Wot I Think: Stronghold 3

By Adam Smith on October 26th, 2011 at 5:41 pm.

expectations exploding

Castles are amazing. Even their ruins are mightier than the tallest and most robust of modern buildings, and they have dungeons, which are like cellars but with skeletons instead of a toolbox that I never get around to actually using. Yes, castles are amazing, but that doesn’t mean running one in Stronghold 3 is the best job in the world. Sadly, it’s far from that. Here’s wot I think.

In so many ways, this is one of the most charming games I’ve played this year. Oxen plod along and clicking on them reveals they are called ‘Tiny’ for no reason other than to make me smile. A cow might be called ‘Beefy’, her only task, until she is forced into the mouths of my peasants, is ‘swatting flies with her tail’. The game tells me that. It gives peasants names like Denby Pomfreton and Carl Dongle.

Charming. I knew it would be because that’s one thing the series has in spades.

However, while it has charmed the socks on me, it’s also a bit dull, which I didn’t expect at all. So now my feet are cold and I’m a bit bored, which isn’t how I imagine Lord DreadFace of StoneBastardManorBastion Castle felt as he stood atop his ramparts and surveyed his Lorddom. I imagine he was warm in the knowledge that his walls were unbreachable and that his breeches were the most appealing in the land.

Occasionally I’m right with him. As I encircle the village I’ve painstakingly constructed with increasingly firm fortifications, until the very first orchards that I planted are at the heart of a living fortification. That’s how things tend to start, with the planting of orchards and then the raising of cows and pigs. Then it’s onto hops and breweries, which lead to inns, and grain farms that lead to mills that lead to bakeries.

Basic resources are gathered and converted into edible or luxury goods through a chain of processes. The more links in the chain, the more valuable the end product. So while an apple goes straight from the tree to the granary, wheat must be worked on several times before bread is produced. Therefore, bread is far more pleasing, which is good because peasants aren’t half a whinging bunch. The majority of playtime isn’t spent with castles at all, it’s spent trying to create a workable supply chain, with food the top priority, and construction resources a close second. Lumberjacks chop wood and masons gather stone, which can then be used to create new buildings and weapons. At times, I was reminded of the early Settlers games and there is a similar sense of harmony when the economy is functioning well and resources are pouring in.

It takes a very long time to get anywhere though. Once woodcutters have been set up next to forests and masons are quarrying away, there’s not a lot to do while waiting for the stockpile to fill. And when it does, the next step is often to build more resource-gatherers and then to wait while the stockpile fills again. Eventually, yes, it is possible to build an impressive castle, but Free Build mode is severely limited in both choice of maps and the size of those maps, and the campaigns (economic and military) both feel like extended tutorials for far too long.

The speed of the game is off-putting to the extent that I’m still looking for a fast forward button. It must be hidden somewhere. Why would I want to spend half an hour watching little men traverse a barren landscape, back and forth to a stockpile carrying their goods of choice? I wouldn’t. Let me hurry them on their way or throw something interesting at me in the interim. As it turns out, not much happens except for an occasional bear or wolf attack.

That involves an animal moving slowly across the barren terrain, killing peasants until the military respond and chase him down, strolling behind for a matter of minutes. The other regular interruption is the rain, which makes everyone miserable. In that sense, playing Stronghold 3 is a lot like living in Manchester. A dreary existence occasionally interrupted by bleak downpours. Sometimes apples will be blighted or disease will spread among livestock. Livestock, in my mind, includes peasants, the diseased little blighters.

Run out of food, because of poor planning or because of shortages caused by seemingly random events, and people become hungry, which makes them unhappy, which slows down the rate at which new peasants become available, which makes everything grind to a halt for a while. As should be clear, slowing things down even more is not a good thing.

Maybe I’d be more inclined to slog through the necessary evil of feeding Trevor Bumwhistle and his ilk if there was something rewarding at the end of it, but the actual construction of castles isn’t the thrill I was hoping for. Partly, that’s tied back to the fact that it takes so much stone to make anything impressive. Without that elusive fast forward button, it could be not-actually-literally years of real time before you can indulge your Medieval McCloud and even then maps are often so cramped that you’ll end up with a protective wall rather than a castle. Maybe a castle is little more than a series of protective walls? No. It’s not. It’s a chunky, awe-inspiring piece of architecture, the very stone of which commands men to kneel before it.

