2001’s Stronghold was a very good, and very European game. Finally you could build up an entire castle from the ground up, man the walls with your units, and manage the feudal economy to support all of it. It was the kind of game they go nuts over in countries like Germany, but thankfully it became pretty popular all over the world.
Other than Stronghold: Crusader the spin-offs and direct sequel were not very well-received, and Firefly’s games in general weren’t particularly great for the past 8 years or so. Now, ten years after the first game, Firefly is back with Stronghold 3.
Stronghold 3 (PC)
Developer: Firefly Studios
Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive, 7Sixty
Released: October 25, 2011
Once again the Stronghold campaign mode is split into a military and an economic (peace) campaign. Although the same economy and resource gathering system is present in both campaigns, the former focuses a bit more on building troops while the latter is a bit more centered around tinkering with the most efficient economy.
The Stronghold 3 economy itself should be familiar to fans of Stronghold. Food production buildings deliver food to a granary, other resource buildings deliver resources to a stockpile, and some buildings take resources from the stockpile to process them into things like bread, weapons, and ale. To support the economy you need peasants that appear as long as there is sufficient housing and provided your popularity is a net positive.
Your popularity or peasant mood is affected by the tax rate, food rations, provisions of ale for the inn and candles for the church, spare housing, and certain ornamental buildings. These ornamental types of buildings offer a modest increase in popularity at the cost of productivity (gardens), or increase productivity at the cost of popularity (gibbets). If you do everything right, you should be on your way to create the castle of your dreams. That is, in theory.
The systems behind Stronghold 3 are of the kind that should keep your playing for hours on end, watching your initially small hamlet turn into a well-oiled castle economy that you can look back on contently. Unfortunately, Stronghold 3 is riddled with so many issues and weird design choices that contentness is the last emotion you will feel while playing it.
On the economy side, the balance between food and resource production is vastly skewed towards food production. Peasants eat a ridiculous amount of food, forcing you to be a bit of a douche lord and cutting their rations almost continuously, until you have the vast majority of peasants working in farms; it’s almost as if instead of a feudal lord you are actually a Maoist governor.
If you don’t take care of the high demand of the food cycle quickly, you’ll eventually run out of food and reach a very punishing stalemate where you lose population due to the negative effects the lack of food has on your popularity, even though you need more workers to increase your food supply. Managing this would be doable, if you didn’t also need workers to gather the wood necessary to construct buildings and housing to support your economy and population growth.
To make matters worse, you’ll occasionally be struck by random events that can give you a positive or negative boost to popularity. Mostly, these are negative effects like a plague, fire, or wild bear attack. Some of these can be countered if you built the right buildings, to douse a fire or clean puffs of plague mist, but the game will often take a minute or two to realize you took care of it. Meanwhile the negative effect on popularity means you’ll keep losing important peasants that you are almost always in short supply of, and these events tend to occur just when you were thinking things were going relatively smoothly for a change.
The balancing act between food and the rest of your economy makes it hard to enjoy Stronghold 3, especially because the campaigns will throw requirements in your face that can take multiple tries to even get a grasp of what exactly you’re supposed to be doing to fulfill them — or in what order. After many hours, you’ll start to get the hang of how to start and manage the Stronghold 3 economy in any mission, but the game will still troll you with random events to make your life utterly miserable. It’s fine to offer a good challenge to the player in a game like this, but it’s another thing altogether to make you feel like you have to work around the game to be able to complete a seemingly simple mission.
Controls are plagued with another issue where Stronghold 3 makes you wonder if it has received any testing at all. Depending on how far you zoom out, the cursor may require you to move anywhere up to an inch from a unit in order to select its few clickable pixels. This becomes a nightmare when you want to make some units attack incoming enemies, especially if they happen to walk below some trees where it becomes a random click fest. If you don’t zoom in and click exactly on that part of the enemy where your cursor turns into a sword, your units will often just walk straight past them as if there is nothing to worry about.
The AI doesn’t adjust to ongoing fights either; a group of units may kill a carefully clicked enemy, only for the majority to completely ignore a bunch of incoming enemies. When you have precious ranged units, you’re better off moving them to a spot far away from the enemy followed by a sliver of hope they will automatically shoot at any enemy that comes within range, rather than trying to make them attack single targets from any camera viewpoint that provides a good overview of the battle.
