Stronghold 3 Review

You may play a feudal lord in Stronghold 3, but the tedious micromanagement and bugs make you feel like a peasant.

by

Noted poet Thomas Earl Petty once told us that the waiting is the hardest part, a lesson that is painfully taught once again in Stronghold 3. The Firefly Studios game of medieval micromanagement may have been a long time coming, since Stronghold 2 was released back in 2005, but despite the years since and the opportunity to do something different, Stronghold 3 sticks close to its predecessor's template, offering up more slow-moving gameplay that sees you doing more waiting and watching than constructing a Middle Ages empire. What could have been a good city builder has been buried under this design flaw, not to mention other serious issues with bugs, mission repetition, a tutorial that doesn't do much tutoring, and simplistic combat.

A barely there tutorial and incredibly slow-paced scenarios make it very tough to get into Stronghold 3's micromanagement.

Like its predecessors, Stronghold 3 is a real-time strategy game where you play as a lord attempting to build a happy little hamlet in the Middle Ages. It's all about the peasants, who need to be lured in with things like fair tax rates and then kept happy with jobs gathering and processing resources, reasonably plentiful food like apples and bread, and a half-decent standard of living without too much plague killing everybody off and blighting crops. The basic structure of the game mirrors traditional city builders going right back to the Caesar and Pharaoh franchises that developer Impressions created back in the '90s. The story recalls the original Stronghold, with the game picking up the tale of a boy battling traitors to seek revenge for the overthrow of his father, the previous king. Apparently impalement did not rid the world of the archvillain, the Wolf, at the end of the first game in the franchise, so he returns a decade later looking to even the score.

The modes of play have been broken up into two semi-linked single-player campaigns, one that focuses primarily on the economy in getting a kingdom rolling again (although you do have to battle a few menaces) and a more military-centered one that places war against the Wolf and his troops on the front burner, while still forcing you to keep the economy rolling back at home. Historical one-off scenarios are also on offer, featuring a handful of brutally unfair (and quick) castle sieges where you take on spectacular numbers of enemy troops whether you are attacking or defending. Free Build is a sandbox option where you build the medieval shantytown of your dreams without any goals or guidelines. Deathmatch and King of the Hill multiplayer games are available as well, although nobody seems to be playing online, and the game currently lacks popular options from previous Stronghold games, such as Kingmaker and Skirmish.

It's the Middle Ages. Can't we get all medieval on these peasants dragging their feet?

Gameplay is problematic across the board. For starters, bugs show up early and often. The game seems to have a serious problem with graphics-switching hardware on laptops. It refused to start on our test Dell system with both onboard visuals and a high-powered video card that more than matched the system requirements, providing nothing but a "Failed to initialize the engine" error on every launch attempt. Only manually adding a command to a config file got the game running, and then only in a window that occasionally started up with a mouse cursor issue that made it impossible to accurately point at anything. Crashes also take place on a regular basis. The game has a habit of fainting to the desktop out of the blue, particularly after you have been playing a mission for a considerable amount of time (save early, save often). All of these problems come with little in the way of reward. Nothing pushes the envelope when it comes to graphics or sound. Visuals are muddy and bland, with few details on the constricted maps. Story cutscenes are dressed up with black-and-white drawings that look more like rough storyboards than finished artwork. Sound is unmemorable save for a striking musical score that includes minstrel odes with a singer who comes off a bit like '70s-era Gordon Lightfoot. These tunes will linger long after you've forgotten the game.

Even when Stronghold 3 runs properly, it doesn't run well. The first problem you encounter is the lack of a thorough tutorial. While there is an interactive tutorial, it stops abruptly after just a few minutes, leaving virtually all of the game's core features and building functions completely unexplained. As a result, you go into the campaigns with no knowledge of how the game's economics function. So you often need to call up the in-game help for advice on why stone quarries aren't functioning or how to deal with pesky apple crop blight. Granted, there isn't anything completely out of left field, but some tips would be much appreciated, especially regarding the production line for resources. Because there are multiple steps for everything--making bread, for instance, requires a stop at a farm, storehouse, windmill, bakery, and granary--you need some help, especially when it comes to keeping all of your buildings close together to avoid lengthy production delays.

Still, scenarios run slowly even when you maximize production speed. You wait, wait, and wait some more whenever gathering and processing resources. This was a huge problem immediately upon release, because the game was launched without any way to fast-forward past those inevitable dull spots where you're stockpiling resources. The ability to adjust speed was patched in well after the game hit shelves, but this handy feature was added without any change to the user interface. So even though you can hit the + and - keys to speed up and slow down the action, you might not realize this is possible unless you read the patch notes.

Artwork during mid-mission cutscenes is so rough that it appears to be nothing but sketches for finished work that was never completed.

Regardless, the gameplay remains problematic. Fast-forwarding comes with its own set of concerns. You might crank the game speed up to expedite some stone gathering back at the base, for instance, but wind up losing the ability to handle combat elsewhere on the map. What seems a good pace for working in the quarry is not nearly as handy when battling packs of wolves or enemy troops, because combat accelerates out of control. Battles turn into such a blur that you can accidentally lose a whole squad or even get your lord killed in the blink of an eye. So you have to be cautious when hitting that + key. In the end, you can't speed things up as much as you would like, so you often wind up stuck on the sluggish default speed and spend more time watching animations of things like wood being chopped in forests, stone being hauled out of quarries, and bread being trotted out of the bakery than you do building your medieval empire. Peasants also amble everywhere when not being fast-forwarded. They never seem to run, even when ordered to take on urgent tasks. Zooming in on peasants at work is incredibly frustrating, because they appear to do little but sit around or aimlessly shuffle back and forth.

