Stronghold 2

  • August 13, 2005
  • by: Snapper
  • available on: PC

Stronghold 2

Developer: Firefly Studios
Publisher: Take 2 Interactive

Release Date: 04/18/2005

ESRB: T

Genre: strategy
Setting: medieval

The first Stronghold game offered a blend of real-time strategy and castle simulation and it was the most intricate and complex strategy game I had ever played - until now. Stronghold 2 keeps the spirit of the original alive, expands it a great deal and gives it a spectacular 3D face lift. However, it is another of those games that was shipped before it was finished and it has many bugs, broken features and balance issues to show for it.

Castle Life
A castle in Stronghold 2 is really a thriving city, full of farms and workshops and citizens going about their daily lives. The civilian population is determined by the number of hovels (houses) that are built on the estate. Instead of explicitly creating peasants, they appear automatically and gather around a fire to wile away the hours waiting for a job.

A great example of the game's depth is how peasants are fed. The granary (or food warehouse) is stocked from the orchards, dairy farms, hunters' posts and bakeries where the peasants are put to work. Each type of food has benefits and drawbacks. Cheese is produced slowly, but the cows also serve to provide tanners with leather and as "projectiles" for catapults.

The bakeries are meant to be the most efficient food source in the game, therefore, they're the most complex. Instead of just magically creating bread, the bakery is the last of a three step process. Grain must be grown in wheat farms and delivered to the castle's stockpile. Then mill boys collect the grain and mill it into flour, which is also stored in the stockpile. Finally, the bakers retrieve the flour and produce their bread. This process is slow to get running, but when it's in place it will feed the population nicely.

The economic side of the game is full of these fairly complex processes. Woodcutters deliver wood to the stockpile, where it's used for buildings and weapons and fortifications. Stone masons cut stone into blocks, drovers load it onto their ox carts and carry it back to the stockpile as well, for use in stone buildings, walls and towers.

Were Medieval Civil Servants Lazy, Too?
Production isn't the only occupation for peasants, of course. Castle services must be provided to keep the workers happy and paying taxes. Other games can have cows, horses, sheep and ox milling about, but never make the player clean up after them. Not so for Stronghold 2. All those farm animals - not to mention the humans - produce a remarkable amount of gong (dung). Somebody has to clean that up! Otherwise, rats will appear and scamper all over the castle and disease will spread. Enter the gong farmer, the falconer and the alchemist. Their jobs are to keep the castle clean and disease free, which keeps the population happy and keeps His Lordship, the noble leader, in good favor.

What would society be without its criminals? Occasionally, a peasant will decide he doesn't want to work. He'll abandon his post and sneak off to the stockpile or granary to swipe some goods. To keep the commoners in line, a well-managed castle needs guards. Criminals get locked away in dungeons and judged for their crimes. What happens then is up to the player. There are many different "devices" available for meeting out punishment, from the brutal burning stake to the heinous torture wheel to the more civilized stocks. The criminal, if he survives his punishment, returns to work with a new outlook on life.

Mister...er I mean Sir Popularity
Managing a castle like a well-oiled machine is no easy task. His Lordship must strive to keep his people happy if his castle is to survive. When the peasants see rats running about or piles of gong or criminals running rampant, they become unhappy. When taxes are high or food is low, they become unhappier still. Sometimes, though, food is difficult to produce and half-rations are a necessary evil. Also, the army is always in need of funding.

His Lordship's popularity among his people is shown as a number from one to one hundred. When the popularity is above fifty, the populace is happy and people want to live in His Lordship's castle. When the popularity drops below fifty, however, people are unhappy and they begin to abandon their jobs and move on to greener pastures.

To address these morale problems, His Lordship must do more than simply ensure that the rats and gong and criminals are kept in check. Churches provide a significant boost to popularity, but require a constant source of candles from the chandlers (candle makers). Another solution is to build an inn and stock it with ale from the brewery. Big popularity bonuses come from building traveling fair or building a jousting arena, but these are seasonal events which only take place once every several months.

When applied strategically, these popularity bonuses can have His Lordship's people singing his praises even if they're starving or being taxed into poverty.

Two Games In One
A person could play Stronghold 2 for hours on end and never engage in a single battle. The game's simulation of castle life is so deep and so detailed, it could be considered a separate game all to itself. In fact, a whole campaign has been designed with that very idea in mind.

The economic campaign presents players with increasingly difficult challenges that have almost nothing at all to do with warfare. Instead, the focus is on such things as establishing an efficient economy in a short amount of time or ramping up production of weapons for the front lines. It's not nearly as easy as it sounds, though. Several of these missions required repeat attempts and intricately refined production efficiency.

After the economic campaign is over (and it's disappointingly short), players can move on to the military campaign or if they prefer to continue playing in a peaceful setting they can opt to start a 'Free Build' game instead. This game mode allows players to have, essentially, a pet castle. Choose from half a dozen maps or so (or create a new one) and start building a castle without any pressure or worry about invasions and the like.