Of the two campaigns, the economic one is the most appealing, because despite all my complaints, building a functioning society and then walling it in does feel somewhat satisfying. The problem is, a lot of the individual scenarios require construction of almost identical villages. Layout isn’t a question of smart decision-making or aesthetic choice, it’s a matter of putting the correct things next to each other, so every settlement ends up looking more or less the same as the previous one. A lot of the apparently silly and fun elements, such as the setting up of stocks or the hiring of entertainers, doesn’t actually matter a great deal at all. An iron maiden, much like a jester, is little more than bells and whistles.

It’s also worth mentioning that the economic campaign doesn’t avoid combat altogether. Constructing armies is fairly enjoyable, selecting from often-times scarce resources to decide whether defensively feeble but brutal macemen would function better than expensive but lethal crossbowmen, or whether it’s worth breeding horses so that you plonk some knights atop them and truly dominate. Unfortunately, when steel meets steel, it involves little more than small groups of men sporadically hitting one another.

There are no tactics beyond the vaguest of attempts to include formations, which seems unnecessary anyhow given the small number of troops involved. Sieges are more impressive and there are several historical ones included in the game, which almost seems like an apology for the fact that it’s nigh on impossible to build structures large and imposing enough to defend with gusto in the majority of the campaign missions. Chances are, if you’ve seen an impressive screenshot of a castle it makes you think you’ll be building that sort of thing in the game. They’re prefabs though, or at the very least they are built by people with the patience to harvest apples for days on end. The physics don’t promote the game in the eyes of the castle-lover either, with walls crumbling and scattering to the winds far too easily.

Compounding the aimlessness of military men, stabbing and shooting is made more difficult by erratic unit selection. I’ve heard reports of crashes, which haven’t been an issue for me at all, but trying to find the exact spot to click in order to select a unit does feel buggy. Even dragging a box around a group of units has uncertain results, sometimes grabbing them all, sometimes none. Sometimes a nearby building.

Having said all this, it’s striking just how similar the game is to the first Stronghold, which was good enough to make me anticipate this so fervently even after so many years and one lacklustre sequel. Lessons have been taken on board since Stronghold 2 but the game feels hollowed out now: too repetitive, static and slow. The pace wouldn’t bother me if there was something else going on during the waiting, but there really isn’t, except for the rain, the meandering animals and the apple blights. There’s rarely a sense of anything happening beyond the tiny boundaries in which the player’s potential castle-plot is based.

If my disappointment seems tangible (and don’t touch it; it’s gelatinous and clammy), it’s because I’ve been super-excited about this game for a long time now. I don’t doubt it’d be possible to extract some pleasure out of it, but it’d take far more patience than I can muster at the moment. Even as I finish writing this, I’m left with the feeling that there is a great deal of fun lurking somewhere in Stronghold 3, but I’ve failed to find it.

Maybe it’ll take patches and extensive tweaking, maybe even DLC, but it seems more likely that this is one for the supremely dedicated and forgiving. It’s not significantly superior to the original in any way apart from in the visual department, where it’s pleasant from a distance but up close is as muddy as the mud it mainly replicates.

If it does receive significant post-release support, I’d love to revisit it and see what it becomes, but at the moment I’m back to contemplating ruins.

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63 Comments »

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  1. CaLe says:

    I really don’t like how the destruction looks in this game. Everything falls apart too easily and it seems like nothing has any weight.

    • alh_p says:

      I think that was also a feature of stronghold one – rubbish infantry could pick away at a stone wall and demolish a single layer wall quite quickly.

  2. Vexing Vision says:

    Have you hired that man yet? He writes well. Oh yeah, you did!

    Thanks for the heads-up – I was semi-looking forward to more castle-building but think I’ll wait for the inevitable Steam-sale. Yay for Steam-sales.

    • Maldomel says:

      Me too, I waited till a review came out on this very website and I am not that thrilled anymore after reading it. Actually, I feel depressed and tired now…

  3. Real Horrorshow says:

    I completely agree. I got bored at a record speed.

    Now I just want to ask: do Stronghold and Stronghold: Crusader work on modern hardware? All this game really did is make the originals seem even more magical and enhance my desire to replay them.

    Its like how if you find yourself watching a Star Wars prequel, pretty soon you just go “Fuck this, I want to watch Empire.”

