Good Old Reviews
Stronghold HD- Cracks in the Wall

Stew Shearer | 19 Apr 2014 12:00
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Developed/Published by Firefly Studios. Originally released Oct. 22, 2001

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Originally released in 2001, Stronghold HD is a real-time strategy game that employs a medieval setting, siege warfare and some substantial smatterings of city simulation to craft a fun, if frequently imperfect RTS experience.

I've always been something of a defensive player when it comes to strategy games. It's not that I don't like to play aggressively, it's just that I tend to prefer having the time to think, plan and prepare before I cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. It's also one of the reasons that I've generally gravitated more frequently toward turn-based strategy titles over real-time ones. I might still get my butt kicked in a turn-based game, but at least they give me time to feel smart and prepared before they destroy me.

That said, I've still always had an appreciation for RTS titles that provide options for players with less aptitude for charging the gates guns blazing. Stronghold HD, in turn, is a game that you'd think would be a no-brainer for me. Castles, after all, are pretty much the ultimate symbol of human defense and, when you get down to it, pretty decent fodder for a video game. Unfortunately, even if the ideas behind Stronghold HD are sound, its execution is sometimes lacking.

Don't take that to mean it's a bad game by any means. In fact, there's plenty of things in Stronghold HD that I really enjoyed. The actual process of building up and managing your castle, for instance, is a lot of fun and taps into a lot of the best qualities of city building games mixed with the standard elements of RTS resource collection. While you'll need to collect things like wood and stone to build your castle and weapons for your troops, your first order of business will be to build up your population so you can expand enough to make the more standard RTS stuff possible.

Getting people to join your village requires a bit more doing than just building a supply depot (or hovel in this case). You need to keep your people happy and provide them with incentives to migrate to your lands. The food part pretty much just adds up to building farms and employing hunters to keep your stocks full. The incentive portion, however, can mean anything from lowering your taxes to providing people with entertainment and niceties that raise your attractiveness as a ruler. There's a whole lengthy list of things you can build to make your village seem more hospitable ranging from dancing bears to churches.

What can make growth challenging is just how easy it is for the careful balance that governs it to fall to pieces. For instance, in one level I had things going pretty smoothly. It was still early in the game, but I had a nice collection of farmers and hunters filling my granary with sweet sustenance that new villagers were happily lining up to consume. Then, out of nowhere, a flock of wild rabbits appeared who promptly ate all the wheat my farmers had been growing. No big deal, I thought, I have a surplus and my hunters are still bringing in more than enough to last awhile. Feeling confident in things, I sent my soldiers out to slaughter the ravenous rabbits.

While that was happening however, I failed to notice the wolf pack roaming the area whom gleefully tore my poor hunters to shreds. Suddenly that surplus was all I had and it wasn't nearly enough to keep me going with both of my primary food sources gone. It didn't take too long for my granary to run dry and for my peasants to start deserting me. With things quickly unraveling I tried lowering my taxes which started bringing people back. That said, with my treasury draining I didn't have the money to train the soldiers I eventually needed to fend off the enemy lord's first round of attacks. My walls crumbled and the peasants I'd worked so hard to maintain were quickly put to the sword.

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And it doesn't even take anything as dramatic as a bunny attack to drive people away. Even just nudging your taxes up the tiniest bit can offend your subjects who, in turn, have seemingly no compunction against hightailing it to the next county. Even so, when things are going well, building your town is an absolute joy. While you are ultimately restricted by the need to wall things off for defense, there's some real pleasure in finding the most efficient way to cram as much you can into the confines of your stronghold as possible. Moreover, just as I love watching my city grow in games like SimCity 2000, I adored the eventual hustle and bustle that my castle took on as the town within its walls expanded in a miniature medieval metropolis. I could sit for minutes at a time just watching people file back and forth to their jobs, while little touches like children playing and chickens wandering around gave the game a real sense of life that made left me actively wanting to keep my village safe from harm. Which, unfortunately, leads me to the part whe I sometimes had problems with Stronghold HD.

The combat, put simply, just felt a bit too same-y at times. Some of this had to do with the actual mechanics of the fights themselves. I have played games where battles felt like engrossing struggles of life and death. Conquest: Frontier Wars, for instance, added enough little details to otherwise fairly standard RTS action that I always felt like there was something worth paying attention to. Stronghold, comparatively, felt very basic to me. Granted, when you're on the attacking side with limited troops, you need to exercise some thought and care. When you're defending though (the most regular case for the story campaign) the most you'll often have to do is position your troops on your walls and wait for the enemy to attack.

It didn't help a lot of these aforementioned campaign missions adhere to a formulaic structure that's ultimately repetitious. In chapter after chapter I found myself running through the same process over and over again. Place my hall, place my granary, build up my population, build up my walls, build up my army and fend off the AI's successively larger invasion forces (usually 3-4) until "victory" appeared at the top of the screen and I moved onto the next level.

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Too few of the campaign levels varied from this routine and too frequently I found ways to exploit it. For instance, when you're defending the game sticks a literal signpost in the ground telling you where the enemy soldiers are going to attack from. In one level I was having trouble building up my defenses fast enough to hold off he AI's assaults. Then it dawned on me. Why bother building up a huge wall encircling my entire village when I could just build a small one directly in the enemy's marching path and stick all of my soldiers there? I tried it and it worked liked a charm. The enemy troops charged mindlessly forward and were slaughtered mercilessly by my massed archers.

Now, admittedly, this wasn't a strategy I was able to repeat every level. Even so, the nearly identical structure of the defensive missions made it easy to just do a couple test runs, figure out what my foe was bringing to the party and position my units optimally to stop their attacks which would occur exactly the same way every single time. It got to the point that I'd practically be jumping for joy when the game would actually put me on the offensive side and let me try something different.

Not that the story campaign is the only thing to do in the game. There's a series of economic missions that task you with objectives based around collecting certain amounts of different resources within a time limit. There's also a collection of standalone siege/invasion missions where you're dropped into the shoes of an attacking or defending force trying to capture or hold a pre-made castle. There are also some multiplayer options and a free build for players more inclined to just build stuff.

Unfortunately, I was just never able to really connect with these modes. The economic portion flat-out bored me. The standalone assault/defend missions were better, especially when I was looking for some quick action when the campaign was getting tedious, but overall, I still found them kind of lacking. Maybe it's just me; I just found myself unable to care about defending a castle that I hadn't built myself from the ground up. Another disappointment was my inability to access the multiplayer, which I was actually really looking forward to sampling.

All of this said, it's possible that I was perhaps looking in the wrong places to for my fun. Stronghold HD boasts a flexible scenario editor that gives players the tools to create custom missions. From what I've read, the internet is practically teeming with free fan-made content and a part of me really regrets not having the time to explore that community and its offerings.

That being the case, just looking at the game's packaged content, my feelings are somewhat mixed. To be sure, Stronghold HD gets a lot of things right. Its city building mechanics are addictive as heck and, even with its flaws, RTS fans will find some satisfaction. That said, I never fully got past its problems and potential purchasers may want to keep its caveats in mind when they consider tossing GOG another $5.99.

Come back next week for the grand finale of April's strategy month: Nexus: The Jupiter Incident!

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