War-hawkish players might overlook the economic campaign and the Free Build mode, but they'd do themselves a great disservice. In addition to just being fun to play, the economic campaign serves as a great tutorial. It goes far beyond the game's basic tutorial and helps to build a solid foundation of civilization management skill that will prove invaluable in the military campaign and in multiplayer games. The Free Build mode is valuable for practice and honing of economic strategies. After all, if the castle isn't kept running efficiently, then there's not much hope of keeping its defenses strong or its army fortified.

The 'u' Makes It Sound More Medieval-ish
It takes a lot of work to build an army. His Lordship must put peasants to work crafting bows and spears and swords and armor. He must order the construction barracks for his troops and stables for their mounts. All of this requires a heap of gold and another resource that's almost as valuable: Honour.

Honour is the only way His Lordship can acquire new estates or gain promotions or recruit powerful military units. His Lordship earns honour in many ways, including taking a wife, holding jousting contests, erecting statues of himself in his castle, and holding great feasts and dances at the keep. The dances and feasts are a great source of honour, but both require significant investments in production buildings and laborers to support them.

By the way, one of the few times His Lordship leaves the castle keep is to visit his lady's bedroom. I'm sure she just invited him over for some nice "hot coffee", though.

To Crush Your Enemies...
The military side of the game is as rich and complex as the economic side and really one could argue the military side itself is not two but three games in one: defending, sieging and open-field war.

Even the most productive and efficient populace must be well-defended if it is to survive. Stronghold 2's bread and butter is siege warfare, after all. If His Lordship sees a neighbor coming to visit, he cannot afford to assume it is for a friendly wager on the local jousting tournament.

Castle defenses come in many forms. Cheap, weak wooden walls are really only good for slowing the enemy down. Strong, but expensive stone walls can be enhanced with towers of all sizes and troops can be stationed there. Archers for the towers and pike men to fend off any pesky enemy ladder men. A plethora of defensive contraptions can be affixed to the walls and towers and they are just a blast to play with.

This is where the game gets really fun. My favorite is the burning logs. Four huge logs bound to a ramp high up on the wall. When the enemy approaches, it is set alight and the bonds are cut. The flaming logs crash down on the enemy sending them flying in all directions and setting fire to everything they touch.

My second favorite is the pitch ditch. The ground is saturated with highly flammable pitch and when the enemy walks unknowingly upon it, a flaming arrow sets the whole area ablaze. Ah, the wails of the dying enemy. I can hear them now. Scream little soldiers! It is sweet music to my ears.

Anyway...where was I? Oh yes. Defending against a siege is hard Much as it should be. A proper siege cuts its victim off from reinforcements and supplies, which usually proves to be its doom. Stronghold 2's defensive tactics are wonderful, but they alone will not ensure the castle's surviving the siege. The game's siege equipment is impressive as well and a few trebuchets will make quite short work of even the most impressively designed defenses. The army must get out there and fight!

See Them Driven Before You...
With over a dozen types of soldiers at his disposal, His Lordship can amass quite a formidable army...and he'll need it. The enemy will be coming with everything he's got. Open field battles can be frantic and brutal and the losses will most assuredly be heavy on both sides.

Spear men, pike men, archers, swordsmen, knights, axe men, and monks. Oh my, indeed. That's just a sample of the types of troops that can make up a typical army in Stronghold 2 and it doesn't even mention the siege units! Each unit type has its advantages and disadvantages of course. Swordsmen have strong armor, but they have to engage in hand to hand combat. Archers can rain arrows down on the enemy from afar, but they deal and withstand less damage. Formations tend to keep more powerful units in front and ranged units in the rear, which is ideal for a frontal assault. Of course, sneaking up behind such a formation could prove to make the battle a short one.

Usually, an open-field battle can only be actually be won by overwhelming numbers. Often the struggle is an arm wrestling match to see which army prevails and which must retreat to the relative safety of its castle's defenses.

And To Hear The Lamentation Of Their Women...
When the time comes, and it will, to lay siege to his enemy's castle, His Lordship's army has quite a formidable arsenal at its disposal. Catapults, trebuchets, ladder men and sappers (tunnelers). Many types of siege equipment can be built out in the field at a siege camp. The camp is expensive to build, but it is much better than waiting for the slow equipment to cross open land.

My favorite siege attack is the flaming hay cart. (Yes, fire again.) Two soldiers set the hay ablaze and crash the cart into the enemy's wooden structures. The flames spread wide and even spread from building to building. The carts are pretty easy to stop, but one of these carts can quickly decimate enemy forces and civilian settlements.

The massive trebuchets are one of the most devastating types of siege equipment. They lob rocks over great distances and blast huge holes in even the toughest stone walls. Usually either the trebuchets or the ladder men will gain access to the sieged castle's interior and the armies will meet again.

