At one point in Death of a Salesman, the main character, Willy Loman, sums up the key to success: "Be liked and you'll never want." Although the advice didn't serve him well in business, it applies nicely to Stronghold, where being "well liked" is crucial to successful castle building. Fortunately, the game's balance and beauty will make it liked by players as well.
In the Middle Ages, feudalism was king. Peasants quickly swore allegiance to leaders who could provide protection in the form of castle walls. As such a leader, you swear to avenge your father's death at the hand of The Rat, a spineless neighboring duke, and rid the counties of three others as well: The Snake, The Pig, and The Wolf. As a newly crowned lord, you must also protect and provide for the people -- yours is an arduous task of building and battling before the final fight decides the fate of the land.
Stronghold breaks down the art of castle construction to the very bricks and mortar foundation. Styled mostly after the Age of Empires games, you must decide where to locate a keep and granary, the heart of any fort. An infrastructure must be established to feed the peasants who will be fighting under your banner. Stone and iron must be mined for walls and weapons, and raw materials transformed into goods such as baked bread, leather armor, swords, and more, obviating the need for a fairly decent sized task force.
Half the game's charm is the balance between the need for economic prosperity and a military superiority. As any competent leader knows, a well-fed village will draw more people to the keep and help generate more taxes to fund the army. Failing to fill cupboards spells disaster as workers leave for greener pastures. Although Stronghold focuses more on military conquest than economy based missions, the only way to build the army is to make sure popular support back home is high, not always an easy task with the many threats to castle dwellers such as wolves, bandits, and fires, to name a few.
Besides full stomachs, players can use ale to warm the spirits of the townsfolk, as well as religion to rally morale. Additional "nice" items can be purchased, like a dancing bear, gardens, ponds, fountains, shrines, and so forth. Workers will appreciate the beautification, but productivity will fall from dilly-dallying. For those of a more evil bent, "naughty" apparatuses like the hangman's gallows, chopping block, cesspool, and stocks will inspire fear and productivity, at the cost of popularity. There are a wide variety of items, both good and bad, to renovate any castle needing that special touch.
The second half of the title's appeal is the graphics, with each building, character, and livelihood in Stronghold exquisitely animated. The tanner marches to the cow pens, leads a cow back to his workshop, kills the cow, scrapes the hide clean and makes leather armor to carry to the armory. Hunters roam with faithful dogs, shoot arrows at game, haul the carcass back to their shack, and prepare it for transport to the granary. Each step is detailed and eye-catching. Even the land is energetic with splashing waterfalls, swaying trees, and wild animals. The sounds that accompany each action are solid, if not as riveting as the banquet for the eyes.
Additionally, each peasant that works in the castle has a short bio in the manual and different characteristics that affect gameplay. The lame fletcher slowly hobbles to the stockpiles, so putting his workshop near the supplies is a must. The ale brewer, a fan of her own product, rolls the barrels more slowly than does the innkeeper. These little details really make the game come alive.
A few minor irritations are worth mentioning. The main single-player story takes place in the military campaign, with a fine story and clever cut-scenes connecting the 21 missions. Comparatively, there are only five weak economic based missions with no story or interludes, connected only by the single goal of amassing a certain number of peasants, goods, or gold. Also, random events, especially fires, tend to be too devastating to recover from, even on the easiest level. It isn't unusual for a family of bears to camp near the campfire early in the game and eat peasants as they enter the front door. Still, these little nit-picks fail to mar the simulation.
After reclaiming the lands under single-player action, gamers can design the castle of their dreams to post for others to lay siege to and evaluate on the Internet. Or, you can hone your own siege skills on famous castles or one of your own. Multiplayer games are also available, though Internet players can play only through the Gamespy Arcade. "E-moating" was never so much fun.
Stronghold is a game with personality and is easy to like for numerous reasons. Graphics and animations are charismatic, and it is truly enjoyable to build, defend, and even siege the greatest citadel in the land. If popularity is key to success, this game is destined to become a well-liked classic in no time.
Graphics: The animations are extremely detailed and fun to watch. Battles and environments are rich with cascading arrows and blazing oil filled pits.
Sound: Character voices are sometimes funny, other times they sound like Renaissance Faire rejects. Most building and production sounds are sharp and accurate.
Enjoyment: The military missions are nicely paced and mark progression through a fine story. It is equally fun to defend or attack a castle, as well as rule with a fair or wicked heart. Economic missions are disappointing.
Replay Value: Castle construction is easy and addictive, be it a Free Build session or Siege challenge. Multiplayer games are engaging, but more Internet outlets are needed.
People who downloaded Stronghold have also downloaded:
Stronghold: Crusader, Stronghold Legends, FireFly Studios' Stronghold 2, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, FireFly Studios' Stronghold 3, StarCraft, Age of Empires, Age of Empires III
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