Tower defense games, we've all played them at work, during class or at home when we're bored out of our mind. Prior to the days of free flash based tower defense games, you had to shell out your hard earned money for them on the PC. The Stronghold games have much more going for it then having your men defend a castle from wave after wave of enemy soldiers. Since all the Stronghold games have similar game play and recycle a lot of the audio (or at the very least use new voice actors to record new lines) I'll just explain it once and mention any new additions or deviations in the following titles.
I recall playing the first stronghold when it was first released way back in 2001. Stronghold was definitely a RTS game I've never played before. The simplest way to explain how the Stronghold plays like one third "Sim City", tower d defense and RTS blended into one game. The first thing you do is to site a keep anywhere on a flat portion of the map. The keep serves as the home for your lord, and if he's killed you lose the game. Stronghold uses a "moral" type of system. The happier your people are, the more likely people will stay and immigrate to your castle, and if your popularity begins to wane, expect a mass exodus.
Popularity is affected by a number of variables. First and foremost there's the tax rate. Setting the tax rate to none, or even bribing your peasants brings in more popularity that can be changed at via the keep. The granary (that acts as a food repository for all your subjects) can affect it as well. The more food types you have (meats, cheese and vegetables) the happier everyone will become. The less they have well, they’re not thrilled. You can also control how much they eat by giving them no food at all, or allowing "double rations" as the maximum allowance. There are other small variables such as a rampant plague, natural disasters and fires that can have an effect on how you're received as well. But as long as you have the proper buildings in place to deal with such catastrophic events you should be fine. It's frustrating at times when your people are starving, and to make matters worse a seasonal crop failure on top of all your bakeries catching ablaze will make you want to rage quit. One last thing about the popularity you can build "good things" (such as maypoles, parks and ponds) and "bad things" (stocks, torture and execution devices) to motivate your townsfolk. The more good things you have, the more moral your troops gets increasing their defensive and offensive capabilities, but the drawback is that your industry workers become lazy and vice versa applies for the more "bad things " you build.
Employment is a big factor in the game. You can build all the buildings you want, but if you don't have the man power it's pointless to build them. At the keep you have effectively what is your medieval unemployment line. Unemployed peasants gather around a camp fire waiting for an available job or if need be drafted into military service. You have no control on where peasants go and what jobs they take. The only caveat is that you can draft the unemployed into you army. To acquire more peasants you have to build more hovels and of course as the population increases, the risk for disease, fire and increased food consumption can pose a problem if you’re not keeping an eye on everything. It's not all negative as the more people you have, the more taxes you bring in every month which is indicated at the bottom of the HUD. At the bottom of the HUD you have everything from military to peasant structures. The big draw back to the game there isn't a tutorial section. The early campaign maps will guide you through how to do everything fairly well, but it would be nice if there was a tutorial section to help new comers.
Stronghold features two types of campaign games: economic and combat. The economic campaigns are fairly simple: acquire a certain number of goods or gold and progress to the next stage. The combat portion of course you have to fend off waves of oncoming enemies that generally amass at sign posts around the map. If you build your castle and defenses just right, you can fend off just about any attack with a series of archers, cross-bow men, knights and a wide array of defensive structures. My all time favorite is the "pitch" pools that can be set ablaze by archers. Once the enemy enters the area, it makes me smile to see my enemy cook in his armor like a walking baked potato. One big problem is the AI. It seems like if one guy is being attacked out of a group, the rest don't assist him and let him die. You literally have to watch all your units to make sure they don't just sit there and take a beating. Also there's something wrong with the path finding as you'll have a group of soldiers' line up sometimes and just die from a volley of arrows. It would have been nice if there was way to set formations as this would have prevented a lot of needless deaths. There’s also some attack/defend only maps where you start with a castle to defend or attack with a pre-set army testing your wits on the best way to take down your adversary. Nothing much to say about this, other than they are like gory puzzles.
Graphically speaking, everything is pre-rendered which is fairly dated even by 2001 standards. You can switch camera angles by right clicking and moving a compass around to help you build you walls to your castle. One big drawback with the castle walls it's hard as hell to make sure they're closed off. I've lost count how many times the AI has found a gap in my walled and waltzed right in to slit the king’s throat. It's interesting to mention there's a unit cap to keep the screen from being overloaded with units and to prevent sluggish performance with PC hardware at the time. It's funny to note that during the combat campaign your enemy lords are named after animals and look, sound and behave as their respective animal.
Audibly, the music is crystal clear, albeit repetitive after awhile. There aren't that many tracks so don't to be impressed for what the in game” bard” has in his repertoire. Sound wise, the voices are comical, especially when you click on a peasant complaining about high taxes or starving the death when they’re forced to have half rations. The scream of agony when the pitch has been lit below unsuspecting spearman always brings a smile to my face.
Overall, Stronghold its self is a fairly creative, fun and addicting game. I have fond memories of playing them multiplayer mode and spamming the insults via the Function keys. When was the last time you heard someone call someone else a “pole weasel”?
Crusader is essentially an expansion pack. It’s a standalone game it’s self, but not much changed since its inception. You’re placed in the Middle East and have very limited farm space and are generally forced to build such buildings on small segments of fertile ground. You have your free build, economic and combat game play modes as well.
