, despite being a lady rather than a sibilant evil guy, also evokes DK quite a bit: “you are somewhat disliked, my lord.”)

The actual blade-on-blade stuff looks like solid stuff too. I didn’t get a full sense of how much direct control you had, but per-character swordplay animations rather than an unreal horde of synchronicity gives it a pleasingly brutal Game of Thrones vibe.

The proof will be in the hands-on pudding, and with September the hoped-for release date we’ve not go long to wait to find out. I admit I’ve tended to regard the Stronghold games as possibly a bit too ponderous for my tastes, but this latest one, as well as looking rather pretty, seems to have all the entry points, satisfying depth and non-fussiness I like from a strategy game. There’s much to prove, especially as it’s been long years since the last full Stronghold so fan-love can no longer be taken for granted, but they’re making the right noises for now. And they have diseased badgers! Honestly, I just can’t wait to throw a sack of those at somebody.

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74 Comments »

  1. jellydonut says:

    Surely you’re doing it on purpose now?

    At least this time I wasn’t immediately shocked into believing it was an ASOIAF game. ^_^

  2. Kaira- says:

    Hopefully it’ll be good, Stronghold 1 is still one of my favourite RTS-games of all time.

    • Rich says:

      Really enjoyed the economic side, but I was very disappointed with the sieges the first time I saw pikemen and mace men chipping my wall down by hand.

  3. Pathetic Phallacy says:

    Let us hope Stronghold 3 is not as bug riddled as Stronghold 2.

    • UnravThreads says:

      And even if it is, so what? It’s bound to be more enjoyable and interesting than most other ‘bigger’ releases this year.

      Bugs do not a bad game make. It’s bad decisions, bad direction and bad mechanics that make a bad game.

    • Pathetic Phallacy says:

      @UnravThreads: No, bugs really do make a bad game.

      Stronghold 2 was buggy for years after its release. Multi was almost unplayable sometimes. Maybe you didn’t play it, but this wasn’t like a tiny little glitch, these were huge issues.

      If a game is riddled with problems and bugs, it’s not a good game. How could anyone play a video game that is almost unplayable and then walk away saying ‘oh yeah, it’s a great game . . . when you’re able to play it without it going insane with glitches and crashes’ I would think that person was either a masochist or an idiot. Game creation is more than just mechanics, direction and ‘decisions’.

    • ArcaneSaint says:

      It’s the “decision” to release a game in a bug-ridden state that makes a bad game. It’s the “direction” of not testing properly because otherwise it would take too much time that makes a bad game.

    • UnravThreads says:

      @Pathetic Phallacy
      Saints Row 2′s abysmal port didn’t stop it being a good game.
      BioShock 1 + 2′s bloated-ness didn’t stop them being good games.
      The Witcher’s bugginess didn’t stop it garnering a lot of support and success.

      Yes, they were negatively affected by them, but the games themselves were not made bad because of the bugs. If you look at some of the more prominent bad games, what made them bad? Was it due to bugs, or was it poor direction? Yeah, bugs will have some effect, but they are not solely the reason a game is bad. They can and will contribute to it (See the often cited arguments against Games for Windows Live), but they will very rarely be the sole reason a game is declared bad.

  4. Rii says:

    I remember using the editor in the first game to build a veritable Death Star of a fortress and being disappointed that I couldn’t seem to get the AI to attack in anything like enough numbers to make a dent in it.

    Good to see they’re making another one!

  5. MCM says:

    I wish you could combine a serious builder like this with a more free-ranging RPG, like Mount & Blade. Sadly, it’s probably impractical to put such different games together. I guess that’s what Dwarf Fortress tries to do, but as a result, there’s no time to add graphics!

    • abremms says:

      M&B with stronghold-stle economy management and castle building would literaly be the death of me. I already have trouble remembering to sleep when playing either one of them, combining them would likely prove fatal.

      BUT TOTALY WORTH IT.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Oh my, yes. M&B with a better economy, more city building, and the ability to command more than one army – even if it’s implemented in a realistic way where you need to send messengers.

      Or Stronghold expanded into a wide, open world. A modern quad core could probably handle something like that.

      More games where I can set out to conquer the world in any way I choose, please.

    • Bullfrog says:

      There are mods which allow you to give troops to your companions and have them act as lords. Native Expansion probably does it the best.

    • MCM says:

      Giving troops to companions who act as lords is basic functionality in Warband. No mod required.

      And that’s not really what we were talking about. We were talking about castle building and economy. It’s be nice to have real castles and sieges with siege engines and building walls and catapults instead of just the silly sieges Warband has now.

  6. Defiant Badger says:

    I will not stand for this Badger tossing. Diseased or not.

