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For fans of the Stronghold series the prospect of a new chapter provoked a great deal of anticipation. The expectations were stoked by some early positive previews, and a promise from developer Firefly that part three would signal a return to the core concept. In the event Stronghold 3 does roll back the years and adhere to the original formula, but it also has some pretty serious flaws. In fact, this slice of medieval action is about as welcome as the plague. It quite simply is not a finished game and you’ll experience a horrifying number of bugs, some glaringly broken design mechanics and a bunch of conspicuously missing details.
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Castle Building, City Management and Real-Time Warfare
The basis for games like Stronghold was set up by a multitude of titles in the real-time strategy and city management genre. Settlers, Command and Conquer and Age of Empires all had an influence. The basic idea is to rule a village or town. You have to construct buildings, attract a peasant workforce, collect resources, build an army, and most attractive of all – construct a castle. You have to keep peasants happy in order to attract them to your settlement and this means balancing your resources and taxes.
You can choose to play with a military or an economic focus and the levels are story based. Each level has a series of objectives you’ll need to complete, such as destroying an attacking enemy force or amassing a stockpile of specific resources. The military fork of the progression tree starts out with you on the defensive, but as the levels wear on, you’ll find yourself leading attacks. The economic path is much more about resource management and building, although it’s not free from violent threats, so you can’t ignore the need for soldiers and defences.
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Travelling Back in Time
It is laudable that the developer wanted to return to the fun gameplay blend that made the original release so popular with fans. The first Stronghold game was awesome, and Stronghold Crusader wasn’t bad either, but things went seriously downhill with Stronghold 2.
The return to a simple and accessible formula was the stated aim. I knew they were trying to roll back the gameplay, but I had no idea they would roll back the graphics too. I actually had to double check that I hadn’t loaded up the original game by accident when I embarked on the first mission. The textures are muddy, the animations are basic, and the lack of attention of detail is very irritating. For example, I built my first stockpile on top of a bush and it remained in place inside the building.
Pre-release much was made of the ability to construct buildings in any pattern you like, and to build walls that can cope with spanning different territory that could be angled exactly the way you want. The first nasty surprise was that you can’t slot buildings together. Each building has a square around it and although you can rotate them, they aren’t allowed to overlap with anything. The maps are tiny, so in practice you will struggle to fit your buildings in, and there are plenty of awkward terrain details that get in the way.
How about the walls? Well, yes you can indeed build them at whatever angle you like, and they can cope with changes in height in the terrain. I gleefully constructed a wall around my settlement to protect my citizens from roaming wolves only to find them running through the wall. Seriously, they ran straight through the wall as though it wasn’t there at all. I later discovered that walls don’t block enemy fire either, so you’d be forgiven for wondering about the usefulness of them at all.
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It Gets Worse
The game crashes pretty frequently. When you know a level is going wrong there’s no quick option to restart it. You have to quit to the main menu and select it again. This becomes a problem because the design is so demented that you’ll have to play the same levels over and over to conquer them. It feels like each one only really has one winning strategy, and if you don’t seize on it straight away you’ll be crushed.
As a Stronghold veteran, this is deeply frustrating. For a newcomer, I imagine it would be even worse. I expect a game to get harder as I progress, but Stronghold 3 is unforgiving from the start. In the first level of the economic campaign you’ll encounter a bear. It took seven peasant soldiers to kill the bear. The first time I played it, I assumed that five men would deal with a bear. It ate my entire settlement. At the second attempt, my band of seven managed to kill it with one man left over, but an apple blight followed by a rain shower emptied my settlement. Honestly, the happiness of the peasants is majorly influenced by the weather. If it rains they hate you, if it is sunny they are happy.
Things didn’t get any better on level two where the wolves ran through my fences and ate everyone in sight. They are insanely overpowered.
On the military path I had a bit more success. The first level is a very boring affair where you have to find the princess, then guide her to the horses to escape. This mission highlighted the difficulty in clicking on enemies to command your men to attack them. You have to get exactly the right spot to conjure up the sword icon which is horribly fiddly in the heat of battle. The second level bizarrely involved no combat at all, but the third proved to be a frustrating and futile attempt to fight off several waves of enemy attackers. Several times I drew a box around my men, and it only selected a small portion of them, certain soldiers proved virtually impossible to select without zooming right in.
The backstory is conveyed by concept art and voiceovers as each level loads. It’s not particularly engaging, and the resurrection of the Wolf is bit daft. Some of the dialogue is liable to provoke a few laughs as well. My favorite was “We thought that we were hurting them. And we were.”
One of the most conspicuous missing features is the fact that you can’t speed up or slow down time at all. It’s such an obviously stock feature in the genre that its omission feels very strange. It also means that the game moves at a snail's pace and you have no option but to wait.
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Battling Your Way to Fun
It can’t all be bad, can it? All of the necessary elements are in there for an addictive game, but it needs some serious work. The levels do get more interesting as you progress, but you’d be forgiven for giving up early because the initial experience is so bad. It doesn’t get any less buggy either.
I want to like this game, but in its current state it is impossible to recommend. The developer has already come out in response to the complaints flooding the forums and said that they are working on patches and there will be new content. That’s good and maybe in a few weeks or months we’ll get the game that Stronghold 3 should have been. However, it’s not a great comfort for anyone who just paid out $50 to buy a game that simply doesn’t deliver.
- All references and screenshots from Stronghold 3 on the PC.