Stronghold 2 is the type of game that had to work very hard to disappoint me. On the surface, it appealed to my tastes in just about every way an RTS could. It was a castle-building sim, complete with a fairly robust city-management aspect. It was the perfect type of RTS, one that focuses on turtling behind impressive defenses. And for those times I was feeling a little more aggressive, it would allow me to assault my enemies and methodically destroy them. On paper, it was perfect. And then I began playing.
I got my first hint that something was wrong early on. From the time I hit “go”, Stronghold 2 took a full three minutes to load. I hadn’t experienced load times like this since I retired my old Commodore 64. Still, I was happily ready to marshal on. And I enjoyed myself for the first hour or so of play, enjoying the newness of it all. Sure, the controls were a little clunky, and there were a few interface issues. But I was having fun, dangit! The voice acting was starting to get on my nerves a bit, but that could be ignored. For a while. And there were a few clipping issues. But nothing I couldn’t overlook. I have to admit, I was a man in denial. I wanted, very much, to like this game. But after an extended run with Stronghold 2, I found just too many holes in these walls, some of them painfully literal.
The city building portion of Stronghold 2 is where I had the most fun, though even that wore thin after a while. A typical game will start off with a keep, a powerful Lord unit, and a handful of peasants sitting around the town campfire. The first order of business is setting up the stockpile building and granary, buildings from which all general supplies and food will be distributed. After this, resource and food production must begin in earnest. Once the basics are covered, attention must be turned to the citizen’s happiness. Like most people, Stronghold 2’s citizens want clean cities, low taxes, plenty of food, and no crime. Gong workers are needed to keep human waste off the streets, farms and bakeries are needed to keep the food rolling in, and a court system is needed to keep malcontents in line. Of course, if it’s not quite possible to keep the taxes low or keep the streets clean of rats, one can always just build an inn and keep the masses quiet with booze. Churches, jousting festivals, and traveling fairs are also available, at a price, to keep up the peasants spirits.
In addition to happiness, players must also gather Honor. I’m actually pleased with the way Honor works in Stronghold 2. Honor is needed to purchase certain military units and to buy control of additional provinces. Players can gain Honor by having their Lord unit hold banquets (which require specialty foods and goods), hosting Dances, and ensuring the peasantry gets a varied diet.
While there was a decent amount of control over the city, with the ability to adjust taxes, food rations, and liquor allotment, there were also glaring omissions. There was no way to turn off a particular building—players can either shut down every single saw mill, or none of them. If there’s too much wood rolling in and you need workers moved to a different place, you need to tear down the extra buildings. In addition, there’s no way to prioritize the buildings in case of a worker shortage, and the default priority is a poor choice. This can be devastating. As happiness falls, people begin to leave the castle. When that happens, jobs are left vacant. Unfortunately, many of the jobs that are vacated first are the ones necessary to keep happiness up. So, if there’s a dip in happiness, the gong workers go on strike, followed by the inn workers, which causes further decline in happiness, leading to more people walking off. This can happen in a very short amount of time, easily in the amount of time it takes to oversee a far-off military operation. So it’s not uncommon root out a bandit camp and return the view to the home front, only to see only a fraction of the peasants remaining.
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