In order to properly review a game, I believe that the reviewer should play through as much of it as possible, to the point of finishing it if the game is the sort that actually has an ending. However, every once in a while a game is released that, for one reason or another, is so buggy, broken or otherwise bad that playing through it becomes unbearable, causing my firmly held beliefs to break down. In the case of Stronghold 3, after five maddeningly frustrating hours with the game, the experience of playing it had become so tiresome, so irritating and loathsome, that I knew I could not bear to have it on my system one more minute, let alone actually play it. In other words: fuck this game. I quit.
So What The Hell Happened?
The Stronghold series began all the way back in 2001. The game was created by Firefly Studios, a primarily UK based developer. The concept of the first game, and the series since, married the three ideas of medieval economics, castle building, and finally siege combat. The first game had a decent, and fairly amusing, storyline wherein you played a lord seizing territories from various other nobles who had taken over the kingdom.
As I mentioned, the gameplay divided the players time between setting up a stable economy (food, building materials, managing the happiness of your peasants), with building up a castle, and then either defending it from besieging forces, or alternately laying siege to the castle of an opponent. The game was good, and successful, spawning a Crusades-themed standalone expansion called Stronghold Crusader.
In 2005, Stronghold 2 was released to mixed reviews. Whereas the first game made due with 2D animation, Stronghold 2 leaned hard on the 3D, somewhat to its detriment. Frankly speaking, the game was a buggy mess, and it took years before it was patched up to consistent working order.
When Stronghold 2 was playable, however, it was evident that a number of positive changes had been made to the formula. Stronghold 2 incorporated its story far deeper into its gameplay, complete with in-engine cut scenes. Whether that story was any good or not is up for debate, but it certainly was there. The game also introduced a new, streamlined interface, giving the player better access to information. Finally, it introduced a number of new systems, such as “crime and punishment” where the player could torture and punish their peasants into submission, Dungeon Keeper style. Again, the relative success of Stronghold 2 spawned another standalone game: Stronghold Legends, a more fantasy-focused reinterpretation of the series. Think King Arthur and dragons and all that.
The point I am trying to make here, beyond giving you some historical context for the monumental clusterfuck that is Stronghold 3, is that on a personal level, it is a series that I have always admired. Ever since the days of Castles 1 and 2, I have enjoyed the gameplay concept of building up and defending medieval fortresses, and the Stronghold games were a great outlet. Moreover, the first game was genuinely great, and while Stronghold 2 had its problems, it was quite a bit of fun once you got it all working properly.
So now we are approaching the tail end of 2011, and Firefly Studios, along with publisher 7sixty, has released Stronghold 3, sporting better graphics (of course), a brand spanking new physics engine, and a lot of potential, especially considering the poor state of affairs that this kind of traditional RTS gaming finds itself in these days.
And they fell on their fucking faces. More than that, they killed their baby. They fell on their faces, killing their baby.
And The Walls Came Tumbling Down
The sheer number of things that Firefly fucked up in Stronghold 3 is only dwarfed by the gameplay problems that these fuckups caused. In nearly every respect, the game simply does not work.
Let’s start at the beginning, where the strongest point of any Stronghold game should lie: the castle building. In Stronghold 3, the game’s engine makes it nearly impossible to design the exact kind of fortress that you want. Part of this is the fault of a finicky camera system that has partnered up with an utterly broken pointer system, preventing the player from actually placing things where they want. No no, the game has a better idea of where that turret should go, or more frequently, it will just tell you that under no circumstances may you place that object there, only to change its mind a split second later, and then change it back again. This is infuriating and especially unhelpful as you are trying to build up defenses to fend off the vast horde of troops that the computer is sending against you.
This leads to the second series of problems: the military units. First and foremost, the game is so buggy, at least at launch, that they can shoot arrows and throw spears through walls. Beyond this glitch however, the designers made the game such that placing units on fortifications offer them no protection. I played missions over and over again where I had dozens of archer units lining stone battlements and towers, only to be mowed down by approaching enemies on the ground. This breaks a fundamental rule established in the earlier Stronghold games: units on walls beat units on the ground. It’s a fundamental part of siege warfare in general for fucks sake!
But wait, there’s more: ordering around units is comparable to herding cats. Just getting those archers to actually stand on those walls, towers or gatehouses is an exercise in self-flagelation. Picture this: you select your units in the normal fashion, move the mouse cursor over to the wall, where it turns into a tiny picture of a staircase. You right click and your units respond, shouting “to the walls!” Great! So far so good. But wait… what are they doing? They have decided to go to the other side of your walls, not up on them at all, only to be slaughtered by the enemy. Alternately, maybe they just go and stand near the bottom of your walls. Or, maybe one or two of them actually make it up, while the rest of them stand completely stock still, like they are playing a deadly game of red-light green-light.
