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.
The crime system also needs a bit of work. No matter how happy the peasants are, some of them will try to supplement their incomes through nefarious means. There are a wide range of “rehabilitation” devices available, from gibbets to executioners’ blocks to less lethal punishments. While it would seem better to use the less lethal forms, they can completely mess up the city. If the gong worker is caught stealing a little extra from the granary, he’s taken to the punishment center of choice. While he’s there, no one else fills his post, and sewage fills the streets. Simply have him hanged, however, and a fresh gong worker will rush into the newly vacated job.
No matter how well the city is run, eventually someone will want to try to take it away from you, so a good defense is needed. Here is one of the most glaring problems with the game. A wide variety of stone and wood walls, towers, and defensive armaments are available. Unfortunately, most of them just don’t work. I expect walls to keep people out. But, due to some sort of clipping issue that I don’t quite understand, I would often find the enemy simply phasing through a seemingly solid wall. And while the AI is horrible in all other areas, it seems to know exactly which chunk of wall is actually an illusion, and proceeds to pour all 50 units through at once. I’ve seen this happen with single, double, and triple-thick walls. In fact, after trying a layered-wall approach, I watched in astonishment as the enemy walked up to the first wall, phased into it and reappeared behind the second wall, without ever crossing the intervening space.
Thankfully, the enemy AI is poor enough that even these glaring glitches don’t pose too much of a problem. Sieging enemy castles is a joke, as most of the enemy units can be lured outside the walls to be slaughtered by archer fire. As for defense, barring the wall clipping issue, there are a few castle configurations that all but guarantee a victory against even the biggest forces. This is a good thing, since actually controlling the military units can be a bit of a chore. For whatever reason, Stronghold 2 places the “select a unit” and “move to” command both on the left mouse button, causing no end of headaches. More clipping issues cause multiple units to occupy the same space, making it a nightmare to tease the archers out of a group of pikemen. And poor AI and pathing means babysitting the units more often than should be necessary.
Stronghold 2 ships with two single-player campaigns, one focusing on the city-building aspect and one focusing more on the military campaign. Neither had a strong storyline, but they did a decent job setting up the various scenarios. Once these are over, there are sandbox games, skirmishes, and multiplayer options.
The game looks good, with quite a bit of detail packed into the 3D engine. Unfortunately, once the screen fills with units and buildings, things get quite chuggy, seriously slowing things down. The sounds are fairly bland, and the voice clips are downright annoying. Why French troops would have poorly-done British accents is beyond me. The interface is also unwieldy. I expect my RTS games to have hotkeys for building various structures and opening interface panels. While there were a few hotkeys available, I spent too much time mousing through the interface to get my cities built. Although the game can be paused to issue orders, this is still annoying.
Stronghold 2 just doesn’t feel like a finished game. For all the problems I’ve reported, I did enjoy parts of the game. There are just too many places where a little extra play testing, or a little extra debugging, would have made a great deal of difference. I played the unpatched and the 1.1 patch version, and both are lacking. This is very disappointing, as I can see a very good game hiding somewhere in all these glitches. Perhaps after a serious round of updates that good game will emerge, but for now Stronghold 2 is just not worth my time.
Stronghold 2 is a promising castle sim that just got buried in bugs and questionable design. There are a lot of great ideas here, but unfortunately none of them get to shine through. This one might get a lot better with patches.