While the standard Tolkien-esque fantasy setting has continued to, if not fascinate people, then at least endure as the most common medieval-themed world in gaming, games with a historic bent are relatively few and far between.
Enter Stronghold. The original was released to critical acclaim late in 2001. With the exception of Stronghold Legends(which was focused around ‘traditional’ medieval fantasy), the gameplay in the series has revolved around, appropriately enough, building a castle (and the infrastructure to do so), taking care of the citizenry, and withstanding sieges. This combination of sim and war game led to four sequels between 2002 and 2009. While none is as highly regarded as the first instalment (each successive game has been generally regarded as being worse than the first), all five titles have been re-released as a complete collection by publisher 2K.
The meat of the gameplay is found in the campaigns, divided into economic and military.
There is some challenge within the economic campaign, but the lack of military opposition beyond the odd wolf or bandit gives the player time to identify some of the flaws in the game’s simulation aspect. Construction in the game is instantaneous; click a building, place it and it appears. This is kind of odd given that resources have to be hauled over to a stockpile near your keep, but considering that your peasant workforce has all the intelligence of a wet paper towel (they tend to do things like walking into a pack of wolves with alarming frequency), it is probably for the better. Likewise, your castle is built out of prefabricated pieces such as walls, gatehouses and the odd moat.
Okay, so it isn't that simple. Farmers, mills, bakeries and hunters help to feed your population; several resources (wood, stone and iron) are essential to expanding your fief; armour and weapon smiths are required to equip your army, and there are ’good’ morale-boosting buildings (such as a church, or pub) along with ’bad’ motivational buildings (ie: stocks).
The economic side to the game does provide the player with a lot to keep them occupied, but it doesn't stand up too well on its own.
The core of the game, then, appears to be the military campaign. The 21 included missions task the player with defeating renegade lords. The missions are usually about breaking sieges, capturing enemy castles or raising gold and fending off an enemy force. Again, this sounds great on paper, but spending an extended amount of time with the military side of the game highlights even more flaws.
Historical sieges were about blocking a castle off from receiving supplies, the idea being that the defending castle will eventually starve to death. An assault is when the attacking force overcomes the castle’s fortifications and simply takes it by force. Admittedly, pure sieges are not terribly fun in games – Mount & Blade gives players the option to out-wait a castle, but it is always faster, more effective and more entertaining to just launch an assault. The difference between these two games is that while Mount & Blade has armies constructing siege equipment (ladders, siege towers) off-screen, infantry in
Strongholdare able to cut down huge stone walls as if they were made of polystyrene. While the enemy does bring along the occasional catapult, siege warfare in Strongholdboils down to your foe bashing down a section of wall and the surviving units running off to assassinate your lord, ending the game.
Another problem is the large, overly helpful signposts pointing out which direction the enemy force will come from. With that in mind, there is no real reason to build a proper castle when a few walls plus a gatehouse (and towers if you're feeling adventurous) with archers on the battlements will do the trick. Fortifications within an unspecified radius of the opposing army's point of entry will crumble the moment they enter the game, which can be annoying.
The game also offers a free-build mode. Unfortunately, this is just like the economics campaign, only without any goals or targets to meet. It is fun for a while, but the lack of any long-term challenge makes it feel somewhat unrewarding. There is also the siege mode, which features nine historic castles and the option to play either side of the battle. It is fairly entertaining, but suffers from the same flaws as the main military campaign.
Time has not been terribly kind to Stronghold, not only in gameplay, but in terms of sound and graphics. Its graphics aren't bad in a way that hinders the gameplay, but they felt dated in 2001 and they definitely feel dated now. The 3D sequels were only average for their time as well, and the sound isn't anything spectacular. Don't go into it expecting anything amazing, but like with any other re-released game or collection, this is to be expected.
Stronghold and its sequels can be fun, but like a polystyrene castle, don't expect it to stand up for long. Nostalgia is a powerful force as any gamer can attest, and if you are an old fan of the games wanting to play it again or see where the series has went, the Stronghold Collectionis definitely for you.