The AI problems — or the lack of an AI that works — sometimes make their way to the economy side as well. An apothecary can’t be controlled directly so he’ll usually clean the wrong building of plague mists, even though you want him to take care of a more important one first. Sometimes he’ll just stand there and do nothing as you watch your popularity plummet due to a plague and raise your hands in frustration as your precious peasants leave your lands.
In a lot of these city building games, the AI can do some crazy stuff and often veterans of the genre can work around them. But even this is hard to do in Stronghold 3. For instance, oxen can be used to transport iron and stone, but you can’t direct them in any way. Stone is created faster than iron and often the oxen will transport the one resource you don’t need, unless you build a ton of them so one is always available at the source. Military units offer no feedback on strength or hit points either, so it’s up to you to guess and experiment to see which unit is good at what. That is, if you can even select them.
Because of the control issues with selecting and directing military units, the military campaign is best ignored altogether until Firefly fixes the controls. Alas, if you just want to kick back and enjoy a stress-free economic campaign you are far too often confronted with harsh mission objectives, time limits, or enemy raider units to get rid of in a timely fashion that take the leisurely enjoyment out of it. It doesn’t help either that the game looks rather drab, with some laughable grass and crop textures that look like they came out of a mediocre mobile game.
Although the graphics are never the most important part, they are being touted as having great lighting and day and night cycles. These are alright, if unspectacular, but the graphics also obstruct placement of buildings. Groups of trees and buildings have a rectangular shape around them where you can’t build, but this is indicated by a very thin black line that can be very hard to spot unless you zoom in far enough. It’s another small issue that you’d think is hard to miss during development, especially when there are so many examples from other games of how to do it right — making the obstruction’s borders light up for greater clarity or something similar.
Yet another issue lies with the pacing, which is well below an acceptable one even for a city building game like this. The Settlers 7 may have had some stressfully quick pacing near the end of the game with all its objectives, but even the Sunday afternoon pace of the first The Settlers goes at the speed of CERN neutrinos compared to the pacing seen in Stronghold 3. There’s no fast-forward option, so for most of the game you’ll be impatiently waiting for peasants to work and walk — slower than it takes for a dinosaur to turn into oil — and trying to raise your population enough to support the economy required to fulfill the mission objectives, only to fail an arbitrary time limit at the last moment; one that only provides you with the actual time when there is a mere two minutes left on the clock.
Fans have not been blind to the myriad of bugs and issues and there is quite a bit of fan backlash after the long wait for the next Stronghold. Firefly has stated it is listening to the fans and trying to fix things as they go, but the issues that plague Stronghold 3 should never have been in a finished product in the first place. Even with an extra year in development, one has to wonder if it would’ve helped the title to achieve the lofty goal of a return to form after all these years of disappointment.
The Stronghold I knew and loved was not about being frustrated with control issues and glacial economic development. It was about creating a smart economy to build an awesome castle the way you wanted, with walls of your own design and archers defending them from the battlements. There wasn’t anything outside of Stronghold that gave you that experience at the time — or at any time afterwards — and somehow Stronghold 3 has removed the fun and joy of that core experience.
What could have breathed new life into the Stronghold franchise has become a rushed, buggy, and ultimately extremely disappointing new entry in the series. It might be a niche franchise, but the Stronghold series still has its fans and they deserve better. The most hardcore of fans can only hope Firefly will fix some of the issues that plague this game, but it’s hard to imagine that it will become more than halfway playable even with dozens of patches. Whatever the rationale behind the decision to release Stronghold 3 in its current state may have been, it can’t have been a good enough reason for fans to have to deal with the final product.
Buried beneath bugs, control issues, harsh mission design and even harsher economic balancing, there seems to be a shadow of the old Stronghold as we remember it; sometimes you’ll even have a minute of fun here and there. Perhaps we remember the original through rose-colored glasses, but that memory is infinitely better than the wild disappointment that is Stronghold 3. Even if you do stick with the campaigns (and you need to be the most forgiving of souls for that), the few extra modes, and the multiplayer, there is just nothing here that is actually better than the 10 year old game it was once based on. It makes you wonder why it was even made, which is the one thing no game should ever make you do.