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Stronghold 2

01 May 2005

Where’s My Peasant?Straddling the line between real-time strategy games like Warcraft 3 and economic sims like Rollercoaster Tycoon, Stronghold 2 offers an unusual balance of siege battles and medieval management. A facelift and a ton of new buildings are the main additions to this sequel to Firefly Studios’ acclaimed 2001 game - it’s more of the same, but better.

And with a new, fully 3D engine - there’s no more guessing at what’s behind your taller structures because you can rotate the camera or use the handy top-down view for an exact answer. Placing walls and towers couldn’t be much easier, and battles are much less frustrating to manage when you can get exactly the perspective you want on the situation. Of particular note is the way almost all the impressive quantity of buildings have something to watch - thanks to an impressive but demanding graphics engine. Zoom in close, and you’ll notice a wheat farmer tending his crops, a fletcher taking a new bow to the armoury, or a citizen being hauled off to the dungeon. While combat isn’t particularly spectacular, watching catapults smash down a gatehouse is either spectacular or horrifying, depending on whether you’re dishing out or taking the beating. Large battles in Stronghold really do get large, with significant troop numbers, smoke, fire, and other effects, not to mention all the usual castle bits and pieces. So this snazzy engine has a lot to do.

Players of the original game will no doubt be pleased to hear regular troops can’t take down stone walls any more, meaning there’s actually a point to siege equipment this time. Plenty of new traps let you leave little surprises around your walls for attackers - like having a rack of tree trunks dropped on them. But those trees have to come from somewhere, and managing multiple supply chains is the key to economic success in Stronghold 2. Balancing funds, construction materials, labour, raw ingredients, and location concerns makes for an addictively complex game. But thanks to the fact you can actually see your resources sitting in the stockpile and watch peasants carting them from place to place, it’s easy to learn and understand.

Raising an army is similar. You need to make weapons and armour from wood, iron, or leather before you can recruit troops, and you’ll need idle peasants to draft, which requires a reasonably cheerful population. Acquiring all this takes time however and you’ll need some long, sleepless nights before you’re completely immersed in the game.Stronghold 2 introduces a new honour rating system, which restricts your choice of buildings or units until you’ve acquired enough prestige. You develop your economy and earn promotions by feeding your peasants well, and throwing feasts or dances - peasant-pleasing tools like inns and churches can also be used too.

Corporate PunishmentSadists will be delighted with the new crime and punishment aspects of the game. Your peasants will periodically turn bad, swipe food from the granary, and then get hauled off to the courthouse. You can scatter a variety of increasingly cruel punishment stations around your castle - even burning offenders at the stake, if you’re sufficiently brutal. Fun for all the family! Unlike most other games of this type, buildings in Stronghold 2 don’t take any time to construct - pick a structure, plop it down, and a peasant will start trotting his way over to start work there. This instant-build concept leads to some silliness in sieges; for example, you’ll notice the AI rebuilding stone walls as you  knock them down, while under fire from your siege engines. Building should really be disallowed close to combat. The AI is also rather vulnerable to cheesy tactics like sending archers to draw small groups of soldiers away from a main force to be slaughtered piecemeal. Admittedly, that requires too much micromanagement to work in a larger siege. When it does decide to attack, it’s brutal, pinpointing weak spots in your defences and attacking them en masse.

With two single-player campaigns (one focusing on economic development and one on military tactics), a skirmish mode, a set of pre-generated historic castle maps to siege or defend, a free build mode, and multiplayer, there’s plenty here to keep gamers busy for months. Stronghold 2 is the definition of a “solid sequel,” offering plenty for fans of the original to chew on. The new perspective works excellently and the added buildings and units are welcome. It’s a shame some of the old problems, like the unconvincing AI, are still around, but the intricate economy and unusual siege play make it stand out. If you harbour dreams of medieval lordship - and let’s face it, who doesn’t? - you’ll enjoy living them out with Stronghold 2.