There are several campaign modes that start you off as the crusaders invading and defending castles based on historical scenarios. The same applies for the Middle Eastern campaign, although most of the levels are attack only missions with pre-set units. There are some new combat units such as mounted archers, guys with slings and assassins but it doesn’t really add anything new. Sure the assassins are cool and be damn effective to scale walls and open the gates for you if used just right. The units still suffer from the wonky path finding and AI problems I mentioned earlier.
Sound wise, you get canned Middle Eastern music and the Muslim units speak Arabic when you click on them which helps with the immersion factor. There were some interesting moments when I would disband Muslim troop units to hear an English accent say “disbanding m’lord!” Graphically, opposed to having lush green fields you have a desert motif which does affect game play quite a bit. I can’t recall how many times I had problems acquiring adequate supplies of wood.
Crusader is a solid expansion. It’s great for people like me who enjoyed the first installment and want more of a challenge.
Stronghold: Crusader Extreme
Much like the 90’s marketing gimmick of making everything “xTreme” Crusader Extreme is extremely bad. The concept, and game play is the same, but management of a kingdom aspect is gone, replaced with merely insane combat.
You can go up against computer controlled units, or other players but game play is very strange. You have troops spawn in over time, and there’s also a meter in the upper right that allows you to activate special abilities. Such as dropping arrows, calling in certain units and even heal troops in a certain radius. Without the ability to use hot keys, it’s very, very hard to do any management of your kingdom and command troops that still suffer from the terrible. There’s not much to say about this game other than if you really, really liked the combat portion and want some fast paced frustrating combat and what’s left of the management aspect, go nuts. Go nuts to the xTreme!
I never heard of stronghold two, and to be honest I wish I never played it. Stronghold two takes everything that was good about the first Stronghold and complicates further by adding unnecessary and confusing building types. The economic, campaign and free build modes are all there with a new set of voice acting that makes me cringe every time someone opens their mouth. The story is laughable at best, and not in a good way. Where the comedy in the first was so bad, it was good they’re going for a more serious story that somehow came out so bad you just have to play it to experience it.
As far as changes are concerned you can no longer site your keep. Keeps are placed for you on the map. Why is this the case? Why is the player rail-roaded into having his keep in a predetermined location, where it was fine to site it where you liked in the first Stronghold?
There are some other confusing elements as well. There’s what the game calls “Gong” (feces) that accumulates randomly in parts of town. Why the town’s folk just let fecal matter accumulate in the street is beyond me. You have to build gong pit workers to go around town with a cart to shovel up the muck, or expect a decrease in your popularity and an increase to the risk of disease. I have to admit, I do like the addition of crime in the game. Some peasants will “go bad” and will end up stealing food and gold. You have to build guard posts to capture the perpetrator, a court house to put them on trial, a tortures’ guild to “rehabilitate” the criminals and last but not least a torture device. It’s a very involved process, but damn, did it have to be that involved?
There’s the introduction of the “honor system”. Honor is used to raise your rank and buy certain units. Honor is gained by how happy your peasantry is on top of holding feasts. The honor system doesn’t add much to the game and is primarily used in the economic modes of play. In the economic and combat games you can control other sectors of the map to get an increase in food to your lands. When you control this section of the map, you can’t build on it. Maybe I missed something, but why can’t you build in lands you control? I presume it’s a balancing issue of sorts or maybe I missed out how to build in these said lands.
Stronghold 2 will take a toll on your system. When my town started to get larger, I noticed a considerable decrease in system performance. Why, I have no idea as my gaming rig well exceeds the recommended system requirements. I’m willing to say its shoddy programming. While it is nice to now have the game in 3D and be able to rotate the map to any angle I wish the new HUD interface is terrible. What was easily accessible is now scattered and hidden away in various menus. It takes some time getting used to, but the layout just seems wildly ineffective where as in the first it worked out just fine. The textures seem very bland and uninspired. I suppose I was expecting more, but I guess the lack of detail was an attempt to not cut into the performance of the game. Too bad it didn’t work.
Combat is more of the same. You think after being in development and noticing the problems with the first game the AI would be improved. But with a new engine, comes the same problems with the first. You end up with bizarre path finding and terrible AI leaving you to babysit your troops.
I suppose I don’t need to say Stronghold two by the end of the day is comparable to if Stronghold one came down with leprosy and spent a few hours on the stretching wrack. A mere mutilated version of what was good.
Legends is more of the same of Stronghold 2. The problems with the graphical slow down I experienced are absent in this title, which is of course a good thing. The problem of having to clean up feces and tend to disease is gone since this is a “fantasy” based game where you have three factions with their own respective units. King Arthur gets access to over powered knights with special abilities and wizard units you can only buy one at a time. Siegfried gets access to units such as ice giants and dwarfs and as what you would expect from a Vlad a cavalcade of assorted demons.
The fantasy special units can be bought at a specific structure and cost you a combination of honor, gold and available peasants. Since the game revolves around combat and all the maps use the contested lands aspect to acquire more goods, the special units are essential to getting the job done. In fact, most of the time when I made my attack runs I relied heavy on specials.
I never did play the multi-player aspect of this game, but I’m willing to wager that’s what Firefly was going after in this installment. A moderately paced RTS that’s neither very innovative nor exciting, but I suppose the really hard-core Stronghold fans (correct me if I’m wrong) will enjoy this aspect of the game. Personally, It’s just Stronghold 2 with factions.