    • frenz0rz says:

      I installed a copy of Stronghold on Windows 7 a couple of days ago and it plays just fine. Which seems almost miraculous, given that many 2000-ish era games often require the trial-and-error of various compatibilty modes and mystical voodoo to get them working.

    • danly says:

      The versions from GoG.com work great on my 64-bit Win7 machine.

    • UnravThreads says:

      GOG.

    • Torgen says:

      If GOG starts refurbishing Mac games, will they market them in a spinoff company called MAGOG?

    • Real Horrorshow says:

      Thanks for the info guys.

    • Chris D says:

      I have Stronghold Crusader installed at the moment and it works fine, though it is showing it’s age a little.

    • satsui says:

      Yes, I still play it on Win7. If you get the mods to allow more units and stuff, it can get pretty crazy.

    • westyfield says:

      @Torgen
      That was a good joke. I thought I should tell you as no-one else acknowledged it.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      I confirm that Stronghold+Crusader+Extreme work fine under Windows 7 and are still very fun to play. I love the details in those games like the herds of deer (or camels) scampering about.

      There’s also Stronghold Kingdoms to check out, it’s a decent MMO castle-building/strategy game using the graphics and some of the mechanics of the original.

  4. Wooly Wugga Wugga says:

    This actually sounds like a great game for me. I don’t enjoy the frantic nature of most RTS games so something contemplative and relaxed might be just the tonic the doctor ordered. I love the comparison with the early Settlers games since I loved then to bits.

    Historically castle building wasn’t a rushed affair (Unless you were building a folly and we all know how those tended to end up.)

    • Real Horrorshow says:

      There’s a difference between a relaxed game and a game where you spend half the time staring blankly at the monitor with your arms folded, waiting for an opportunity to do something.

    • CogDissident says:

      This isn’t a “less rushed affair”, this is a “I hope you have a second computer to go play another RTS on, and between maps you can come back to poke at stronghold.”

      For the first economic mission, I actually set up my stuff, and then went to take a shower, and when I was done, I came back, put on a tv show, and was at the first commercial before I won the game. Without touching the keyboard.

  5. PJMendes says:

    Yes, this Adam Smith chap is a fan-fave no doubt, me being a fan. He reminds me sometimes of a dude on youtube called the “Anti Social Fatman” who does reviews, but Adam is funnier.

    • Xerian says:

      Uhm… He actually “did” reviews. Great guy with a good taste in games.
      RIP Stephen-Fun-Fatman ._.

  6. DarkFenix says:

    Same story here, the game just bores me. I can’t stand the speedy micro-fest games either, but that doesn’t make the prospect of watching paint dry any more appealing.

  7. caddyB says:

    Ow. I did expect it to be many things but… boring?

    And yes, from what I’ve seen everything explodes and nothing has any weight. Which we laughed at already in the earlier post with their designers and the trailer about realism.

  8. Vinraith says:

    Biggest gaming disappointment of the year? It might be, for me anyway. I was really looking forward to this one, but it doesn’t even have a skirmish mode with AI for pity’s sake.

    • Dariune says:

      @Vinraith – its certainly dissapointing. I was really looking forward to this one but i dont think i will get it now.

      Having said that, i still hold that DA2 is currently the biggest disapointment of the year.

    • Vinraith says:

      Hmm, yeah, I’d forgotten DA2 was this year. That’s a tough one.

    • Deadly Habit says:

      have you forgotten duke nukem?

    • RaytraceRat says:

      DA2 holds the first place for disapointmet for me, but this is in the top as well.
      By the way: why 2 or 3 wolfes are killing 6 spearmen? are those werewolfs or something?

      edit: I’ve stoped waiting for Duke about 5 years ago

    • Vinraith says:

      @Deadly Habit

      Nope, I just always expected it to suck. Frankly, it’d be hard for any FPS to make the list, I can’t think of a single FPS that I’ve actually been significantly excited about before it came out. There have been a few I’ve enjoyed, certainly, but I never seem to anticipate them.

  9. PodX140 says:

    Dissapointing, I remember the first stronghold quite fondly.

    (Also: Is it just my RSS for RPS that no longer works? Testy test test worked fine, but now this post was broken too. It’s disheartening to see RPS posts with just text (And unformatted too!))

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      We broke RSS the other day, still not quite fixed, but getting there.

