There’s something strangely addictive and likeable about strategy titles set in the medieval ages or before. The fact that a sniper armed with today’s technology could do the workload of a thousand Archers in a fraction of the time and save umpteen lives of his colleagues has no effect. Perhaps it’s the idea of assembling huge armies of around 20,000 soldiers to charge up hills towards castles, armed with swords, ladders and those spiky balls on chains, making the walls tumble and plundering all in sight.
In Stronghold 2, that’s exactly it. Forget “Fireman” Sam Fisher, sneaking in and out of the darkness armed with a knife and a silenced pistol; take half the country bounding towards a stone castle, carrying the kitchen sink to lob at the enemy. There are no barbed wire fences to cut here either, grab a huge tree truck and ram it against the wall until it crumbles. Stronghold 2 is about overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers and tactical play, not “one man and his dog” sneaking around guards and through air conditioning shafts. This is real war. Grrrr! This’ll put hairs on yer’ chest and bristles on yer’ chin.
Firefly Studios’ sequel to the acclaimed title of 2001 again comes in two flavours when it comes to one player missions. Military mode is the real deal, putting you in control of a group of soldiers in various scenarios, and given the available options you have to find a way to complete it. Sounds very simple, but like Command and Conquer you must build a base on which to strengthen your forces and focus your attack. Unlike Command and Conquer, your base needs to be built from natural resources, and then there’s your troops to think about too.
Just like ‘way back when’, placing of your castle keep (the backbone of your fortress) needs to be strategic. There’s little point placing it in the middle of a valley so to enjoy the view, when your troops have to wander off to find wood and rocks to maintain the place and there are hills all around for the enemy to gain advantages from. Of course, you also have to think ahead. Placing your keep amongst a forest may seem all well and good, but once all of those trees are gone, guess what? No more wood income. And that’s bad.
To build castles you need carpenters and masonries to cut wood and stone and place it in your keep for construction. It’s the gathering of resources which takes times, thankfully construction of walls and buildings is as simple as choose and click. This of course means you have to keep an eye on the enemy; a small band of soldiers can some times wander down and start to attack your peasants, cutting the supply line, so often the first thing to do is secure the working class by building guard towers.
Wood and metal (the latter gathered by smelting ore found in mines) can also be used to make weapons. Building workshops makes peasants wander to the store room, collect their materials and then they can work on them, again costing time. The newly manufactured weaponry is then place in an armoury, where converted peasants from homes are trained into soldiers at barracks, with the amount you can train being based on the amount of weapons available. The more work shops you build, the faster weapons are produced. The faster weapons are produced, the more resource-gathering peasants you need. And the more gathering-peasants there are means you need more raw materials.
And that’s not just it; your people need feeding too, so hunters and farms, bakeries and mills have to be built to satisfy a growing workforce and army. The amount of food, amongst other things has an effect on your troops’ and peasants’ morale, so an army deprived of dinner are much more likely to revolt against your orders whilst those eating themselves silly will be less willing to move from the table. Food rations can be used to counter balance the effect of raising or lowering taxes, amongst many other variables, so charging more taxes to boost your gold reserves to buy materials but giving your peoples more food should make them forget - for a while.
The economy side of things has received much needed attention this time round, as a new Honours system requires that you look after them there little peasants like Sims (only far less dull), and the higher you get promoted the more items and buildings you can deploy in battles and also to further increase your peasants happiness and ease of life.
There are now thieves in your ranks, with the odd peasant swiping more food than rationed or other mischievous doings, and getting caught. When a peasant is caught thieving, their entire workplace becomes un-useable for the amount of time they are guilty, so taking the diplomatic route of court and turning your bad peasants in good ‘uns again saves you waiting for fresh troops to be trained, however this takes time, so some sadists out there will revel in the depth of cruel punishment stations implemented. There are public executions and even peasants burnt at the stake; doing so gets workplaces back to work again, albeit one member short, and your castle is back underway again.
Battle-wise, there are far more ways to attack and defend castles thanks to the fact that regular troops can no longer damage castle walls, meaning that siege equipment can actually be used. Before, it made more sense to have archers raining arrows down on attacking troops, with sword-wielding foot soldiers waiting inside for when the walls came down. Now ladders play a vital part in getting inside castles, along with the classic ‘thump-the-front-door-with-a-tree’ method, plus there are specialist members in your ranks for breaking down stone and wooden walls.
Fans of the first game will be totally thrilled to here that everything here is in full 3-D, and not the isometric view of before, so now its actually possible to see exactly what your troops are shouting about down at the castle wall by rotating the camera round that point, instead of sending half of Norway to scare away a poxy wolf. It is, of course, these days the ‘norm’ to make the sequel of a hit title in full 3-D, but here you get the impression that the transition was made the aid the gameplay. Because peasants actually work, transporting goods to and from their workplaces, the move to better graphics is fully understandable. Zoom in on a farm and you’ll see a farmer tending his crops; wait near your granary and see impressively busty bakery girls hoarding freshly bakes bread on trays; and then there are the gruesome punishment stations.
But the jump in graphical quality isn’t without its problems. Because of the large numbers of troops during battles, the time accelerator will often fail to ‘accelerate’ on lower end systems, causing the game to slow down. However, I’m more than willing to oversee this problem due to the beauty of the worlds, buildings and characters in the game, especially seeing as large battles make up only a small portion of the game, and you’ll be too busy scrolling around the map trying to outflank the enemy to sit there and note the shortcomings of the slowdown.
The AI deploys a few cheeky tactics during games, with the enemy sometimes sending a small batch of archers to draw out a legion of foot soldiers to be slaughtered away from the action. But when attacking, the enemy are spot on, attacking any weaknesses you have and acting as you’d expect a rival general to behave in the dark ages of war. Despite the shortcomings of the AI, I must admit that tactics back ‘then’ weren’t anything like the military assaults of today, and so for that a massive markdown in recommendation for Stronghold 2 isn’t liable. Put it this way; when the AI acts a bit weird by sending down small portions of soldiers or totally overwhelming your castle, you won’t exactly be banging your head on your desk and trying to find out your receipt; if you’re like me you’ll just wave it off and carry on willy-nilly.
There are also various bugs hidden in the game, again adding to the unpolished nature of the title like before. To be honest I only ever encountered cosmetic faults that rarely troubled gameplay; if there were any mistakes that I missed, they certainly didn’t drain any fun the unpredictable atmosphere projected by medieval warfare. There are patches already available from Firefly Studios that fix a few problems highlighted by early users, so most likely any major bugs will be patched up by the time you read this review. And seeing as you need the internet to access Thunderbolt, downloading them shouldn’t be a problem either.
There’s plenty to do in Stronghold 2, with the two modes of play explained above plus a skirmish mode, sets of pre-made maps and structures to attack or defend plus a fee build mode will keep everyone happy and busy, especially me. There’s also multiplayer chucked in for those wishing to siege each other’s castles.
The final thought? I simply can’t get enough of Stronghold 2; the original had me hooked for months and I’m currently playing back through the games missions. The vastly improved graphics are a joy to behold, the new punishment stations add a dimension to gameplay and the various modes will keep you playing ’til doomsday and beyond. It’s almost perfect atmosphere-wise, and I could not have wished for anything more.
Nine out of ten