I had high hopes for the second installment of Stronghold as I pushed the CD into the drive; there haven’t been that many truly real-time medieval games in the marketplace, even less have been successful.
The opening movie sets the scene for what I feel is a rather enthralling storyline. I don’t want to ruin it for you but suffice it to say that you’ll be surrounded more than once. Prepare your castle well, man the parapets, and you may just survive to tell the tale.
Missions follow common RTS styles with a few interesting exceptions. You’ll gain the ability to use certain technologies along the road, but are denied certain technologies on certain missions, this is necessary in the most part, because being able to use them would give an overwhelming advantage. Nothing really frustrating in the mission department, and there is no reason that you should need to load a save game unless your getting trounced by an attacking force.
Buildings are constructed instantly, a factor I find a large negative to the realism of the game, there is quite a range of technology and industries that you can implement, so much so that you quite often will not be able to implement them all. My haphazard castles in the early rounds quickly improved to more functional layouts as I learned.
You will get a chance to both defend your castle(s) against overwhelming odds and use siege equipment to smash enemy’s castles to bits, although personally I love the tension of trying to mow down enemies rushing towards your castles. Rolling logs and flaming arrows all add to the feeling that you’re really in a life and death struggle.
Several of the missions follow on from previous missions, using the same maps and castles, that means that careful planning always pays off, things can turn on you very quickly and more than once I failed missions because I overexposed myself by committing all my troops to a given situation, rather than holding some back to protect my castle.
In addition to the obvious warfare that makes up the core of Stronghold 2, keeping your peasants happy also plays a big role; again, structuring your castle carefully will take care of this. The first time ‘Gong’ showed up I was taken aback, but it adds to the realism, just as the rats and crime that you will encounter later in the missions makes for a more realistic look at castle life. It is challenging that you can’t control the peasants directly, and even more challenging when you start to acquire estates (you have even less control over them).
The graphics aren’t anything earth shattering, but the lack of unit limit (that I know of) makes for a more rounded game, it did lag on my laptop, particularly on some of the later missions when there were huge amounts of troops. By contrast HL2 ran like a dream on my laptop, leaving me a little disappointed.
My pet gripe with an otherwise great game are as follows, the enemies are far too scripted, units lack the intelligence to avoid my carefully placed siege equipment from hammering them off the map, essentially unless the given triggers have been tripped entire armies can be wiped out in a fashion that I find unrealistic. If half your buddies just got wiped out by a barrage of ballista arrows the last thing you do is stand there with your back to them. Troops also lack any kind of morale; they follow orders blindly, and while useful when you know best doesn’t accurately reflect the response to siege weaponry and the like.
Version 1.0 (there are patches out there), also has a few quirks that pop up as you progress through the game. I would assume that they have been fixed with the latest upgrades, however I haven’t got around to checking, and they were nothing that prevented me from enjoying the game.
Overall Stronghold 2 provides engaging game play, and hours of fun. While it lacks the realism that an experienced gamer like myself enjoys, I’m not likely to exhaust the game anytime soon, there are modes and storylines that I haven’t even started yet, and of course the almost obligatory multiplayer options.
For all the negatives that I’ve mentioned, this game sucked me in and held my attention. I am saddened that they couldn’t take it to the next level and make it a truly great game, but I wouldn’t hesitate to buy the next installment in the series. All in all, it’s 7 out of 10 from me.