Once again, overwhelming numbers are the key and getting past the army into the enemy castle keep is a top priority. That's where the enemy lord hides and it should become his tomb!

Which Castle Service Gets Rid Of Bugs?
All is not feasts and fairs in the land, though. Stronghold 2 is yet another game in a series of recent games by various publishers to be shipped in an incomplete state. Bugs and broken features abound. The game's beautiful graphics come at a price. If you're not running a bleeding edge gaming PC, then you'll have to turn the graphics down considerably for the game to be playable and even then it might go into a stutter after an hour or two of playing.

The game manual speaks of betting on jousting matches, but it is not in the game. It speaks of His Lordship attending church and presiding over criminal trials, but it is not in the game. It speaks of playing against AI enemies in multiplayer, but it is not in the game.

Feeding The Peasants Pheasants
Stronghold 2 suffers from significant balance issues as well. The most glaring of these is meat. Hunters are civilians who produce meat from rabbits, deer and birds and their zippy little dogs deliver it quickly back to the granary. Meat is supposed to be one of the early food sources, and one of the least efficient. The hunter is supposed to track all over the map to find his prey. However, due to a curious design decision, flocks of birds continuously spawn directly over the hunter's hut and he never has to walk anywhere.

Since hunter huts are so cheap to build and take up so little space, it's easy to build them by the dozens. Suddenly, what should be one of the least effective sources of food becomes, by far, the most. The other food production facilities become pointless. When exploited, this can produce enough meat to be the only source of gold when the meat is sold at market. This exploit can make single-player games far too easy and multiplayer games unfair.

Narcissism Is Profitable
Another big balance issue is the ease with which a player can generate large amounts of honour by building dozens of statues in the castle. Each one produces a small honour boost every month. The statues are fairly cheap and very small so a player who wishes to exploit this balance flaw can create fields of statues to go with the fields of hunters posts.

A Chocolate Sundae Without Nuts Or Whipped Cream
There are other features that just don't work the way I thought they should. For instance, most buildings can be rotated, giving the player a fine level of control over castle layout. Many buildings, though, cannot be rotated and for no apparent reason. Additional stockpiles must be built right next to the existing one - again for no apparent reason other than to place artificial restrictions on castle planning.

Issues like these are numerous. Why can't I build stone walls on a neighboring estate? Why can't I build a barracks there? It just doesn't make sense for such apparently arbitrary restrictions to be found in a game that seems to strive for realism in so many other areas. Why can't buildings be placed where the ground is slightly lumpy? If we can dig boulders out of the ground and use them to build massive structures, shouldn't we have the technology to build a foundation for them? And trees! We can cut trees down to use the wood, but perish the thought of clearing them out of the way to build walls! I digress...

As it is, the bugs and broken features don't make the game bad, they just keep it far shy of being great. It isn't that I want for something more, it's knowing what the game would have been if they'd just followed through. It's knowing what Firefly was promising for this sequel and seeing them deliver so much less.

Don't get me wrong. The game is fun to play despite its flaws, most of which can be addressed through patches. There's been one major patch already and another is promised in the next month or so. Hopefully it will address the major issues and most importantly for me, hopefully it will add the promised multiplayer AI enemy feature. That, frankly, was the reason I was eagerly anticipating this release...its omission is why it took me so long to play this game enough to write this review.

If you like the idea of building and running a castle or if siege warfare is your cup of tea, then Stronghold 2 is the game for you. It's an easy recommendation, considering how narrow the siege warfare RTS niche is. Just prepare to be drawn into the teeming masses shouting for Firefly to fix what is broken and add what is missing. If you're like me, you'll find yourself quickly loving what the developers started and at the same time dismayed that they did not finish.

For more detailed information about Stronghold 2, including downloadable maps and other content as well as very active player forums, check out the Stronghold 2 site at Heaven Games:

http://stronghold2.heavengames.com/

Other Articles By This Author

About the Author, JC Ford (A.K.A Snapper)

I'm a thirty-something computer programmer. I live in Delaware, but I grew up in Arkansas in a tiny town of 2500. We didn't have video arcades. Heck, it was nearly an hour's drive to anything as sophisticated as a Wal*Mart. Needless to say, my exposure to video games as a child was somewhat limited.

In the mid 80's, I cut my teeth on a used Atari 2600 bought at a flea market and a handful of games like Space Invaders and Pac Man. I was hooked in a blink. In the decades since, I've become a big fan of many genres of games. From first-person shooters to role-playing to strategy and everything in between. The only games that categorically don't interest me are sports games.

The easiest way for a game to win me over is to have a gripping story. I'll forgive a lot in a game that grabs me and keeps me interested. The inverse is true, too. If a game does not have a killer story, its gameplay had better be pretty darn compelling to make up for it. That doesn't happen very often