|a game by||FireFly Studios Ltd.|
|User Rating:||8.0/10 - 1 vote|
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Firefly Studios is still a relatively new outfit, although Stronghold's development team has worked on such classics as Caesar and Lords Of The Realm. The game is not about open air, smell-the-blood type battles like Age Of Empires II or Shogun are, it's more about creating an impregnable fortress.
What's The Big Deal?
Picks up medieval castle building where Interplay left off with Castles In 1994. The game focuses on the medieval aspect of castle construction, maintenance and defence.
If the last castle you built was on Brighton beach, the last time you got fortified was from a bowl of Ready Brek and the last time you wanted to pour hot oil over someone was while watching The Weakest Link, then brace yourselves for Firefly's Stronghold, because your life is about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Whether you're thwarting the local lord or reclaiming land, there's quite a bit of planning required before you can get to the actual building of your castle. It's as much an exercise in managing the micro-economy of your castle as it is about having a damn good set-to. Firstly you'll need to survey your kingdom for the best possible land for gathering the limestone and wood needed to build your castle, and the flat ground required for farming. Only then can you choose a suitably dominant position for your keep and be on the way to constructing your own personal Camelot.
Every castle needs staff and you'll need to lure local villagers into your domain with promises of hard labour, or maybe just a quick go in the iron maiden. Once you've got a decent number of peasants under your thumb and a few essential buildings like a smithy and an inn, your economy will run itself with relatively minimal intervention, leaving you free to think up new ways to maim, murder and deep-fry your enemies. As far as fortification goes, there are 80 different building types to choose from, including battlements, portcullises, parapets and lots of other stuff you only ever hear about in GCSE history classes. As with the Caesar games, much of the object of Stronghold revolves around your reputation as a leader, and your minions will be very vocal in showing their appreciation or dissatisfaction. You'll need to find a happy medium between keeping your workers happy by throwing a few free beer days and keeping them in silent terror by making sure you've got a few heads on spikes prominently displayed around the place.
Sooner or later your castle will be besieged by enemies, and you'd better be ready for them because they'll generally outnumber you. You'll need to deal with siege weapons like catapults, burrowing equipment and that most deadly of weapons, the ladder. However, the prize for the most amusing weapon has to go to the Pythonesque 'disease-ridden donkey cart'. It will be interesting to see if this style of defence-focused gameplay catches on, as it has seldom been designed as the main tactic of an RTS or sim, being more the kind of thing you'd expect to see in an online multiplayer game. Stronghold will appeal to the campers out there, the wallers, you know who you are. The ones who like to sneakily hide themselves away instead of going out to play with the big boys and especially those who had to invent young cousins just so they could buy medieval Lego.
You build a castle, you defend it, that's pretty much the main concept behind Stronghold, but with Firefly's pedigree, its attention to detail and the promise of absorbing medieval AI, it could be your most impressive erection all year.
Anyone that's ever had Lego knows the subtle thrill of building something. What brother hasn't had to explain to his younger sister that Barbie, Murdock from The A-Team and assorted household pets do not belong in medieval fortresses or intergalactic space stations? What sister hasn't then kicked down a few ramparts in disgust at their sibling's lack of imagination? Firefly Studios' latest title Stronghold is about to revive all those feelings.
Halfway between a city building sim and an RTS, Stronghold focuses around the building and maintenance of a castle. As with most games of this ilk, you start off with something along the lines of a garden shed, encourage a few local peasants in, and end up with something that would make Gormenghast look poky. Although the emphasis is rather more on defence than aggression, the gameplay is hardly original. Nor is the concept for that matter, although we're dredging the early '90s here, when Quicksilver Studios produced their Castle series and Stormfront Studios (Pool of Radiance: Ruins Of Myth Drannoi) released a DOS-based AD&D strategy game, involving the building and maintenance of a stronghold called, unsurprisingly, Stronghold.
Firefly's Stronghold is divided between campaigns, military and economic missions (some of which include attacking or defending pre-built historical castles), free build and multiplayer options. The military campaigns in particular (which see you battling against four tyrants - the Rat, the Pig, the Snake and the Wolf) are well structured and the half-decent character animation actually gives you the feeling that you're fighting a real foe, rather than just a few computer sprites.
Details Details, Details
The attention to graphical detail is an especially strong feature. Each building slides open to reveal the workings inside - bakers baking bread, fletchers making bows and brewers preparing their latest batch of ale. Every man, woman, child and creature is named and by clicking on them you can find out what they're up to and their feelings about your performance. There are also delicious little details like the hunter's dogs who chase chickens and the little headless ghost that sometimes wanders round your castle. When you get a good-sized castle up and running, it's a genuine pleasure to watch.
Your peasants are simple folk - all they want is food and drink, low taxes and somewhere to go and be pious after they cop off with the buxom wench at the local. Provide those in adequate supply and they'll pretty much toddle on with their daily lives. You can affect the morale and productivity slightly by placing 'nice' things around your castle, like pretty gardens, a maypole or a dancing bear, that make people happy but lazier. Alternatively you can instil terror by erecting torture devices (a chopping block or heads on spikes) that make your peasants more productive but fearful. I was disappointed to see that while the 'nice' stuff often had animation you couldn't actually select an unwary peasant and send him to meet Mr Axe.
There isn't quite the same level of inter-dependence as Zeus: Master Of Olympus or Caesar III, simply because in Stronghold it's about micro-micro-economics -you're only thinking about the basic needs of maybe a few hundred, but certainly not thousands of people. There isn't so much of a sense that A needs X, Y and Z otherwise they decay/under-produce. What little there is in this vein of gameplay, is generally confined to the more economically-based missions. In these instances the ideas are fairly simple: build wells otherwise your castle will be overwhelmed by fire or go and kill some bunnies so they don't eat your crops. Other events such as the blighting of your wheat fields or the mysterious disease effecting your cows, are not clearly linked to what you are doing or not doing, making you feel like you're rather at the mercy of the whims of the game.
Hide And Seek
The actual building of your castle and army is fairly easy to pick up and relies on your stock of stone, wood, pitch and iron. Unfortunately as your fortifications get larger, the fact that there is no real level of transparency in the buildings means it's incredibly difficult to see troops behind them, and more importantly holes in your wall, unless you constantly click the four-point rotation button.
Having said all this, Stronghold is far more advanced militarily than the likes of Zeus and both attacking and defending even in the early stages of the game, is very challenging. Again there's a lot of thought gone into the military details, including the Pythonesque way you can "Fetchez la vache" and catapult rotting cow carcasses into your enemy's castle. However, formations are very limited and there is no fog of war, which makes for a slightly different style of play, especially in the multiplayer games.
Stronghold has obviously set out to plunder the best bits of the current crop of real-time strategy/sim-build games and for the most part, it does a bloody good job. It's not perfect and it still adheres to the regimented rules inside its own little world. But once you get inside that world it really is Lego heaven.