  7. RICHO says:

    By the screens… something is sure, the lost the magic of the beautiful Stronghold1 look after leaving 2D…

    • Bodminzer says:

      Stronghold one was an absolute dog to look at. There are/were games with lovely hand drawn 2d graphics, and SH1s muddy, grainy prerendered blobs were not they.

    • OpT1mUs says:

      Bodminzer, you’re out of your mind.
      Stronghold 1 had beautiful graphics that totally fitted the theme and atmosphere of the game.

      I remember when I first saw a announcement of the game in some magazine, the first thing that drew me to it is how beautiful it looked…

    • Bodminzer says:

      To use extremely curated and specific examples to make my point (Hey, it’s the internet!)

      Stronghold (2001) The walls look ok, but the grass and characters are horrid bitmap messes
      http://www.deafgamers.com/stronghold008.jpg

      (Tried to find a screen that had roughly the same sort of stuff on it)
      Age of Empires II (1999) Lovely crisp visuals, units very distinct, trees/ground decorations clearly visible
      http://www.gameogre.com/reviewdirectory/upload/Age%20of%20Empires%202.jpg

      Just to round off my needless derail, let’s try a more extreme example:
      The first C&C (1995) http://www.oldschoolapps.com/files/img/commandandconquer.png
      Again look at the rocks and trees, for the colour palette/resolutions of the time very clean and distinct.

    • Araxiel says:

      I think Stronghold 1, as much as I loved it, did not look beautiful. It was indeed muddy and brown and grainy (hey, just like NextGen manshooters).
      …but it was not a dog to look at. It was good and had it own style. Once my big fortress was set up, I enjoyed watching my guards guarding the guardshouse, my woodchoppers chooping wood and my peasants peasanting around.

      On the other hand, I think your examples are badly chosen. C&C does look and did look like utter trash and AoE was far to colourful and bright for a game based in the medieval era. But it made sense since it’s a competitive game with a focuse on combat (or rather only combat, the economy was nearly non-existend) and thus one has to be able to distinguish between buildings and units and does not need decoration.
      So in conclusion, I think Stronghold had exaclty the appropriate graphics for what it was.

  8. Tei says:

    There are badgers in europe? *insert mony python joke here*

  9. Vadermath says:

    As awesome as this was, Mr. Meer, I do believe I still owe you a kick in the nutsack for making me believe, for a split second, that this was info on the new ASOIF game.

  10. Gothnak says:

    Although i’m looking forwards to it, it doesn’t half look like Warrior Kings: Battles that i worked on almost 8 years ago.. :s

  11. Bodminzer says:

    This looks lovely. Hopefully they still have the mode where you spend a set time building the bigest castle you could with unlimited resources, and seeing how long it lasted against an enormous attack.

  12. Tatourmi says:

    AHOY! The king of turtling is back in town! Good times ahead!

  13. Koozer says:

    I hope there’s an animation of a woman hitting a sheet with a cat.

  14. beatbox32 says:

    Badgers? We don’t need no stinking (rotting, diseased) badgers!

  15. Oreb says:

    Much like Claude Monet, the art director of this game seems to have developed terrible cataracts. By which I mean, why is everything so yellow?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/04/science/04impr.html

    Also, yay Stronghold 3!

  16. MiniTrue says:

    Lovely. I still miss the beautiful graphics of the original (which I personally have found more atmospheric than those of any strategy game to date), but the procedural destruction physics and continuation of the original’s storyline should save the day.

  17. Ginger Yellow says:

    So looking forward to this. Stronghold 2 was so nearly great, and I love city builders in general. The no-warfare mode pleases me, as I tend to ignore warfare as much as possible in games like Anno or Caesar. Though I’m willing to give Stronghold a pass on that given you are building a castle after all.

  18. Vinraith says:

    I dimly recall playing a demo for the second one and not being particularly impressed, but I’m getting the sense from these comments that I may have missed something by never having tried the first one?

    • ezekiel2517 says:

      You certainly have missed something. It’s on GOG if you want to give it a try.

    • Fumarole says:

      Since you turned me on to Sword of the Stars I owe it to you to recommend the first Stronghold. The great single player game is made even more fun by the fact that you can design castles for your friends to assail. Watching them hurl themselves pitifully against your walls and fall victim to your pitch traps is tremendous fun.

    • Vinraith says:

      Thanks guys, I’ll have a look at it. I gather Stronghold 2 wasn’t very good, what’s the word on Crusader?

    • FKD says:

      I have beaten the first Stronghold several times and was quite excited when Crusader came out but was kind of let down. There really did not seem to be much of a story more then you are just going from battle to battle on your way to the Holy Land or something along those lines. And for some reason I found it just rediculously hard! You have the option of skipping some battles and I tried that to get past where I was bogged down but to no avail..it was just impossible (for me) about 1/3 of the way through or some such. I think it was because the AI kept spamming the torch bearers so I was busy focusing and wasting resources on setting up defenses/ers against them. And then they would just march in with their heavy infantry :/

      But yes, Stronghold 2 was…different. To me it felt like they were wanting to make a “true 3d RTS” and it just..did not look right..let alone work right.

