|Dev: Firefly Studios|
|Release: October 25, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Alcohol Reference, Blood, Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
Many gamers are wary about Stronghold 3—which isn't surprising, considering that Stronghold 2 was widely considered a disappointment. To save the franchise, developer Firefly has tried to eliminate the overly complicated elements that made Stronghold 2 so fiddly, rekindle the magic of the original games in the series, and add a modern touch with some new features.
Does it work? Well, mostly. If you loved Stronghold and its unnumbered successor, Stronghold Crusaders, you'll be delighted to find that the old formula is back and there's plenty of content. However, the game does a poor job of easing in newcomers, and it's lacking some key features. So, at $50, this is a decent buy for hardcore Stronghold fans, but other gamers can skip it, or at least wait for a price cut.
As you might already know, the point of Stronghold is to build a castle, organize your local economy, and take on rivals both offensively (through sieges) and defensively (by fighting off invasions). It's a terrific blend of several different gameplay types: There's the sandbox thrill of being a castle architect, the city-simulator angle of making sure your peasants don't starve, and the military strategy of beating back enemy forces. When all of these elements work in perfect harmony, you really do feel like a king. And with each of these features, Stronghold 3 not only brings back the magic of the series' roots, but makes substantial improvements.
Thanks in part to a third-party engine (Trinity, which was also used for the most recent Settlers game), castle-building is no longer locked to a grid—you can rotate your buildings any way you please, and you can place your walls in any design imaginable. You can customize and decorate your castle like never before. In fact, if that's all you want to do, you can focus on building in the game's sandbox mode, with no hungry mouths to feed, no need to raise money to buy materials, and no barbarians at the gates.
When it comes to managing your castle's town, the overly complex setup of Stronghold 2 has been rolled back, and once again you use simple tools to deal with complex situations. It's always a struggle to come up with just the right balance of food, wood, stone, and other commodities, but there aren't so many different resources and petty tasks that it becomes overwhelming. Also, you can choose between being a popular ruler who draws peasants with low taxes, high rations, and entertainment options, and being an evil SOB who may not attract many subjects but wrings every last ounce of work out of the people he does rule by threatening them with torture. And like the sandbox features, the city-simulator elements of Stronghold 3 get their very own game mode: an economic campaign with virtually no combat.
If a campaign with no combat seems silly to you (as it does to me), don't fret; the standard military campaign is still the main offering here, and it features 17 missions. The story is that the Wolf has returned to seek vengeance, which is a stupid idea that tries too hard to recreate the original Stronghold—the last time we saw the Wolf, he fell off a tower with a sword in his chest—but, well, whatever. It gets the job done. In your early missions, you will escape your burning castle, try to find the surviving members of your army, and set up a series of temporary encampments to hold off the Wolf's forces, which have been sent to hunt you down.
Gradually, as you regain a foothold in the world and your focus shifts from defense to offense, the game's features open up. That's when you can start seriously building castles, and that's also when the military campaign starts to shine. There's a day/night cycle, which uses literal darkness as a fog of war; if you don't want your castle to suffer a surprise attack, you have to illuminate the area and scout for enemy invaders. And as every preview of Stronghold 3 noted, you have the option of throwing diseased badger carcasses into enemy strongholds during a siege—which is not only (darkly) hilarious and fun, but also based on real history. In fact, all of the weaponry here is top-notch, capturing the brutal reality of siege warfare with a wink.
Another nod to history is a game mode that recreates real castle sieges and lets you play as an attacker or defender. And, of course, Stronghold 3 includes a variety of multiplayer modes, including deathmatch, king of the hill, capture the flag, and a new mode in which you start as a peasant with nothing and try to become a king. Suffice it to say that if you've been waiting a long time for another good Stronghold game, you will lose hours and hours to Stronghold 3.
Graphically, the game is up-to-date but not cutting-edge. Havok physics are great when the walls crumble, but many of the visuals could use a bit more detail. The music is decent—about what you'd expect from a medieval-themed strategy game—but not spectacular. The voice acting is fine, but the adviser dialogue could have been toned down a bit.
There are, however, a variety of minor problems that will hurt the experience even for fans. One issue I frequently encountered is that when you try to select an enemy to attack, sometimes you have to move the cursor a little off to the side to get the arrow to turn to a sword, which is frustrating in the heat of battle. In addition, even though they unfold simultaneously in real time, the military and economic sides of the game seem to operate independently of one another—it's awfully weird to have your adviser telling you how much your people love you as the enemy knocks down your walls and starts to invade.