|Dev: Firefly Studios|
|Release: October 25, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Alcohol Reference, Blood, Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
It's good to be king, according to one cliché, and in 2001's hit PC game Stronghold, that was definitely the case. As the leader of a small fiefdom, you had to keep your people happy (or at least scared), besiege other castles, and defend your territory against attack.
Unfortunately, the 2005 sequel didn't do as well, placing too much emphasis on fiddly micromanagement and not enough on bloody battles. For Stronghold 3, due in September, developer Firefly Studios hopes to return to what worked before: simple, intuitive city management, balanced with vicious real-time-strategy fights. That's not to say that city management will be so simple it's stupid. In fact, there's so much strategy involved in the non-battle aspects of the game that there's even a mode that lets you play a campaign without any battles at all.
Stronghold 3 will actually teach you the basic principles of castle design, such as how to funnel attackers into a single place where they can be easily dealt with. Your subjects will now include villagers, in addition to peasants and soldiers. If you're good to your people, showering them with food, official visits, and low tax rates, it will be easier to woo settlements into your domain; if you treat your people ruthlessly, other kings will rush to pay you tribute out of fear. (One contributor to your people's happiness you can't control, unfortunately, is the weather.) Whereas previous games encouraged you to build settlements in hard-to-navigate territory like mountains where they'd be less likely to be attacked, settlements in Stronghold 3 will hold more people the closer they are to your castle—making the game more realistic without making it too much more complicated.
You'll also have a lot more freedom in laying out your castle and its grounds. Whereas previous games forced you to build on a grid, Stronghold 3 will allow you to put buildings and settlements wherever you want. The castle, and in particular your keep, will be much more customizable, allowing you to create realistic-looking buildings. The developers themselves used the feature to recreate historical castles for some of the maps.
The battles will see a lot of improvements as well. Previous games have allowed you to launch diseased cows into enemy strongholds—a feature that sounds comical, but is in fact based on a historical practice that was designed to wear down enemy morale. (So far as I can tell, history books do not record the massive, highly lethal disease clouds that pop up in Stronghold whenever a cow lands.) Now, you can also launch sheep and badgers, the latter of which were chosen as an animal projectile by a popular vote.
There are plenty of other ways to slay your foes, of course. You can set up a spring-loaded stake trap that snaps shut when an enemy walks on it and then remains as a barrier. Or you can run down invading troops with huge, flaming logs, or take them out with burning oil. You can even sic angry dogs on them—but don't let your own soldiers get too close, because the canines don't much care whom they tear to pieces.
One especially interesting addition is a day/night cycle. The nighttime essentially acts as a fog of war; you can see what your own units are up to, but the rest of the map is pitch black unless you take steps to illuminate it. This means sending out men with torches, or even launching flaming bales of hay onto the battlefield to see what's going on.
Perhaps the only feature the battles won't have is a morale system. If you tell a lone peasant to take on a whole swarm of bad guys, he'll go ahead and do it. You're the king, after all.
Plotwise, Stronghold 3 will be a sequel to the original game. Wolf, a character who was presumed dead, returns to the kingdom with a band of followers to take over. During the single-player campaign, you'll be making sure that doesn't happen.
There will be a variety of multiplayer options as well. In one mode, you'll start with just a few followers; you'll have to develop technologies for a while before starting to amass troops. The risk/reward scenario here is that the longer you wait, the more powerful weapons you can get—but waiting leaves you vulnerable in the meantime. You'll also be able to create maps and share them with friends.
The developers are also taking care to get the little things right—a luxury they have because this time around, they're relying on a third-party engine (Vision) instead of trying to create their own. Your kingdom will be filled with signs of life, from mobs of unruly teenagers to old ladies chasing rats with broomsticks. And thanks to the Havok physics engine, buildings will be destroyed and people will die with realistic movements.
After the disappointment of Stronghold 2, Firefly will have to prove itself here. But for now, it looks like they took what worked before and added exciting new features—a winning strategy.
CCC Contributing Writer