This sequel to FireFly Studios defensively oriented real-time strategy sets players to work at building their fortified cities in a true 3D environment. As in the 2001 original and Crusader, its 2002 add-on, Stronghold 2 combines the city-management style simulation of SimCity or an Impressions game with the real-time battle of standards like Age of Empires or WarCraft. In addition to a "Path of War" campaign, which focuses on the siege warfare of the earlier games, Stronghold 2 also offers a "Path of Peace," full of more developmental, city-sim-style challenges. Along either path, players are rewarded for their successes with honor points, which function as cultural capital that allows the virtual ruler to hold the loyalty of his subjects and lead them to even greater achievements.
Stronghold 2 is a real-time strategy game about building a thriving medieval community, complete with sheepherders and apple pickers, game hunters, rat catchers, bakers, and blacksmiths. It's at its best when you're able to simply sit back and build chains of structures which all feed off of one another. Wheat farmers take goods to the mill, which grinds the wheat into flour, which the baker uses to bake breads, and so on. Just as in the earlier Stronghold games, it's still satisfying to build and manage a large estate -- managing your peasants to use raw goods to create a successful city is still a lot of fun.
However, Stronghold 2 is also about fighting and especially taking part in large castle sieges, and it's here where things fall apart. First off, there are major, major performance issues. Castle sieges are nearly unplayable because the game freezes and locks up with a lot of units on the screen. In one large battle there was a six second delay in giving commands. It's as if the game was being played online and you are hit with a mega-shot of lag. There's no excuse for a game to run so poorly on a 2.4 GHz machine with a GB of RAM and a good video card. It's a shame it runs so sluggishly, because watching a huge castle siege is very impressive as catapults lob balls of fire and castle walls explode into bits -- but the "lag" is unbearable.
The switch from 2D to 3D certainly looks the part; you get a rotating camera with zoom options. It's also easy to see holes in your castle walls by switching to bird's-eye view. This lets you see directly overhead of your kingdom so noticing design mistakes is a lot easier than in earlier versions. The graphics look good, especially when you have a large estate. It's fun to simply "people watch" and the new engine enhances this part of the game. It's not groundbreaking in how it looks, however, which makes the performance issues all that more puzzling.
On top of that, combat is very sloppy. Units tend to walk through other units and the AI has no idea what it's doing. It's not vital to play against a ruthless computer opponent but it's highly annoying to face one that has no idea how to siege a castle. Clipping issues also plague the game. Maybe it's a result of the switch from 2D to 3D, but whatever the reason, it's a big problem that needs to be fixed. Nothing is more infuriating than to see enemy troops literally walk through your castle gate. Units don't walk through every section of a castle but it happens often enough to be noticeable; in the end, it makes castle fighting pointless.
Stronghold 2 has two main campaigns: one that focuses on combat, and the other that (supposedly) focuses on "peace" and just lets you worry about running a city. The "Peace" campaign really is anything but -- several missions force you to fight off wave of bandits that can wreak havoc on your lands. Four or five missions into the peace campaign you have to assault an enemy thief-lord's stronghold. It's all together not very peaceful.
These problems get in the way of what should have been a very fun game. The new honor system is well implemented. Honor is gained by winning battles as well as providing for your people (with food variety, crime prevention, etc.), and with this honor you can hold feasts or festivals or even buy new estates or "hire" new knights. In addition, there are many new peasant structures such as vegetable farms as well a new military buildings and units and even new entertainment venues like the traveling fair. There's also an enjoyable skirmish mode called Kingmaker, where you can play a mini-campaign against AI opponents as they vie for control of a particular section of land made of multiple estates.
Add in a map editor, 8-player multiplayer mode to battle other players (although it took the new 1.1 patch to even add LAN support), a "free build" mode, gameplay improvements such as basic unit formations, and ready-to-play castle sieges with multiple castle designs, and you have what should have been a no-brainer slam dunk for fans of the series. But it's impossible to ignore the unfinished feel of the "final" product and even though it received a patch almost immediately after release, a lot more support is needed to make this a game worth investing a lot of time in.
People who downloaded FireFly Studios' Stronghold 2 have also downloaded:
Stronghold: Crusader, Stronghold, Stronghold Legends, FireFly Studios' Stronghold 3, Age of Empires III, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Age of Mythology, Empire Earth II
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