  19. Batolemaeus says:

    Finally, some good news that are relevant to my interest.
    Looking forward to this, which has become a very rare thing.

  20. A-Scale says:

    Stronghold was great for a few reasons
    1. An attractive, unique art style.
    2. Cool minute details, like the fact that the game would say “Merry Christmas, Jim!” (and actually say your name, provided it was in their database) on Christmas Day. That’s still one of the coolest things a game has ever done in my opinion.
    3. Made building and defending castles and economies great fun.

    This game looks like it will capture all of those things. I am very, very excited.

    For Stronghold lovers interested in playing some Stronghold a little sooner, Stronghold Kingdoms is pretty good fun and is probably out of alpha by now.

    • runtheplacered says:

      Unless you’re not a christian.. in which case it’s a little awkward.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      Yeah, I wish more games would greet you by your name. Screw those people that fall off the list of the most 100 or so common names!

    • The Colonel says:

      Ha ha I still fondly remember Black and White saying “Alllleeexxxx” instead of “Deeaaaathhh” when people were dying everywhere. That even had the ability to import your email address book to give the villagers names of your friends. And you could make it replicate the weather outside.

      On a side note is Fable III worth paying for?

    • timmyvos says:

      Greetings Lord Vader.

    • A-Scale says:

      Wow Colonel I didn’t know B&W could do that. Where did you enter your name?

      Also, Fable 3 is rubbish. Do not get it.

  21. Zorganist says:

    I wonder whether the mill-baker ratio will be more sensible this time round. Mills in Stronghold 1 could support enough bakeries to reinforce every inch of my castle’s walls. It was ridiculous.

  22. the_fanciest_of_pants says:

    Huzzah!

    And from the sounds of that trailer they have the completely brilliant and underrated Robert Euvino back for some astoundingly good Mandolin music;

  23. svge says:

    Did anyone else think that trailer was hilariously incoherent/bad?

    • Zenicetus says:

      Yeah, not much actual gameplay footage there, especially combat. I wanted to see what happened to those soldiers when the fireball (or whatever it was) hit. Also, someone needs to tell those villagers that you don’t just let cows and pigs roam around loose.

      Anyway, sounds like a game I could like, if it’s solid on release. I didn’t play the earlier Stronghold games, and the castle siege and defense has gone steadily downhill in the Total War series. They were pretty good in Rome. Medieval 2 should have been great, but dropped a lot of things (like sapping and boiling oil, IIRC). Empire sieges were boring with terrible AI. Shogun 2 has slightly better AI but the castles aren’t really castles in the usual sense. I want a proper castle to build, defend, and attack, with all the goodies like moats, boiling oil, catapults. Diseased badgers sound like fun. I hope they include sappers, and tunnel-collapse for the defenders.

    • UnravThreads says:

      @Zeni;
      Hope over to Gog and get the first Stronghold. Chances are it’s just what you’re looking for, and it’ll tide you over until Stronghold 3.

  24. Kakrafoon says:

    Stronghold 3 going back to its roots – I approve, your Lordship!

    What worries me a bit are the red and blue borders that are visible in the corners of some screenshots. Stronghold can very well do without an arbitrary territory system. I traditionally defined my territory in Stronghold by how far my archers could shoot.

    What I would also also like:

    - A reason to actually build walls. In the old games, even a bunch of spearmen could take down a section of stone wall in no time. I want walls that really work as obstacles!

    - Better assault ladders; there should be a difference between taking a castle by storm with ladders, and slowly battering a breach into a wall.

    - The ability to place buildings on the map BEFORE they would be occupied by a worker needs to be addressed. It was totally annoying that the AI constantly put woodcutters, apple orchards and quarrys right in front of my defensive towers, only to have whole villages of poor lumberjacks, apple farmers and quarry workers shot by my men.

    - Some kind of healing feature for the troops. I hated that I had to sacrifice my knights once their life bar was down.

  25. destroy.all.monsters says:

    Is “the boy” his ex-lover? Angry Grampa sure has a hard on for him.

    Or maybe he stole AG’s dentures when they were soaking. I guess that would make me mad too. Not ten years worth of mad though.

  26. Pijama says:

    Okay, solid feudal economy, Dungeon Keeper-esque tactics with war dogs and stakes, night-time sieges, attention to detail and glorious medieval clashing? PLUS PLAGUE WEAPONRY?

