It's an excellent gameplay premise: repelling an army of invaders as it tries to breach your castle's defenses. Just think of the strategy and tactics involved! The gameplay in Stronghold 3 encompasses both sides of the wall in such sieges, so you not only have to worry about the catapults and advancing army on one side but also the needs of your population on the other. The real threat to your castle isn't the potential for famine or fighting, but rather the gameplay's veritable army of bugs and otherwise rough edges.
To properly wage war, you must first establish a solid foundation for the effort, and it's all built on the backs of your peasant population. The flux of your castle's population is dependent on many factors, including the ale supply, church services, food supply, housing available, tax rate, and randomly occurring events that can be both positive and negative. Properly controlling the levels of these is important, as they determine the rate at which people enter or leave your population. If the number is positive, people will enter your population, and if you have low taxes and high numbers of the other factors, they'll flock to you. Likewise, if you have no food and your city is being ransacked by outlaws, you can expect people to leave quickly — the ones who haven't been murdered, that is.
You start by placing basic buildings, with the two most important ones being your stockpile and granary. Your stockpile contains the processed goods that your work buildings produce, such as bricks, candles and lumber, whereas your granary contains the apples, bread, cheese and pork harvested from your farms. These goods have to be carried from where they are made and placed in the stockpile or granary by the involved workers, so building placement is important to minimize the travel time.
Other building placements can have (or strongly imply) land type requirements. Pig farms, for example, require arable land to facilitate their production, whereas buildings like wood camps and stone quarries should be placed near their respective material sources. Quarry and wood workers are certainly capable of walking to and from their camps to get their goods, but any time spent walking to deliver or retrieve goods is time not spent producing them. In this game, such management can be key, and if you have an advancing army at your gates, you will sometimes need to gather and spend resources as quickly as possible in order to succeed.
These goods can then be refined into other avenues of production in other buildings, such as creating new buildings, weaponry for your army, or other useful causes. Again, in most cases these goods are manually taken from place to place, so proper city planning really boils down to intelligent placement of your processing, source and storage buildings to minimize the transport time. You actually see the villagers moving from place to place, so you get good visual feedback about where your plans are deficient.
However, that level of helpful feedback doesn't extend to the rest of Stronghold 3, which is unhelpful in many respects. While the UI displays many tidbits of useful information, such as your current gold, population level versus capacity, and the number of idle citizens, it doesn't include any information on how many resources you have. You must try to place a building to find out if you can, or you could manually click on the granary or hover over the rations population slider to see how much food you have. A pack of wolves can charge into your village and wantonly devour your entire peasant population, but without any audio or visual cues, you'll only realize it once your population is half of what it once was and you began to wonder why.
The issues plaguing the game are not limited to just one side of the wall. Combat is often won or lost because of the various bugs and oddities instead of the skill of your foes. There is a mountain of little things that the game struggles to overcome, such as an inaccurate mouse pointer that makes unit positioning or attack orders either go to the wrong place or simply not work at all. Units walk everywhere, even in combat. It's already aggravating enough to watch wolves run around your village and murder everyone while you're oblivious, but it's immensely frustrating to watch your army casually walk to the site of the carnage when every second counts.
Once units finally get into range of each other and the combat starts, Stronghold 3 still gives you no reprieve from a rough experience. The unit AI is all but brain-dead, requiring significant amounts of micromanagement for your troops to have any level of effectiveness. Ranged units have an awful tendency to target the same enemy unit, which means that a ton of ammunition is overused in taking out one enemy unit while his 15 buddies continue marauding toward your positions. Granted, the ammunition reloads slowly, at which point the unit can fire or throw again, but it makes gameplay boil down to either manual micromanagement or getting needlessly complicated in your troop positioning. Given that the game offers no control group functionality for the former and has an inaccurate cursor for the latter, combat is easily the least satisfying part of the game.
Stronghold 3 is broken up into a variety of modes, including a military campaign, an economic campaign, historical battles and multiplayer. The military campaign centers on a young lord who belongs to a kingdom that is under siege by an old and powerful adversary. In this campaign, you are often defending your castle or attacking one held by the enemy, and it gradually ramps you up through the use of various military units and defensible structures. The economic campaign takes a lot of the combat out of the equation and focuses on economic goals that involve the minutiae of production and manufacturing.
The historical battles are an interesting twist in that they are supposed to re-create famous real-world sieges from the pages of history, challenging you to either reproduce history or succeed where it had failed. It gives more context to the fighting, but the gameplay remains largely unchanged from the standard campaign. Finally, the multiplayer offers some competitive options for those who wish to wage war against an enemy with a brain, though the troops' path-finding AI will continue to irritate both players.
The historical battles are flawed in their ridiculously unfair difficulty level. There are five battles to choose from, all based on real-world castles, and you can opt to attack or defend against the AI onslaught. Regardless of what you choose, the AI always has significantly more units than you do, and that usually results in your slaughter. Additionally, you can pick some attacks where you only have infantry to field, but if you choose to defend, the attacking AI spawns a couple of trebuchets or a handful of catapults. Any entertainment value of this mode is absolutely shot down by the seemingly intentional lengths that the game takes to make it not fun.
Every once in a while, a glimpse of the intended gameplay shines through in Stronghold 3, and you can see the strategic elements for what they should be. However, there are so many bugs and flaws with the game that it can be really tough to get a true look at its potential. All of these issues can be patched, and one hopes that they are because the game could be a lot of fun. To be fair, the game currently isn't in that state, and just about every gameplay aspect is tarnished. It remains to be seen whether patches will be released to address some of these issues and shape the game into a more enjoyable experience, but at this moment, any enjoyment is buried under layers of frustration and confusion.
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