Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Firefly Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: April 20, 2005
Buy 'STRONGHOLD 2': PC
Stronghold 2 is an interesting cross between a real-time strategy war game and a medieval life simulation. Fans of warfare involving bow and arrow and sword and shield will feel right at home in this game. Likewise, the more peace-loving type of player will enjoy Stronghold 2's presentation of life as the lord of a village full of ready-to-serve peasants.
My first experience with the game was with the installation utility … if you don't count the box and manual, of course. I was suitably impressed by the graphics used to entertain during the normally mundane process of getting the game up and running. Feeling that this boded well, I pressed on.
The first time the game launched, it automatically detected that a patch was available, and began downloading it. The process was smooth and painless, earning Stronghold 2 another nod for taking things a notch above other games in (and out of) the genre. More games should really take the pressure of updating off of the player.
After launching the game again, I was treated to a very nicely done opening movie. It's easy to tell that the developers have put a lot of effort into making the initial presentation of Stronghold 2 a very pleasing experience. Of course, this isn't without a price – launching the game takes several minutes of time while you wait for it to load. It really does take an almost unacceptable amount of time to get to the main menu. (Really.)
My first run at playing the game involved the tutorial missions. While the tutorials themselves were fairly run of the mill, the voice used to convey the instructions was rather grating. I had some small amount of trouble concentrating on what I was supposed to be doing because of this.
Once you get over it, however, the tutorial does a pretty good job of introducing you to the basic game concepts. It covers most of the basic functionality you need to be aware of as well as walks you through some very basic scenarios. I felt that I had a relatively firm grip on the game coming out of the scenarios, something I can't say about some other tutorials I've played.
When you enter into the single player mode of Stronghold 2, one of the first choices you must make is whether you want to go down the path of peace or the path of war. This may be an easy decision for most people, but for some of us, it's difficult to decide right now what we want to do. After all, at this point I had barely had a taste of the game and wasn't sure what would be most enjoyable.
Stronghold 2 offers two distinct storylines, depending on which of the two paths you choose. The path of war sets you out as a lord questing to regain power to serve the fallen king. The path of peace is more geared toward people who enjoy playing the simulator and trying to create something within the constraints of the system.
For those who want a mixture of both, don't worry. If you follow the path of war, most of the missions involve building up or managing a town in order to get into combat. There are a few straight out fighting missions, but they're interspersed so you won't get bored by having too much of one thing. The path of peace offers you the ability to "spawn" invasions at any time – a simple keystroke away and you have a Small, Medium, Large, or Huge invasion riding hard at your city.
The interface is fairly standard real-time strategy fare. It consists of a bar along the bottom with a mini-map, building/unit selection widgets, and an information area for the assorted random things that need to be shown. Along the top of the screen is a status bar, showing things such as the current date, your amount of gold and honor, etc.
In this regard, Stronghold 2 is just about average. The interface is useful enough, but it does suffer from some overcrowding. For the new player, it is slightly confusing to figure out exactly where you go to find the building you're looking for. Some structures seem to be located in reasonable places, but others seem to be put in a section fairly arbitrarily. The actual controls for placing buildings are fairly self-explanatory … select a building, hover the mouse where you want it, and click to place it.
One thing I find odd in Stronghold 2 is the actual method of building construction. When you are placing a structure, it simply appears where you place it. There is no build phase and no waiting for the building to become operational. I think the game could have used a construction system that offset construction time with unemployed peasants, providing some sort of benefit for keeping the rascals around!
The game is also not very good at instructing you on some concepts that are vital to running a successful village. I had the most frustrating time figuring out why my people were leaving until I realized that I had to invest in some Gong Pits and Falconer's Posts. It's also not completely obvious what to do when you hear "A peasant has gone bad, My Lord!" Ah, build a courthouse, then guard posts, and finally punishment facilities. A rather lengthy (and expensive) process to deal with thieves, really.
Other than those small complaints about the gameplay, it was really solid and played well. Everything is simple enough to be easy to learn, but there are enough controls that you can create a complex system that balances out.
Visually, the game is mediocre. The graphics would be considered high quality for games from two or three years ago, but given the current crop of quality visuals in other games, Stronghold 2 just doesn't measure up. Of course, graphics aren't everything, and it does manage to come up with some fairly realistic feeling terrains and units, even if the buildings feel a little hacked. I believe that the designers went for a "pretty good" appearance without sacrificing the ability of the game to run on more average hardware.
After I started getting into the missions, one of the things that I really noticed with Stronghold 2 is the number of background noises that you hear as you pan around the playing field. As you move over the woodcutters, you hear the sounds of sawing. Moving around combat provides the expected background noise. What you expect to hear is generally what you will be hearing.
The music is also of good quality, quietly offsetting the current gameplay relatively well. I wouldn't call it superb, but it does a decent enough job and helps to add to the experience of playing Stronghold 2. It has decent enough variety that your ears aren't offended by the same tune over and over.
Stronghold 2 also comes bundled with a rich editor that allows you to construct all sorts of scenarios, maps, events, and storylines. It took a little bit of time to get used to – especially the animal placement system – but all in all, it's a very complete editor that enables designers to create content for the game with relative ease.
A multiplayer mode is also available for people who want to go online and find out just how good they are. There don't seem to be very many people online at any of the times I tried, and I had some difficulties getting into a game to play. However, the multiplayer is fairly standard fare – defeat your opponents!
Overall, Stronghold 2 manages to provide an engaging combination of simulated medieval warfare and peasant life without getting too lost in the mundane details that can easily wreak havoc on such a title. The game is rather playable, decent enough to look at and listen to, and lots of fun — definitely worth a shot if you're a fan of the genre and period.
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