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Welcome to the eigth Really Pathetic News Network Game Review, circa 5/1/2005.

Toggled Review
Stronghold 2 (Firefly Studios, 2K Games) for PC.
By, Eric Allen

Man the battlements! Archers to the walls! Once more into the Breech, Lads! Its Castle building mania in the Middle Ages! It’s Stronghold 2!

I’ve been a big fan of Stronghold since the original oh so not-so-long ago. For me, few things could beat out throwing hundreds of little bit-map electronic people with little electronic sticks and swords at towering bit-map stone walls. I got started with medieval strategy with the most excellent Lords of the Realm II, and Stronghold was like Lords adapted to real-time with the ability to build my own castles. So when I found out that Firefly Studios was following up Stronghold (and the stand-alone expansion Stronghold: Crusader) with a sequel, I anxiously followed its development.

This is also the first game which I did not purchase from a physical store location. Thinking I could get a jump on the action, I “pre-ordered” my game from a well-known on-line company. I don’t think I’ll be doing that with any games in the future, and will go back to physically going to the store. But I did get a “free bonus map” for the game.

The game ships on two CDs in those oh-so-annoying little white paper sleeves. I prefer jewel cases, but I won’t hold their absence against a game. Disk 1 is strictly installation, while Disk 2 is used to finish up installation and for playing the game. They’re even labeled “Disk 1: Installation” and “Disk 2: Play.” So, I installed the game and fired ‘er up. The system requirements are a little steep in comparison to some other games, but any modern computer should run it just fine. The first time you play, it automatically opens the external config utility for setting the graphics. A nice, and getting more common, feature, and theirs even has a “recommended” button for quick optimization.

Now on to the really important stuff: the game itself. For those of you who’ve played the originals Stronghold and Stronghold: Crusader, you’ll be right at home. After the nifty little opening animation, which sets the mood but lacks the tongue-in-cheek of the opening to Stronghold 1, the main shell is pretty smooth and easy to navigate. However, in the current build, there are no “tooltips” to tell you what some of the more cryptic buttons do in, say, the setup menu for “Kingmaker.” This is annoying, and the otherwise excellent manual (I’m a fan of big manuals) falters a touch here. In general, you have two play options: the ‘Path of Peace” and the “Path of War.” “Path of Peace” lead you to Free-build mode (build your castle with only rabbits and wolves to contend with) and the Economic campaign (where your mission objectives are stuff like “produce 100 swords before the timer runs out” or in the first mission “construct a beacon so ships stop bashing themselves against the rocks.” This is the total “Sim Castle” part of the game. The “Path of War” leads you to the main Campaign, Kingbuilder, and Siege modes, where the objectives are quite a bit more violent.

The main campaign now features fully-animated cutscenes supplemented by scripted-action in-game cutscenes. The cast of characters has grown from the original, and the plotline now has more intrigue and direct interaction of the characters. Instead of playing the name-less, face-less, voice-less, generic “young lord” of the original, you now play the part of Mathew Steele, a squire to the raven-haired Sir William (a.k.a., the guy on the cover). To introduce the characters, when they appear for the first time, the camera stops and does a sort of “Coyote and Roadrunner” routine telling their name and their nickname (“The Hammer,” “The Lamb,” “An English Traitor,” “The Bull” etc.). The campaign is broken into “Chapters” with each chapter containing multiple missions. One interesting thing is that the missions within a chapter are persistent—you start mission 2 with the castle in the exact condition you left it at the end of mission 1. You can save the game at any point, but there is only an autosave function between chapters. This is possibly one of the most annoying problems with the game. If you’re only going to play through part of a chapter, you have to start the next mission then save manually.

Gameplay is pretty much identical to the original, with a stockpile, and definite resource and production trees. There are some new resource trees, and several new buildings. Their much-touted new Honor system is a nice addition, but is ultimately just another resource. The new Kingmaker mode of play is nothing more than a traditional “Skirmish mode.” The change comes in that now the map is broken up into territories, and if you own another territory, it will earn you some extra gold and every now and then send an ox-cart with some goods to your castle. This is especially important on cramped maps, as it allows you to “outsource” certain areas of production. Control of the territories, especially in multiplayer (kingmaker with other humans), can become important, as it gives you actual land to fight for control over.

