Review: Stronghold 2 Steam Edition25 Jan 2019 0
Review: Stronghold 2 Steam Edition
Released 05 Oct 2017
Medieval games always get the short end of the stick. Neither the economy, nor warfare, not even the basics of feudalism are ever depicted correctly. However, Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader are probably the most beloved of the games dealing with the period. Medieval II: Total War might be grander, but Stronghold takes you closer to your peasants. And Stronghold 2 Steam Edition is a re-release of an attempt to capture that same magic in 3D.
Just like the first Stronghold, the game offers a campaign in addition to other game modes. The military one follows the exploits of the lord-knights who are out and about to find and restore the rightful king of sort-of-England-but-not to the throne. They are opposed by various conniving lords who enjoy the freedom to run amok. The economic campaign has the king task you with the restoration of a severely unkempt region as the previous rulers failed their duties due to laziness, corruption or overseas adventures.
Stronghold is a base building game at heart, with battle being a capricious beast at the best of times. The keep is the center of you castle; here is where your lord resides (lose him and lose the game) and holds feasts, while idle peasants lounge around the fire outside. Granary (for edibles) and stockpile (for anything can't/shouldn't eat) are the next buildings to be placed – they also store your starting resources. After that, you are free to expand as much as the scenario allows. Build lumberjack huts to get wood for buildings and weapons, place quarries on rock piles to get stone for defensive structures, and so on. Don't neglect the peasants, either: starting with the hunter's hut, you'll try to keep them all fed with a variety of foods, possibly even increasing their rations. You will also establish industries to churn out gear for your soldiers and keep your peasants happier.
Stronghold 2 innovated by adding honor to the fray. Honor points are generated via various lordly events and peasant-pleasing activities (like increased rations). They are expended to buy titles (raise technology level) in skirmish, buy lands to have autonomous villages to feed your resources, and hire troops more advanced than armed peasants and spearmen. And while you can passively get more honor by being generous towards the peasantry, you will want at the very least to have the lord's kitchen preparing food for feasts – just set up the building chains and the rest will be sorted automatically. And just like most of the buildings added with honor in mind, these economy systems will be totally detached from the normal economy. Want to feed any excess pork to your peasants? Tough!
However, you still have to keep an eye on the peasantry. If stockades and such were previously just props that increased oppression in your castle, now they are a part of the newly expanded 'sanitary' system. You need a gong pit and peasant to collect poop and a falconer to hunt down rats. And the justice system is an entire economy on itself, where, in the end, you need to decide between punishments that take a long time to carry out, but are more lenient (stockade, shame mask) and ones that are quick, yet brutal (burning, cutting heads off). Peasants will “go bad” (that's what the announcer say) at random and won't work at their building until they are caught, sentenced and carry out their punishment. This causes no end of commotion with the castle economy and since executions are the only way to get industries back to work at appreciably time scale, you might end up chopping heads.
And this is basically the only violent action that you'll carry out efficiently. Combat was never the strong suit of Stronghold, and it hasn't improved since. Units are hired from your constantly refilling pool of idle peasants (that is, if you have any) and more often than not need gold, honor and weapons from your armory to take to the field. They are trained instantly and individually, don't require leaders of any kind, pretend to take up formation (before clipping through each other in combat), fight fearlessly and die easily. The biggest different between units are “ranged or not” and “armored or not.” The aim of the game has always been to establish an economy that would let you to either alpha strike the enemy castle or establish a lasting, running siege during which you'll cripple the enemy economy before whacking off their lord.
Combat is where the game has taken the biggest hit in quality. Archers, the cheapest – even with the ridiculous honor tax, without which the peasant will only deign to take up either the spear or the pitchfork – and the earliest ranged unit, can be cranked out in almost endless numbers. And when put on castle walls or, God forbid, towers, they'll defend you as well as an MG company holding off an assault of Prussian landwehr on their trench. They will mow down any unarmored infantry and will only be countered by either endless hordes of cheap troops or great numbers of metal-clad soldiers.
The troops can no longer tear down stone walls with their hands, so you will need to either brave the endless deluge of arrows to reach the walls with ladders or build siege equipment. However, archers outrange catapults to the point of tragedy, and towers make them almost immune to their attacks anyway. Oh, and you can build balistae on the bigger towers which not only outrange catapults, but are also really good at killing them. Archers are the supreme bang-per-shilling unit of the game, and there's no doubt about it.
However, unit AI is terrible enough that if you order a ranged unit to attack someone outside their range, they won't do anything. This is especially horrible with catapults, as you need to manually move them in range to start firing (before archers massacre them). This also makes moving units in mixed groups a bad idea because a ranged units will only join the attack if the enemy is already in range. And in the end, your melee units act mostly as speed bumps to pin the enemy in place so that the archers would have more time to slaughter them.
It is all really sad, because the sieges have seen some potentially interesting improvements. You can now launch burning logs and stones from positions on your walls. You have even more traps to set for the enemy soldiers. And there are neat stuff like protected towers which allow your archers to arch with impunity while preventing siege engine placement on top and sally ports which are hidden doors that would allow you to sally out against the enemy... if you ever had the need.
And while talking about the visuals of a 2005 game is largely useless – this isn't an HD re-release – I will note that audio design is terrible. Stronghold had always had strange voice acting, but now the unit barks are unforgivably bad, to the point where my girlfriend was complaining about it while I was playing. Other problems, like archer supremacy, honor price to build units, no ranged AI, lord food being unavailable to peasants – all these and more were present in Stronghold 3. Not only did the developers not learn from previous criticism, they actually found new ways to make the game bad.
Now, Stronghold Crusader is still clearly the best game in the series. The trail of conquest, merely an ever more difficult chain of skirmish battles, was something that everyone loved, and it's entirely missing from the game. The historical scenarios were also better than those offered in S2SE. In fact, S2SE's trail of conquest is just a chain of battles from historical scenarios, only you don't get to choose the sequence or whether you're attacking or defending. The setting was better done, in both visual and design sense, with mercenary units providing a stark Arabian contrast to the European forces of the crusaders. The mercenaries exist in S2SE, too, but two units are just naked, horn-helmet wearing vikings.
Stronghold 2 Steam Edition is a weak entry in the series. The economy system was expanded in a way that only adds boring busywork to the game, while the combat was weakened even more that it was. And since the game didn't receive any visual overhaul, it looks really bad, too. Outside of scratching that nostalgia itch, I wouldn't recommend it over Stronghold Crusader HD.