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Wot I Think: Stronghold 3

Hardly gripping

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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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