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.