Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: FireFly Studios
Release Date: October 23, 2006
My apologies to all those who picked up the game already, those I couldn't get to in time who are now trudging through the boring, broken gameplay at the nougat core of Stronghold: Legends. The idea of throwing Siegfried, King Arthur, Vlad the Impaler, and a few other medieval legends together in a RTS isn't a bad one, per se. It's just so underwhelming and unpleasant to play (to the point of being nonfunctional in many cases) that uninstalling it will be my favorite part of the game.
This series started out years ago with an emphasis on building your home fort into a real working castle and an economic powerhouse, with occasional combat to keep things interesting. Now that balance has been tipped entirely in the opposite direction as the series tries to find a narrative and something to put on the cover with which people will identify. Who hasn't heard of Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table or Count Dracula? The departure from the sim aspects will further alienate fans of the original, and the tedium of the actual combat and sameness of each faction's units should finish off everyone else's interest in the franchise.
If combat is going to be a big part of your game, you'd expect it would be flashy and exciting. The big units should be terrifying to the enemy, and the heroes charging your walls should be intimidating. Instead, the heroes move along at an utterly glacial pace, slowing down any unit group-selected with them. The big base-buster units, like the ice giants and dragons, cost an awful lot to build and are taken out much more easily than you'd expect. Five archers shouldn't have much trouble felling the mighty dragon you sent to demolish an entire enemy castle. I went up against a dragon with a dozen pike men, he breathed fire on them, and they just stood there for a while before any damage even registered. Feel the terror.
What's more, the combat units are largely ineffective in actual combat. You have to keep telling them over and over and over to attack a target or move out of harm's way, and many of them will ignore you. If enemies wander near your troops, they may or may not defend themselves, and certainly won't take priority of nearer troops over ones farther away. It felt like my army was ferried to and from the battlefield on the short bus.
Base building has been pared down. There's an architect's view (directly overhead looking down) available at a key press, but it's not like there's any real advantage to how you build and arrange your castle. Peasants will work or not work at a whim, not depending on whether you put in any roads or placed their jobs anywhere near the stockpile, a la Sim City, but based more on their own personal laziness, I suppose.
The worker/peasant interaction (or lack thereof) creates another issue. You don't build or hire workers like you would in many RTSes. You simply build housing, and eventually they'll just show up at your castle whenever it's convenient for them. From there, you cannot select any of the workers or assign them specific tasks directly. You can only build the industry buildings they should inhabit for a job, and then wait around for them to go do the job. If your peasants leave (food runs low, taxes are too high, etc.), you get a sound bite telling you such, but that's about it. Production stops, buildings sit vacant, and while you're supposed to be focusing on conquering the universe, you have to keep hopping back to the homestead to see if anything's running as it should. There's nothing worse than seeing 10 guys standing around outside the stockpile holding excess lumber while you've got an empty or understaffed dairy farm or granary and your people are starving. A little more direct allocation of manpower would have been nice.
The main campaign missions are divided by difficulty, and once you select a campaign, you select yet another layer of difficulty. From there, you get some basic cinematics and mediocre-to-cheesy voiceovers, and very linear quests. Prepare for frequent messages about your castle being attacked when no one is actually anywhere near it. Other in-game hints and messages sometimes come a little later than would be useful. I wander off to find and rescue some of my comrades, only to run into several enemy patrols that wipe out all of my troops. Afterwards, the voice-over tells me we should probably avoid those patrols if possible. Yeah, thanks.
The building of industry, castle fortifications, and other constructs has one upside: You don't have to wait for them to be built. Click and place, and there it is. The cursor stays on that building type in case you want multiples, making it easy to blow through your resources in a hurry if you're not careful. Still, throwing a wall up right in front of an incoming army can be handy when it simply appears and doesn't take time to be built. This also shortens the amount of time you really have to put into building your mini-city, taking further emphasis off the beauty of good city planning or architectural efficiency. In just about every mission, you'll roll through building the same dozen or so buildings again and again in a hurry with no real regard for their arrangement and then just focus on building an army and bashing heads. This formula probably sounds a lot like many other games of this ilk, but Legends does it while managing to remain amazingly unimpressive at the same time.
The visuals are passable, but might have been considered good around the time Stronghold 2 came out. Flags flutter in the wind in a very scripted way. Two-dimensional clouds cycle past like horses on a carousel in the sky. The world map looks like something straight out of Defender of the Crown on the Commodore 64, pixelation and all. I turned water detail up to the max, and it still paled in comparison to similar effects in even the most basic titles on the shelf alongside Legends. Even the menu and in-game fonts and ho-hum HUD seem outdated and uninspired.
The sound is somewhat better, but that's not saying much. While the voice work can be grating, as can the action confirmation dialogs, the music is pretty good and, well, that's about it. When battle commences, you hardly notice from the sounds it creates. Merlin dropping a lightning bolt or a dragon breathing fire down on you sounds kind of cool, but it also sounds the same every single time.
Once battle has begun, managing an army is pretty difficult, not in the overall interaction but rather the management of the finer points. Individual troops are impossible to select or manage in any useful way. You can't keep tabs on the ones wounded the worst and pull them back without pulling the entire group out of the fray. Without much in the way of healing, one might as well hop back to the city and start churning out more bodies to throw at the fight. There's nothing as useful as the army controller from ParaWorld or the usual group selection details that appear in the HUD of most RTS games. Here you just get a unit type and a number. Blah.
Genre standbys in the form of user interface are in effect, letting you scroll around and zoom in and out of the battlefield with the mouse and arrow keys. Units can be designated a hotkey to sort your groups, but once they all pile up on a target and debate whether or not they're going to follow orders, it doesn't much matter, and again, the lack of detail in the HUD for the groupings doesn't help you to see how they're doing. You also can't tell how close the enemy is to defeat without clicking on them and de-selecting your troops. Add to this the overall dogpile style of combat, and you'll be lucky to select anything you wanted with the cursor.
Multiplayer exists in the form of four-player custom skirmishes (solo skirmishes are available as well) via LAN or Internet. This might be a little more enjoyable since all the players will have to tolerate the shortsighted A.I., and the ability to create and share custom maps could also add some longevity to the title if you enjoy that sort of thing.
You've been there and done this in a dozen other better games already. There's really no reason to buy Stronghold: Legends, especially if you're expecting anything resembling a return to Stronghold's roots of castle-building sim. Any originality or interesting ideas thrown in are buried under dull and unresponsive combat, lackluster visuals, and an interface that's often more of a hindrance than a help.
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