This post may or may not make much sense to anyone outside my head. That’s okay by me, I am waaay beyond the point of caring now. I’m feeling a bit delirious and unsure if I might throw up sometime in the next 12 minutes, and to offset this unfortunate turn of events I spent the past two hours watching Die Hard on Netflicks, because nothing calms the stomach and heals the body quite like Bruce Willis going on a murderous anti-terrorism rampage. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Tophat? Another review for an ancient cult classic movie? Come on, man!”
Not to worry. I decided to do a review for a string of games that I’ve had the misfortune to pick up recently. While I haven’t put nearly as many hours into this franchise as I have, say, Civilization, I’m fairly confident that I can make up the facts about this game that I don’t know, and no one would be the wiser. Maybe someday we’ll have more Bruce Willis shenanigans somewhere else down the line? Today is not that day.
I picked up the Stronghold collection on Steam the other day on a whim, which I’ve really got to stop doing. It always ends in tragedy. But this time I was so sure. Stronghold! Castle building sim! Real time strategy! Armies and murders! You can’t go wrong!
Way back when computers that didn’t require ten thousand punch cards to run a program were new, I was a huge fan of a game called Stronghold. This game came bundled in some kind of “Fantasy Fest” CD, filled to the brim with fantasy, hack and slash and kingdom conquering goodness. Stronghold got most of my play time, in which you would establish five castles in your kingdom, each producing a different kind of unit, develop their land, manage upkeep, and then eventually get utterly decimated by level-draining vampires. I had assumed this Stronghold Pack was the successor to the original game that I sank countless hours into as a kid. But, no. It turns out the game (or rather, the four games that were bundled in the Stronghold pack) was something entirely different, and unfortunately, unplayable.
The Stronghold Pack came in four flavors: Stronghold, which is branded as the “castle sim that started it all,” Stronghold 2, Stronghold Crusader (plus an expansion pack) and the genre breaking Stronghold Legends. The plots and characters involved in these games are largely irrelevant. What we’re going to talk about here today is the gameplay.
Here’s how this works: You’re given a basic keep with a lord or vassal walking around willy nilly like he owns the place. A small campfire in front of the keep will accumulate peasants, who will wander off and provide physical labor for any structure that you build. With these meager resources, you need to collect wood, stone, iron, and create buildings that produce food, in order to create a super dignified castle town. You know the type: Sprawling walls and gate houses to keep out the riffraff and invading armies. Ballistas lining the walls. An entire orchard of food-producing apple trees and cheese farms. Magical micromanagement.
This sounds great in theory, but in practice the game asks way too much of you. The first thing that you’ll notice after taking the reigns on your kingdom is that those greedy little peasants are depleting your food stocks at an alarmingly rapid pace. You’ll establish some wood cutters and then quickly set up some food-producing orchards out in the green space away from your keep. You’ll come to the realization that this is not nearly enough food. You’ll start crying.
Here’s how this went for me. I spent all my available peasants creating food until the point when I was self-sufficient, built another hut to get more peasants, and was quickly horrified to see that the new peasants were depleting the food stocks that I finally got evened out. I placed the town on half rations, and then 1/4 rations not more than seven minutes into the game, which pissed them off to the point when the peasants started LEAVING the castle. Or, more importantly, they started leaving the building that produced food.
I counted this as a lost cause so I restarted the level (the first level, if you’re keeping track at home). The second time around, I managed to even out the peasant’s food supply, and was slowly working my way toward stone production and soldiers to defend my town. That’s when I noticed that BEARS were dotting the map, each of them on their way toward my orchards. Unfortunately, my newly trained troops moved as quickly as Bruce Willis with his feet full of glass at the end of Die Hard, so the bears proceeded to murder everyone in my orchards, sit down and then take a nap, waking up only to maul the next peasant who tried to take up the old post.
The vast amount of peasants being murdered by bears caused people to be unhappy, so then peasants started leaving the castle and we all starved to death. Still, I lasted 10 minutes this time, so I was heartened that I was learning.
The third time I restarted the level, I trained about five soldiers, which was more than I could afford to get and still have some kind of food production. “Half rations for all these ungrateful sots,” I wailed at my monitor, overwhelmed by my kingly duty, “Until this bear menace is under control!”
The soldiers took down two bears, but were too slow to stop the third bear from arriving in the orchard, causing more murder. Then my small band of solders were dramatically brought down by a small pack of wolves that was running around like morons for some reason. I told myself I could still salvage it, but then ALL OF MY CROPS came down with a pestilence, my hops plants got a nasty case of hops weevil, and I ragequit so hard I had to reboot my computer.
Some time later, I decided to give Stronghold Legends a shot. This game follows the story of King Arthur in a way that is neither interesting nor fun. While it seems the hops weevil and wheat pestilence have been gratefully removed, this is a game that will have you tearing your hair out as you struggle to understand exactly the way the game wants you to play. Enemies will set up war camps just outside your reach, and you’ll have to watch your entire army get wiped out just to make sure the enemy doesn’t start producing catapults. This wouldn’t be a problem, except managing your army is like herding cats. There is no effective attack area command (or rather, there is one but every time I tried to use it, it just told me I was unable to attack that location. Your troops will have to either focus on one guy, who can be hard to click on, by the way, or run the danger of running past the enemy army entirely while getting peppered with arrows and spears.
Stronghold Legends also makes a poor attempt at hero characters like Bedivere and Merlin, but since both of these walk so slowly you’d think their legs have been broken, and due to the fact that you need them alive in order to complete the level, it’s actually safer to leave them inside your keep.
Food production is a bit easier to manage in Legends, but it trades those old annoyances for new ones, like the fact that the game keeps throwing enemies at you that you don’t have the right kind of unit to combat, a clunky targeting system, and a liberal helping of bullshit.
I figured Legends was the peak of everything the Stronghold franchise had to offer, so I didn’t even bother with Stronghold 2 and Stronghold Crusader.
What really appealed to me about the old Stronghold game I played when I was a kid was that it was somewhat complicated, easy to organize and mobilize, had an element of strategy to every decision, and was actually still fun to play. I get the feeling the Stronghold series is fun to an elite group of people, but by the end of the second level in Stronghold Legends I had restarted THIRTEEN TIMES because I hadn’t figured out exactly how the game wanted me to proceed. That’s not fun. That’s just tedious.
This whole series is a harsh reminder to me why you should do your research before buying games on a whim.
Filed under: Games | Tagged: archers, bad franchise, bear maulings, Bruce Willis, castle building, castle sim, hops weevil, Merlin, pc gaming, Steam, Stronghold, Stronghold 2, Stronghold Crusader, Stronghold Legends, tedious, walls, wolf packs |