Second Look: Stronghold 3

Let’s get right to the point: Stronghold 3 had a terrible launch. At launch, Stronghold 3 was a buggy, broken, mess and people were pissed. So much so that, for about a week after the launch, you couldn’t go to a PC games message board without seeing someone make a nasty comment or complain about the game’s state. The game’s launch was so bad, in fact, that my own nasty little article, “I Quit: Stronghold 3,” gained a very brief and very minor internet celebrity, leading to tens of thousands of hits for the Unplayables. I believe the article resonated the way it did because it tapped in to the legitimate sense of anger and disappointment that Stronghold fans felt with the way Stronghold 3 was released. Fans felt betrayed and consumers felt ripped off.

Like most of you, I really didn’t like the game, which was all the more tragic considering that I am a fan of the Stronghold series. However, a couple of months and a great many patches later, the game has been significantly overhauled, and the developer has worked pretty diligently to fix some of the biggest problems in the game’s initial release. As such, we were asked directly by Firefly Studios, both in public on the Steam Forums and in private through a direct email, to take another look at the game. With some trepidation, I booted up Stronghold 3 again. How did it turn out? Read on to see.

If you recall, I had a lot of problems with Stronghold 3 in its original state. So much so that I really could not bring myself to write a proper review. Hence the nasty little “I Quit” article which I’m sure pissed off a bunch of very hard working people at Firefly who were stuck in a difficult situation. Even so, I came by that nastiness honestly. You see, we generally aren’t a nasty website, we pride ourselves on being able to find the good in otherwise lackluster games (you should hear Jeff talk about the Bourne Conspiracy. It’s embarrassing). I was legitimately so upset about the way the game came out that I just couldn’t help it. I had to write something, no one else had, and attempting a “fair and balanced” review would have just been dishonest.

Fortunately, things have improved.

Hey look, difficulty levels!

For one, the game is actually playable. By this, I mean that fundamental things like ordering your units around and placing structures and walls has been fixed. Generally speaking, your units now go where you tell them to go and placing structures or walls is solid and predictable. It’s a damned shame that I need to praise anyone for making a game that isn’t fundamentally broken, but at the very least Firefly has fixed two of the biggest issues.

Further, combat has been improved. If you recall, one of my biggest problems with Stronghold 3 was that the siege warfare was completely flawed. Units on walls would receive no defensive bonus against attackers, so the entire strategic point of building castles was negated. Not only was this completely counter to the previous games in the Stronghold franchise, it also defies logic. This has also been fixed, and you can now effectively defend against attackers by placing units on walls.

Good news, the high level Stronghold strategy of "put dudes on walls" now works!

Firefly also fixed a number of other key problems. While I could not find the exact changes in the patch-log, it appears that the food/peasant balance has been fixed. I found it endlessly frustrating how the launch version of Stronghold 3 had such a low food/peasant ratio that I spent most of my time in mission managing food production. While this is an important aspect of the game it isn’t the only aspect, and previous Stronghold games had handled this far better.  Now, after the patches, I am not sure if peasants eat less or if farms produce more, but playing the patched game I did not find the food production to be a problem. It felt much closer to previous Stronghold games.

That’s not to say that everything has been fixed. Stronghold 3 has NOT gone from “unplayable” to “game of the year.” All the patches in the world can not fix what I feel is a pretty lackluster single player campaign, and Firefly has not put in a Skirmish Mode, one of the biggest demands from Stronghold fans. More than this, however, the game still has some fairly rough edges.

For one, the unit AI, while vastly improved, still needs some work. The Aggressive/Passive/Defensive stances are unpredictable, at best, and I often found units wandering off, or generally behaving in ways that got them killed. Still, the tried and true Stronghold strategy of building a shit ton of archers and putting them on your walls now provides an adequate defense.

Warning: modifying walls can result in deletion and death. Proceed with caution.

While building structures and walls has been improved, it has resulted in some odd happenings. For one, I found that if I modified walls, such as by adding to them or placing a gatehouse, it would delete stairs I had placed. It’s as if the game rewrites the entire wall each time a modification is made. The result being that, especially in the early game when stone is scarce, you can find yourself with some great defenses and no way to man them.

Also, kind of hilariously, the game will kill your units if you have them up on a structure and then delete it. So, if you have a bunch of troopers in a guard tower, deleting the tower will cause them all to go hurtling towards the ground to meet a squishy end. It’s kind of devastating when it happens unexpectedly, but still pretty funny. If they want to call that one a “feature,” I think I’m cool with it.

These bears can outrun you all day.

Finally, I still feel that the game is still too slow, both in terms of the levels and the unit speed. As far as the actual missions go, it just doesn’t recapture the same hectic feel of the original Stronghold games. Sure, things can get hectic and very difficult, but generally that’s because you didn’t plan correctly. More importantly, however, the units just move too slowly. Now, certain units are much faster than others, and that’s fine, but basic peasants just trudge ridiculously slow, as if they were wading through molasses. Don’t even get me started on your Lord unit. God forbid bears attack the village and you need to mobilize your Lord. The bears can run circles around him. They literally travel about three times as quickly.

So yeah, the game still has some issues. Even so, these are the kinds of issues that I can generally deal with. After all, I played A Game of Thrones and Sword of the Stars II, and both of those games were significantly worse than Stronghold 3 in its present state.

Frankly, I am glad Firefly is taking the time and money to properly fix their game. Their fans deserve it, especially after paying for what was a legitimately broken product.

In its current state, Stronghold 3 is not broken. It is actually quite playable. During my 7+ hours with the patched game, I even found myself having fun. While I do not think that Stronghold 3 is in a state that it can compete with other major PC releases, or even other major PC RTS’s, I think it is good enough to be worth a shot if you liked the previous games. This goes doubly so if the price decreases and Firefly keeps up the support.

About Mike Cantor

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2 Responses to Second Look: Stronghold 3

  1. Plumo says:

    Enjoyable read! I hope a couple of more patches later you ll write a third review :p. I mean: gaming websites give a score once, and don’t update that score after patches.
    That makes your review so interesting, cause it’s up to date.

    I just played the original stronghold and when I look at your screenshots: The user interface in SH3 is so bland and boring :s, so cheap. A pity.

  2. fredreed says:

    I have the other stronghold games and while I haven’t played stronghold 3 yet I hope that if I decide to buy it hopefully firefly will update it even more and that the price will come down enough that I might consider buying it. I don’t think that It’s worth $40 or $50 dollars to buy even though firefly has started to fix the nagging issues in the game.

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