The same principle applies to getting your units to attack and defend. Half of the time they go off in entirely different directions, refuse to attack or defend, or just stand there doing nothing. At times, units will get completely bugged and will become either unselectable, or will insist that anywhere you try to move them is impassable. This gets particularly bad around gatehouses, where units seem to get stuck in the geometry like the stuff was made of flypaper.
The problems with the military units do not end there: their AI is completely broken. I sat and watched during missions while half of my troops, with their AI’s supposedly turned to “aggressive” sat like Buddhist monks while a horde of enemy troops approached and slaughtered them one by one. My own, apparently aggressive troops, didn’t do a damned thing. The solution then was to manually select them and right click on individual enemy units until they all died (made much more difficult by the aforementioned cursor issues), or until some magic AI kicked in and they started perceiving their dire circumstances.
Can I Get An Option?
Next, and this applies both to the military units and to the peasants that make up your economy, everything moves incredibly slowly. This was also an issue in previous Stronghold games, but in those games Firefly was intelligent enough to include a game-speed slider in the options menu so that players could adjust these things to their own liking. There is no such slider here.
New peasants appear to slowly to fill jobs and take up ranks in your military, workers move too slowly to fill up your stockpiles and granaries, and farms produce food too slowly to adequately feed your populace. More on this in a minute.
In fact, the gameplay options in Stronghold 3 are almost nonexistent. As far as I could tell, there are no difficulty options, nor is there a skirmish mode. Anyone who wants to play Stronghold 3 is limited to playing either a military or economics based campaign, or playing multiplayer, which is currently broken.
Stronghold 3: Or How Not To Simulate Medieval Economics
Since the first game, the economics of Stronghold have worked out pretty much the same way. The player must concern himself with food, building materials, money making, and the happiness of his people, which controls how fast new peasants join, allowing them to take on jobs or join your military forces. The system, first established in the original Stronghold, had its problems, but it was more or less sound. It made sense, and once players found their balance it was pretty simple to achieve your objectives, so long as you were smart about it.
I bet you can see what’s coming: SH3 took this system, and through a series of small but significant changes, broke the shit out of it.
The economics in SH3 are simply out of balance. The production of food and building materials, as well as the rate at which new peasants appear, is just exactly wrong. Farms of all sorts produce too little food, so that whenever you need to expand, building more farms is necessary, which require more peasants, who need to eat food. All of this combines with overly expensive and SLOW producing materials buildings to make the entire economy rest on a paper thin plane: just one thing goes out of whack and it all collapses. You run out of food, which makes peasants leave, which makes it impossible for you to staff your buildings, etc.
This is compounded by the way that Firefly has designed the missions: they are usually incredibly hectic affairs, requiring the player’s attention in about eight different areas, regardless of whether you are playing the military or economic campaign.
Now, if you are quick and smart, you can prevent and/or recover from these situations, but I keep on coming back to the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The economics in the original Stronghold games worked. They were finely tuned. SH3 “fixed” it so that they don’t work any more, or in any case, they do not work in any way that could be defined as fun.
A Poorly Spun Yarn
Finally we come to the storytelling. The game attempts to tell its campaigns’ stories through pre and post-mission cut scenes made mostly out of black and white comic-style sketches, accompanied by voiceovers. It’s a stark change from the talking heads of Stronghold 1, and the in-engine cut scenes of Stronghold 2, but, frankly, it could have worked. In fact, the story the game attempts to tell is fairly interesting, especially for fans of the first game, as it reintroduces characters featured prominently in that game.
The problem is that the cut-scenes are so manic, so poorly put together, that what the player sees doesn’t make much sense, and only somewhat relates to the accompanying voiceover. Moreover, the images themselves are pretty poorly drawn. It’s the sort of moody comic sketching that your “talented” buddy in high school would do during biology. That is, in fact, when the cut scenes appear at all. Due to one of the game’s many bugs, about half of the cut scenes were in fact blank, black screens with voiceover storytelling.
This Is The End
As you can see, the game has a lot of problems. More than all the bugs and glitches however, the game just lacks the feeling of the first two of the series: it doesn’t bring back those happy Stronghold feelings. In other words: it isn’t fun to play.
I could try and slog through the rest of it, dealing with the lack of auto-saves, broken mission objectives, and frequent crashes, in order to see how the game ends and write a fully informed review, but frankly I have seen enough. We don’t get paid to do this. What we do, we do out of love. There is no love in this game. It is shoddy, undercooked, and a terrible black mark on the Stronghold name. Under no circumstances do I recommend anyone purchase this game, at its current (hideously overpriced) $50 price mark, or at any other.
Perhaps in a year or two, if Firefly cares enough (which I seriously question, given that they allowed the game to ship like this), the game may be patched to the point that it becomes enjoyable. More likely, however, this may be the end of the Stronghold franchise. An ignoble ending to what began as a promising life. It would have been better had Stronghold 3 never existed at all.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play some Stronghold 1, and remember the good times, in order to wash away this bile.