    FUCKIN’ SOLD

    • field_studies says:

      Only problem for me (in the trailers and this RPS article) is that virtually all of the mentioned ‘features’ were in the first and second Stronghold…

      Dogs, stakes, plague weaponry, grabbing estates with honour, a ‘peaceful’ campaign, the balance between financials and population happiness… even the audio clips used in the trailer are straight from Stronghold 2.

      Don’t get me wrong—I’m really looking forward to this game, and really enjoyed all the previous iterations, but with the exception of some of the more flexible building features and the day-night cycle, a lot of what’s apparently on offer isn’t new to long-time Stronghold fans.

  27. Mattressi says:

    Wow, absolutely do want! Never played the other two (think I’ll try out the original now), but this looks and sounds amazing.

  28. Real Horrorshow says:

    For me, Stronghold and Stronghold: Crusader are the definition of nostalgia.

    Stronghold 2…not so much.

    Do it right this time, guys.

  29. KingJason13 says:

    I’m sooooo F**KING HAPPY!!!!

  30. MrEvilGuy says:

    I remember my absolute disappointment when I found out that custom maps/mods could not be used with Stronghold: Crusader Extreme. If you wanted the big numbers, you needed to play within the set boundaries of the developers.
    :(
    I hope Stronghold 3 allows for both lots of custom design, and I hope the engine can support enormous amounts of soldiers (if someone could have the potential to make a really cool Helm’s Deep simulation (with custom skins and all) that would be swell).

  31. Tams80 says:

    I loved Stronghold just for the fact that it was an RTS where you could actually have units ON the ramparts (looking at you you Age of Empires). A weird niggle, I know, but it really made the games great. Not that I was ever any good at Stronghold games.

    P.S. Alec, now that you’ve mentioned your love of badgers, expect one in BF3 in 3…2..1… nvm.

    • Kakrafoon says:

      Oh yes. Age of Empires – all of you – you should go and hide in shame. Don’t get me wrong, you were also made of greatness, but you weren’t a game for fortress builders. You only offered us those skimpy un-garrisonable watchtowers, and your walls were a joke, designed only to buy some time against melee units while the archers and the musketeers just fired through them. Bah.

    • FKD says:

      Ooo! I agree completely! I remember when Castles 2: Siege and Conquest (back before AoE) came out and I saw a screenshot where you could build a castle and I thought “NEAT! I can build my own dream castle AND put people on the walls!” Anyway, it ended up being nothing quite like what I had hoped, and AoE kind of…well the graphics were nice. But it was a real pain trying to build a neat castle when you can essentialy only make squares. And trying to finish a wall behind the keep was a pain (especially when you ran out of resources partway through). But Stronghold is the first game that really let me feel like I was making a awesome “realistic” looking castle.

  32. Skusey says:

    I’ve never played any of the previous games, but this sounds amazing. Reminds me I’ve the many hours I spent perfecting the castle build in LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth. I may have only been ten, but I was incredibly efficient at beating the easiest AI on my 2 favourite maps.

  33. bonjovi says:

    cannot wait. hoping for the same game as S1 was but with better graphics.

  34. mattjb says:

    I have countless hours of fond memories playing Stronghold 1 and to a larger extent the Crusaders expansion. I rarely enjoy RTS games but Stronghold had me captivated. Sadly everything after Crusaders were abysmal to say the least. I resorted to having to replay Stroghold 1/Crusaders every two years or so to relive the glories of castle building and siegefare.

    Here’s hoping Stronghold 3 brings back the magic of those early games. Badgers? We don’t need no stinkin’ badgers!

  35. tameimpala says:

    “you’ll see the rock eaten way and showering stony splinters onto the ground, with a bit of help from Havok physics. ”
    Does anyone remember the ‘DMM’ tech Lucasarts said was going to revolutionise action gaming for Star Wars Unleashed? It was naff and scaled down in SWU but the seige bits in Stronghold look like they would work well with it on PC… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OU6WyWM2WU&feature=related

  36. Dances to Podcasts says:

    Torture rehabilitates people? I guess if you torture them hard enough (to death, basically) they won’t do it again…

  37. Araxiel says:

    I hope that they fix the AI and remove the single units based combat system. I want to command…uhm…squads (or whatever you call them back then) of units. This single unit thing was something that ruined the combat for me, mostly in the 2nd game. And it does not make sense. As a lord of a mighty castle, I wouldn’t command every single guy personaly.
    And as mentioned, the AI has to be updated. I was able to kill entire armies with a few bowmen and a ballista since the attackers were taking a nap in the range of my defences and they weren’t even bothered by the arrows and the flames devouring them. And once I destroyed their siege equipment, they were helpless. Of course, a bit later they would attack with another army from the same direction with the same “strategy” since it worked so well the first time.

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