9.8

Stronghold review
Stronghold

The good:

Superb level of detail, incredible depth, masses of gameplay, humour and freedom to create your perfect castle combine to make a wonderful gaming experience.

The bad:

You will lose hours of your life to this game.

Summary:

I just spent virtually my entire weekend playing Sronghold and after a serious amount of hours have just finished the 'King's Ransom' level. It took Jackie Brown to come on TV to stop me playing last night! I have to say this is the most detailed, beautiful, complex, fun, addictive and just downright enjoyable game I have played for years.
I must say I am a little biased in that the subject material is one of my interests since a small boy.
You know the score - build a castle with a multitude of interchangeable parts, defend your people from continuous waves of attackers (in seige Campaign Mode), whilst trying to develop and maintain an economy with various resource-gathering and production buildings to support your construction and troop creation. Other modes of play include a seperate Economic campaign, Skirmish games where you can siege or defend and multiplayer games with an array of tweakable options.

Things I've loved so far -
The detail! Sumptuous, and a work of love. From the way your little fellers wade through the marshes to the detailing on the armour in the stills and character screens. Oh and the trees that sway in the wind! A lot of work has gone into this and it really comes across.
The strong vein of humour that runs through the game. For once I did not yawn in the intro. I am one of those people that actually reads the manual and I appreciated the write-ups of the individual personalities of the castle residents. (I think the Lady is having an affair with my chief woodcutter..). And I cracked up the first time I suffered a Rabbit Invasion, and then 'dealt' with it with a horde of macemen.
The technical achievements of the game engine. Not only can I place as many units as I want on the battlements and watch their arrows fly without any slowdown, but there are no distracting loading times. (I have an obsolescent PIII 500).
The depth of gameplay. Honestly I am shocked at how many hours I have put into playing just one level. Yes I've played most of the RTS's out there but few genuinely offer this kind of complexity and freedom to choose your strategy. (To call it an RTS is almost belittling the game - it is more than this).
The learning curve. At first I was almost disappointed, but then the depth and the complexity kind of crept up on me without me noticing. Most games of this type make things fairly easy until the last 2 missions then throw everything at you. Stronghold has a refreshingly enjoyable and challenging difficulty level that sneaks up on you then starts bludgeoning the back of your head. It's got meat to go with all that cheese that's stinking up my granary. The gameplay is perfectly balanced and often has you searching frantically for the weak link both in your economy system and your castle defences.
The AI. It actually looks and feels like the enemy soldiers hunt out and find the weaknesses and holes in your defences. They could have run blindly into your arrows but instead they are a worthy intelligent invasion force. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for my enemy's minions as they run desperately into my carefully engineered killing zone looking for a way in. The sound of that wall being hammered by a lone survivor often has me frantically spinning round the map looking for him with nostrils flaring! Also I can happily leave my defenders to fire at will and rarely find the need to have them target anyone specifically.
The longevity this product holds in it's bloody gauntlet. I have played just one game mode and there is obviously so much left to go. There is almost an unnecessary number of missions and game types
The storyline. It definitely adds a lot to the game rather than some afterthought that's been tacked on. Giving us four personalities to fight against was a masterstroke. I would have liked a little more emphasis on me being the one to unite the Kingdom though
The voice talent. The character voices are entertaining and convincing -Thank God it wasn't left entirely to the Americans
The 'living' environment - I love the way the trees regenerate and there is a viable population of deer, etc that reproduce.
The bug-free condition of this product! Another refreshing change for a PC game.
The music. It's beautiful! I wish we could hear more of the very first track that is played when loading up. Also a music track selector in the options menu would have been a nice touch. If you turn up the bass those drums in an action phase really get your heart pumping!
There are some nice little surprise messages that gave me another reason to be laughing. I won't write a spoiler here but it reminded me a little of Black & White

Negative things I've struggled to find so far:

The interface can be a little clunky. I particularly find the camera rotation a tad frustrating at times. I have developed the technique of constantly hitting Pause and doing my camera rotation then unpausing, because trying to fit that Fletcher's workshop into the corner of the inner courtyard in the middle of the latest onslaught has me gritting my teeth. I really want to be able to rotate the camera in 2 directions, not just clockwise. I have a bad sense of direction and get easily disoriented. I have to think in terms of 2 clicks or 3 clicks rather than just moving the map freely. Also I don't just want to hold the button down and wait for the map to rotate, I want it to work instantly. I appreciate why this was done this way though and it does keep things simple.
Not enough interaction in Pause mode. OK giving orders when paused is too much like cheating, but I really want to be able to click on individual buildings and check production, check Popularity and stats etc. I find I am rapidly pausing and unpausing to get info during a battle.
Laying walls can be frustrating sometimes. If for example you are trying to bolster a damaged wall you often end up with one empty section in the middle which you can't get at whichever way you rotate the camera. I have started to find that holding and dragging sometimes works to fix this. I admit though I haven't really used the Flatten map mode - I guess it is there for a reason!
No priority settings. I can see why the developers have avoided some of the micromanagement, however a slightly annoying feature is that you cannot attach priority, for example, to the industry buildings. This is important in disastrous times when your popularity rating has sunk to a low level and people have left in droves, or your castle folk have just been slaughtered but the buildings are still present. I want to tell the new villagers to get in the fletcher's first, for example, not wait in line for 20 or so villagers to go to some of the more menial tasks. I guess there is an in-built priority system, I just haven't worked it out yet.
Bad Things. These structures such as chopping blocks and heads on spikes are placed to encourage your castle residents to work faster. Unfortunately they are not animated like all the other buildings. I want to see rotting corpses in the gibbets and blood dripping from gory severed heads. (I don't get to say that every day!) These look a little 'dumbed down' to me.
The Lady. She just walks snootily around and very often gets herself killed. In one mission my Lord went through about 3 wives because whenever there was a major attack on the castle, she'd be off wandering in the woods with that woodcutter and quickly got maced in a most un-lady-like manner. Highly amusing I am disturbed to admit However I'd like to see her put up a bit of a fight side by side with your valiant Lord.
Lord Longshank's schizophrenic origins - he definitely slipped into a Yorkshire accent at the beginning of the game. Alas it has not returned so far..

I really am nit-picking with these things though.

All in all a superbly accomplished and highly entertaining game.

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