    • Dozer says:

      If the fixing can involve extending the number of articles it will show me at once to more than the number you guys publish in a day, I’d be very very pleased! I don’t get to check RPS in the mornings so I often find I miss the first few articles when interesting stuff is happening and the Hivemind are producing a series of short articles every thirty minutes or so.

    • PodX140 says:

      Thanks for the reply Jim, much appreciated.

      Also very good to know that it’s being looked at, it’s extremely easy to gauge my interest in an article (Ok, lets be honest, I’m interested in all of them, but I need to pick the 50% that are most interesting to me, otherwise I’m not going to have any time :D )by a picture, rather than the title. Odd, but I found often true.

  10. Njordsk says:

    I was in the mood to build super mega huge castle. Guess i’ll play lego instead.

  11. Pobblepop says:

    This is a damn shame, I loved the first and second ones and have been looking forward to this. It sounds like they’ve messed up the pacing and the ideal of the game to build a massive castle and sit in it.

  12. scoopsy says:

    If I have never played a Stronghold, which would you chaps recommend I play? I have no aversion to poor graphics or dated features (just finished a Master of Magic stint) if that helps.

    • Megadyptes says:

      The original or Crusaders, or both. The original is set in an Olde England type campaign, start with wooden forts go to stone, Crusaders is pretty much the same engine with some small improvements and the action taking place in the Middle East, so lots of sands and Arabs to come along and lay waste to your mighty forts.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    I loved the original Stronghold, replayed it from GoG too.

    But it seems that this game will have to wait until I can find it in a steam deal for €5.

  14. Zenicetus says:

    Well, drat. I was looking forward to this.

    Also, too… the WIT mentions Free Build, and separate Economic and Military campaigns but only mentions the Economic one. What’s the Military campaign like? Do you at least get to attack or defend big, pre-built castles? And who’s that “I’m coming to get you!” dude in the trailer? That suggests a campaign that isn’t mentioned here.

    • SpinX_911 says:

      Well, drat. I was looking forward to this.

      Exactly my thoughts. I am a huge fan of the original Stronghold and it’s sequels which have been terrifying, but playable. But as soon as they started talking how they fixed this, fixed that and all the chatter about the game somehow I knew it would be a dissapointment. Should have just left the original one and supported it further, I’m downloading SH3 but I don’t feel like playing it at all…

    • Adam Smith says:

      There is a plot running through the campaigns, very similar to the original game’s story, with the same factions if memory serves.

      The military campaign takes the emphasis away from building at first. You’re given starting units and have to follow waypoints and linear paths through maps. Later on, they come closer together, but the large battles take place in the historical sieges rather than in the campaigns.

  15. Dozer says:

    What’s with those brick-thin walls in the screenshots? They look like they’ll collapse if you lean on them! Pretty sure real castle walls are at least 1/3rd as thick as their height.

  16. Ultra Superior says:

    This WIT is written so nicely I read through it in spite of not being interested in game at all. Since the trailers showing walls bursting into spray of particles after being hit by an angry bird.

  17. Ultra Superior says:

    Someone please blend the title picture of WIT battlefield3 and WIT stronghold 3.

    Tanks shooting walls into the mist!

  18. Pathetic Phallacy says:

    Screw singleplayer. I don’t need a masturbatory gaming experience.

    How is the multiplayer!??!

    • Skabooga says:

      Equivalent to a circle-jerk.

    • Astroman says:

      Seriously. The original stronghold was for building massive castles with a friend in a 2 vs 2 bots skirmish. Then build a million archers on a ridiculously thick wall and just watch the sun get blotted out. If that’s your idea of a circle jerk then I’ll get this when it goes on sale.

  19. scottossington says:

    If my disappointment seems tangible (and don’t touch it; it’s gelatinous and clammy), it’s because I’ve been super-excited about this game for a long time now.

    laughed out loud when I read that

  20. Sp4rkR4t says:

    I was utterly disgusted by how unfinished and generally ugly this game is. The simplest of things make it unplayable like the sheer amount of food every peasant seems to require, meaning for every house you build you need to build another food producing item, that wouldn’t be a problem except the maps are tiny and you never really know what is going on with your stockpile unless you click on it to check every minute as the UI is a complete and utter mess.

  21. Redsplinter says:

    Someday, somewhere, someone will remake a proper remake of Lord of the Realms II, with castle/town design.

    That will be a good day. Hopefully in a place near Earth.