Mission design is predictable and repetitive. You do pretty much the same things over and over, and there are no random variables to add in replay value. Finish one mission loaded with building storehouses, granaries, watchtowers, and hovels, and all you do is earn the right to start another mission filled with building the same structures. Goals vary somewhat, but they stick mainly to victory conditions that involve stockpiling set amounts of wood, stone, and wine; killing off enemies; holding out against an enemy assault; and so forth. Map size is a contributing problem. The maps are tiny, leaving you little room for exploration or innovation, which limits your options when it comes to trying anything offbeat. So in addition to constructing the same buildings on every map, you're going through these motions among what might as well be the same small patch of turf.

Warfare isn't satisfying either, for mostly the same reasons. Battles don't have a great deal of depth. You can outfit soldiers with different types of weaponry, making for combined-arms assault troops that work as spearmen, bowmen, and the like, but actual combat comes down to little more than band-selecting masses of troops to hurl them at the enemy castles or lines and then hoping for the best. Foes seem quite overpowered, too, to the point where what should be minor nuisances become scenario-killing monsters. A few wolves can decimate your forces and bring all of your village building to a halt. Dealing with enemy forces is even more daunting, especially on siege maps and in the historical castle missions. They always seem to be both more powerful and more numerous than any troops you can put into the field. As a result, battles seem unfair, and emerging victorious always comes at the end of a long, drawn-out war of attrition that bores you well before it wraps up.

Apothecaries wait around for disease outbreaks. Perhaps they never heard about the whole 'apple a day' thing.

Even though Firefly Studios took the better part of a decade to release Stronghold 3, the developer really needed to work on this one for a fair bit longer. Patches continue to be released in an attempt to improve the game's flaws, however, resulting in improvements to things like game speed and the addition of multiple difficulty settings to address complaints over the tough nature of the scenarios. Still, even with the ongoing work, the game remains afflicted by some serious bugs, a dawdling pace, and a tutorial that does virtually nothing to teach the ins and outs of building a medieval village. At present, it is pretty tough to recommend this trip back to the Middle Ages.

The Good
Atmospheric music
Patches are gradually stomping bugs and adding in needed game features
The Bad
Slow-paced, repetitive scenarios
Terrible tutorial leaves many key game concepts unexplained
Buggy and prone to crashes
Shallow combat and sieges
4.5
Poor
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10 comments
dr0siko
dr0siko

I'm a new player in Stronghold 3 and I frankly expected more from it. I heard about Stronghold from a work colleague who played the former Stronghold games, then v3 came and he was frustrated by the lame gameplay comparing to the past ones.

Freewaylimo
Freewaylimo

Hmmm It seems Mr Todd simply doesn't like the Stronghold style. He should play some other game if the concept of wheat turning into bread in a three step process scares him.  Obviously he thinks it grows in packets on a supermarket shelf and cant process the idea that a game has tried to be realistic. It's a very intuitive game with few hidden game changing options not much need from a tutorial required. I wonder what Mr Todd would have to say about the likes of the Hearts of Iron series for example. Something along the lines of "So Impossible it's not worth buying Rating of 2"? 


KingSin989
KingSin989

I love RTS games.... especially.. Stronghold crusader ....  and Extreme ....

stronghold 2 ....can pass in "good" because "skirmish mode"...... and I even play Stronghold Kingdoms (it's excellent game)... and When I heard that STRONGHOLD 3 is coming.....I was thrilled....  I watched every video.... watched every image about the game.... and have been thinking.... mmmm skirmish mode, new enemy lords new maps.... and :((  .... I hope that you will make future extensions to the old system like Stronghold or crusader or Extreme .... With more maps, enemy lords .... new buildings ..... new armys .... and buildings for honor ... like in Kingdoms .... you know every building in Kingdoms... new honor army... i dont know " Stronghold crusader 2"  i think more guys will agree with me.....""old system but in new form""

good luck with the new extension...

jazf2006
jazf2006

gs reviewers never liked stronghold, they too dumb to understand. this game is amazing, best strategy game ever, as all previous strongholds (cept 2). i am just starting to play stronghold3, im in the 4th or 5th mission, so far its good... only thing i dont like or thats its kind of annoying to select a unit to attack to, im looking for a patch maybe that will fix it.

squidbilly22
squidbilly22

NO skirmish mode and full of bugs not to mention slow and boring ,the physics are a joke ,i got it for free and deleted it an hour later.....no lan or skirmish mode = failure/bankrupt......even the campaign is stupidly boring and online is slow....

 

you screwd the pooch firefly !.........bummer i loved Crusader....

Gryphes2k
Gryphes2k

wow why gamespot complains it has steep learning curve? there is nothing wrong with that unless they are really dumb. perhaps games didn't have point for the bad side lol

Drunkenboxer07
Drunkenboxer07

the original stronghold is by far my favorite rts game. i wasnt a fan of crusader at all and thats the last one i played other than the free-to-play online one which was horrible. im sure ill give 3 a shot when it drops in price.

darklord2160
darklord2160

i wonder what command line needed to add to the config file???i have the same "Failed to initialize the engine" error. i guess it has st to do with the nvidia graphic card.

Nightmare799
Nightmare799

thats it kids! consider firefly dead, RIP. EDIT: quite an epic way to bankrupt yourself tho.

Stronghold 3 More Info

First Release on Oct 24, 2011
  • PC
Stronghold 3, the long-awaited third installment in the award-winning castle-building series, promises to be the best yet, with a keep full of fantastic new features that ensure old and new fans alike experience a gritty slice of medieval life.
4.1
Average User RatingOut of 507 User Ratings
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Developed by:
FireFly Studios
Published by:
SouthPeak Games, Zoo Corporation, 7sixty
Genres:
Real-Time, Strategy
Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
Teen
All Platforms
Alcohol Reference, Blood, Violence