Developer: Firefly Studios
Ten years have passed since the first Stronghold title challenged us to create our own towers of power, and after a few mixed sequels, Firefly Studios has finally delivered a new iteration of the beloved franchise. Sadly, it seems that the fans' long wait, patience and love has not gone unpunished.
On the face of it, Stronghold 3 is business as usual. Starting out with little more than a barren swamp and a thatched cottage, it's up to players to attract an army of peasants, task them with collecting resources and eventually create a shining beacon of civilisation in the barren wilderness. What follows is an interesting balance between keeping your populace happy and keeping them safe; using a selection of food and resource buildings to create a thriving infrastructure while building fortifications and troops to defend your holdings from ravenous wolves and jealous rival lords. Plague outbreaks and famines are just as dangerous as full-scale sieges, and just as nuanced to defeat. Two distinct singleplayer campaigns provide a focus on warfare and economic expansion, whilst a relaxing free-build mode and prefabricated siege scenarios are on hand to offer some out-of-the-box fun. Plus, Stronghold 3 has a catapult that can be loaded with livestock. What's not to like?
It's a familiar framework, and one that should have been perfectly suited to countless hours of freeform fun. After all, as any original Stronghold, Sim City or even Tiberium Sun player will attest, there's a huge amount of satisfaction to be gleaned from raising a successful citadel out of the muck and ruins. But depressingly, Stronghold 3 falls at the simplest of hurdles: the gameplay just doesn't work at all. It's broken, bad... or more likely both.
At the most basic level, Stronghold 3 does a shockingly poor job of keeping players in control. The GUI is horribly bitty and counter-intuitive, hiding the important features behind sprawling menus and unnecessary icons. Peasants can't be directly controlled, and since you can't build structures on them, doing something as simple as erecting an apple orchard requires minutes of frustrating inactivity as you wait for an empty space to appear for the millisecond you need to place it. Even selecting a particular character is a bizarrely difficult affair, since each unit's clickable pixels are both minuscule and inexplicably placed - sometimes even centimetres away from the model! Micromanagement is therefore an impossible chore... but unbelievably, you're forced to do it at every turn.
See, the AI is probably the worst in recent memory. Your peasants and oxen transports take great delight in harvesting resources you don't need, resulting in a useless surplus and massive defecit when you need it most. Plague doctors will stand idly by while clouds of ruinous disease frighten off the few peasants left alive. Pathfinding is truly horrific, which means that sorting out the simplest problem can take much longer than it ever ought to. And while you're banging your head against a game that won't let you do your job, random events like fires and bear attacks run amok and cripple your fragile infrastructure. At least the pace is so unbelievably slow and languid that you'll have plenty of time on your hands.
The useless controls, terrible pathfinding and crippled AI may be utterly unfit for task during peacetime, but in combat, the effect is multiplied tenfold. Your troops tend to completely ignore the enemy, even when engaged by hostiles or while being hacked to bits. Selecting them, as mentioned, can take an age - and even when you manage to command them to attack, they'll then sit back and watch once their single target has been slain. In contrast to your hapless forces, however, the enemy AI is ferocious and quirky... to the extent where wolves can climb watchtower ladders and eat your archers. What? WHAT?! WHY?!! Conducting a siege can occasionally provide some amusement (thanks to boiling oil and aforementioned cowtapults), but it's usually a draining, unpleasant experience.
It's difficult to know whether Stronghold 3 is broken or thunderously bad. Considering that we haven't heard anything from Firefly since release, I'm inclined to believe the latter.
The siege missions are probably the highlight of the package in their own compartmentalised way. Being able to re-enact some of history's iconic battles is well worth slogging through the awful combat mechanics, and as your walls come tumbling down (seriously, the physics are impressively visceral), you'll feel a real sense of authentic scale. The free build mode is also comparatively functional, since its lack of enemy forces allow you to concentrate on besting the terrible mechanics without interruption.
But these modes highlight the main flaw in the package: a shameful lack of scope and ambition. Forget the sprawling castles shown in trailers and screenshots, because they're just pre-built demo models designed to entice and arouse. In reality, you'll never have enough time, money, resources and patience to build anything resembling a true fortress - and you'll constantly feel like a second-rate stonemason rather than the lord of the castle. An offline skirmish mode against scalable AI would have given us the platform we needed, but it's inexplicably nowhere to be found and crushes potential replay value by its absence.
Graphically, Stronghold 3 is a seriously mixed bag. An impressive physics engine and lighting effects show off the destruction and day/night cycles to advantage, but in raw visual terms, the colour palette is dull and murky while textures are incredibly muddy even when zoomed out to maximum. I appreciate that medieval times aren't exactly famous for their colourful hygienic splendour, but Stronghold 3 fails to be visually engaging.
- Impressive lighting effects
- A few classic moments and satisfaction from successful castle building
- Cow catapult
- Horrible controls and interface
- Obscenely weak AI
- Blurs the distinction between bad and broken
The Short Version: Over the moat of a terrible interface, behind the battlements of shockingly poor AI and deep within the keep of terrible design decisions lies a true Stronghold game. You'll occasionally glimpse it out of the corner of your eye, but to get to it, you'll need to lay siege to your own standards and sanity.
I can't believe that I have to type this: but I hope that Stronghold 3 is broken. At least, then, it can be fixed.