  22. Iskariot says:

    Damn, this game was on my list.
    Now it is not…. anymore.
    Pass.

  23. Sassenach says:

    This article puts me in mind of Evil Genius, a game that had quite a lot going for it. Rather fatally, though, the pace was glacial. Gold income at it’s highest was never very high, and one had to pay attention to the world map so that an investment of money gathering goons wasn’t suddenly lost, setting one back substantially.

    Consequently, you’d end up spending minutes saving up for a bunk bed for your goons and when your attention inevitably wavered you’d lose a bunch of workers, each of whom took a minute to replace without eating into your income. It was also without a fast forward button.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Diziet Sma says:

    What an excellent review. I was really looking forward to a bit of stronghold. I think I’ll hold off judging by this post, at least until a patch or someone mods in a time skip.

  25. gm3rfr3k says:

    I am quite sure I will catch some flak for this, but I thoroughly enjoy this game. The game requires elaborate planning, and discourages massing units. For the majority of each mission I find myself at a perfect equilibrium between, my number of peasants and my food production. And I derive true pleasure when I reach allocative efficiency with my available resources. Each expansion in population requires careful planning and execution, down to the detail of where ones castle is placed.

    When I play this game I feel as if I am playing a true medieval simulator. Every objective must be fought for. Nothing comes easily. True castles may take in game months to build, but do you think real castles were built in a matter of days? No, they took years to build, and that is one of the reasons they are held in such esteem. Whenever I finish a castle, or even a fort, or for all intents and purposes a small town, I feel accomplished. The game wasn’t holding my hand on the way. I was the sole cause of this living breathing ecosystem. And I, for one, am quite happy to spend hours tweaking minor detail or adding a building every few minutes; when I know that at the end of the day, I will have constructed a functioning masterpiece.

  26. Premium User Badge

    FriendlyFire says:

    The question which nobody has raised yet is: is this game moddable at all?

    If it is, then there is hope yet, at least for a later 50%+ sale. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll just pass, which is a shame.

  27. Premium User Badge

    ts061282 says:

    Finally, a review that comes close to the disdain I hold for all factory games these days.

  28. running fungus says:

    “The speed of the game is off-putting to the extent that I’m still looking for a fast forward button. It must be hidden somewhere.”

    For reals? Previously, it was + and – to increase/decrease game speed. It’s hard for me to imagine that the designers decided this time around there should be no speed control.

  29. Cooper says:

    How do you develop a castle building game and not include some kind of “build what you want and throw men with sharpened sticks at it to your heart’s content” mode?

  30. RyuRanX says:

    Firefly should have made a 2D-HD game instead of this ugly-3D-covered-with-post-processing. Maybe we could have had larger maps.

  31. JuJuCam says:

    This is the result of realism creep in game development. One can only imagine that the ultimate objective of the developers of this line of design is to painstakingly model and animate the process of each worker quarrying and moulding stone blocks and placing them, one by one, including layers of mortar. Among many things I want games to do in the future is to be unafraid to return to abstraction. It seems to me the economic side of things in this game could be improved if it was tun-based, with realtime kicking in during sieges and other military actions.

  32. Frantics says:

    some fair points but – – –

    a Good game. I love it!

  33. Frantics says:

    I love it! :)

    If you like watching chilled little towns and working out shit give it a spin.

  34. philipsteak says:

    was going to wait and get this for christmas to bring back the childlike excitement for christmas morning. As the excitement was already there i decided to buy before reading this:

    GUTTED!

    Have only played for 30mins and am appauled at the most basic function, moving the camera. when you want to move sideways by pushing against the side of the view it jumps 1/2 a screens width over. when you scroll out it makes the map and plan view for some stupid reason and when you hold mouse button three and turn 360 degrees it littlereally spins uncontrollably unless you use minute movements.

    there, rant over!

    please patch this developers!

  35. MrZombie says:

    Firely was my favorite Developer but now they are not sadly, because they are failing to make a good StrongHold -.- I hope Space Colony 2 (If they make one) will be good.

  36. gayylalgli says:

    I have been waiting for this for years… Stronghold 2 sucked.
    I noticed this as well, but it doesnt look so good, probably going to pick it up when it cost 5 or so.
    It was so depressing to find Stronghold 2 in a bargain bin, get all excited thinking about how amazing Stronghold was, get home, install, and uninstall hours later in disgust…I might try to get hold of the Original Stronghold.seo service