The map editor is good. It is easy to create a good-looking map pretty quickly. Unfortunately, you can only make maps for “kingmaker,” “peaceful missions,” “war missions,” and “free build.” There is no default “Siege” map which was my all-time favorite part of the original Stronghold and is sorely missed. Technically, it is possible to do a siege by building a War map with an invasion scripted in, but I (and many of the online community) have had little luck in getting this to work correctly. I myself managed to get a bunch of troops to invade, but they never attacked my castle. They just stood there out-of-range. There are also some nasty little bugs. The patch (which came out 2 days after the release) fixes some of these, but not all. Online forums are full of requests for bug fixes and little gameplay tweaks (like some way to block off wall portions so if an enemy gains control of your outer wall, they don’t gain access to your entire wall). Multiplayer is a mess right now. There is no way to password-protect your games, little in the way of search functions, and I’ve heard reports that the Kick feature doesn’t always work.

Graphic-wise, this is a dramatic improvement over the original. The game has gone completely 3D, and though the default camera is in basic isometric view (actually a good thing) but you can take control of the camera more fully to get a nice, pretty view of a sheep grazing, an Archer taking aim, or the Lady bathing (I am not kidding—but don’t worry, you can’t “see” anything). In the original Stronghold, when some buildings were in operation, the roof “cut-away” to show the person working inside. With the new engine, Stronghold 2 lets you see into every habitable building from the lowly hovel to the Inn, to the Great Hall in the Keep. This also means that towers in the game now have interiors, and that enemies can now fight for control of the inside of a tower, and attackers must make their way up the stairs to get to the units on top. This is, possibly, my favorite new addition. Most of the characters have quite some detail (though some of the mercenary units look a tad unfinished), and everything just looks spectacular. Even the fire looks better. I’ve noticed that the animations for some of the units in the game have improved as well. For example, in Stronghold 1, the swordsmen had a set “attack animation” of “high chop, thrust, repeat.” The swordsmen in Stronghold 2 will randomly select one of a battery of animations and perform it, meaning any given swordsman might do a high chop, followed by a kick, then push his shield out and away while executing a horizontal cut while passing forward. Its pretty cool to watch, but is hampered by two things: clipping (you can cram as many units as you want into a single space, and your men will pass through each other) and lack of unit interaction (when doing some of the fancier animations, a unit may walk through his adversary, while the adversary does not react to the action). These are not debilitating, and are holdovers from the game’s predecessors, so they can slide. Destruction is also way cooler now. Destroyed buildings implode in a jumble of rock and wood. Stone walls shatter as catapult projectiles smash into them. Units (friendly or enemy) unfortunate enough to be standing around where a catapult’s rock falls are blown into the air (I chuckle with glee every time my catapults lands a rock in the middle of an advancing column, scattering half of them around and breaking up their advance).

One of the best parts of the original Stronghold was the sound. Each character was voiced, and even the peasants would express their views. The sound was rich and vibrant, and often humorous, while the music was simply excellent. The developers went over the top with the sounds in this one. Not only did they keep some of the better dialog from the original, but they added much, much more. The voice acting is much improved with much more emotion and feeling. The sounds are of much higher quality now, with better fidelity, especially in the music (of which the old songs have been re-recorded and added to several new ones). Now, a catapult projectile falling off target and smacking into the dirt actually sounds cool, instead of just a “thud.”

I know this has been a long and drawn out review, so I’ll wrap it up here for all of you who don’t like to read long articles:

The Good:
Graphics and animations are much improved
Towers. They now have interiors and arrow loops.
The Sound
The attention to detail
Map editor is powerful (if a tad hard to use)

The Bad:
Buggy. (but a second patch is already in the works)
Multiplayer is a mess
Lack of tooltips or other help for buttons (probably goes under “Buggy”)
Lack of siege option for editor (my personal gripe)
Too few maps for non-campaign play
AI still easy to fool (well, maybe this one isn’t all a bad thing)

The “Ugly”:
What’s my final verdict? I think they rushed it. I don’t know why they would have wanted to rush to market. There’s no major gift-giving season right around the corner. This game definitely needed to spend a little more time with the de-buggers and playtesters a little longer. That said, it’s still a great game. If you enjoyed the predecessors, you’ll enjoy this. In general, it is possible to overlook its shortcomings and appreciate the game for what it is—a castle simulator. It doesn’t have the strategic depth of, say, Medieval: Total War, but it isn’t supposed to. With another patch or two, this can be an all-time classic. I would certainly recommend this game. And in conclusion: it beats the pants off of Castle Strike.

Past Opinion: Xphile’s Tapes: Secrets Revealed III

1031 B.C. - 2010 A.D., Really Pathetic, LLC.