Stronghold 2

4_1The original Stronghold and its miraculously topical expansion Crusader had their share of warts — an interesting but ultimately easy to master economic model and endearingly crude AI — but were so wedded to the uniquely laidback and charming gameplay that they too came off as laidback and charming, spicy kernels in keeping with the authentically scruffy atmosphere. And the designers were on to something. No other game before or since has so gracefully integrated maintaining apple orchards with setting hundreds of screaming knights on fire.

Stronghold 2 mostly sticks to the winning formula established by its predecessors. Returning to the conventional setting of lush green English pastures, you reprise the role of a faceless British baron who rules over a steadily increasing population of peasants, expanding your power and lands by adjusting taxes and rations, and much more often by placing configurations of buildings that will keep your citizens well fed, well defended, usefully employed, and happy.

Happiness is one issue. Where before peasants could be kept content with different food types, churches, and taverns to keep their minds dulled, they now turn against you in a heartbeat, often for no visible reason. Even long-trusted clergymen and blacksmiths will turn abruptly to crime and begin raiding your storehouse, regardless of your popularity at that moment. And since you’re not notified or expecting it, critical industries like falconry posts (which reduces your city’s rat levels) or gong pits wind up going untended, which leads to people suddenly abandoning your castle in droves, all at once.

You can shut down certain buildings, but since you’re strangely unable to shut down any structure without also deactivating every other building of the same type (a problem passed over from Stronghold 1), such iffy measures can throw your entire economy out of order. Making it worse, it can happen during the middle of a large, distracting battle, before you’re even aware there’s a catastrophic chain reaction of shortfalls in progress. This lack of control and notification is endemic to Stronghold 2. Fires mysteriously ignite, wolves show up and eat your farmers, and your people steadily, and quietly begin to loathe you. And virtually all you can do is look on.

1_1Repelling invaders, hosting jousting tournaments, and keeping your peasants cheerful (or in line through fear of punishment) now gives your lord “honor points†that can be used to purchase equally powerful and expensive knights, or to “tech†to more advanced buildings like cathedrals. Despite all the new architectural bells and whistles, though, most of the maps give you surprisingly little acreage to build on. One eight-player map offers barely enough room on some inlets to support more than a storehouse. Your only option is to systematically destroy buildings as fancier ones become available.

Stronghold 2 offers two vaguely story-based modes of play: Peace or War. “Peace†features a series of challenges in the form of punishing economic quotas or attacks by thief armies. But even with the new intricacies of religion and falconry thrown into the mix, mastering the economic game doesn’t take long.“War†is all about sieges, and these battles merely serve to showcase how wretched the AI is. Computer armies in Stronghold 2 won’t bother deploying siege equipment from a distance, and neither your ladder-men, nor theirs, behave in a predictable manner. A bug whereby your defensive rock throwers strangely disappear in the presence of invading ladder-men is much more consistent by comparison.

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The sequel’s purported money shot was its ambitious leap to 3D, and it proves to be a leap indeed; however, it’s backward, both graphically and in terms of performance. In 2D, your gameplay-distracted imagination obligingly filled in the details; now you have stuttering snapshots of blocky textures from myriad angles to distract you from the gameplay. Zooming-in to get a good look at a peasant vomiting from plague or slowly hammering a spear into shape can be fun, but when the battles start, the action turns abruptly choppy. Merging groups of units ooze into indistinguishable smears. Then there’s the lag spikes, which are fierce, random, and at their worst during large-scale engagements.

Then there’s the downright adversarial camera control. It’s all but impossible to center your view without hunt-and-pecking the minimap; panning to the screen’s edges is twitchy and spasmodic. Aside from the basic bird’s eye view, you now have up to six different camera views to choose from. These range from useless close-ups of your usually unoccupied dining table to useless close-ups of your drawbridge or some random cornerstone brick. Some buildings you can rotate when you place them, others you can’t.

26_1There are a few cool new innovations. A terrific straight-down camera view lets you easily spot gaps in your walls. The sound, music, and voice acting are casually light-hearted and effective. And there’s certainly enough content. The new buildings and animations are individually inventive and often amusing. In addition to the two campaigns, Stronghold 2 features a “Kingmaker†mode, which lets you play against up to seven other friends or AI’s, and a “Siege†mode of visually diverse historical battles that let you play as either the castle garrison or the invaders.

Much like a siege, though, the sheer weight of bugs, technical frustrations, and overall lack of polish grinds you down. Stronghold 2 joins the ranks of games that were rushed and ultimately over ambitious. It wows you with features, options, game modes and building types, but ultimately can’t string everything together cohesively.

System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 256 MB RAM, WinXP

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