Store your food and raise the drawbridge, for Stronghold 2 has been released and is ready to lay siege to your computer. For those of you unfamiliar with the Stronghold series, or castle sim games in general, Stronghold 2 puts you in command of a castle. You must feed your peasants and keep them happy, build walls and towers to protect your property, and raise an army to lay siege to your opponent's castles. While there have been plenty of additions made to Stronghold 2 over its predecessor (in addition to the implementation of some good ideas), a poor story, weak artificial intelligence, and plenty of bugs mar what otherwise could have been a simple yet fun castle-building game.
In Stronghold 2, you have a lord who presides over a keep. Peasants will flock to your keep as long as they're kept happy. Happiness is dependent on several factors, including how well they eat, the amount of rats in your castle, and whether you provide entertainment for them. You'll gather various resources to place in your storehouse, and industry workers can take these resources to create advanced items, like bread, ale, and weapons. However, there aren't any complicated manufacturing trees, so don't expect an intricate economic sim game. Stronghold 2 is designed so you can focus on building up your castle and raising an army.
There are a few issues with the gameplay that are worth noting. You can't shut off just one building. You have to either shut down the entire industry or sell the building. For example, if you build three lumber camps but only want two to operate at a given moment, you have to sell the third camp. Also, some of your workers will, on occasion, turn to crime, thus abandoning the industry in which they were working. And, unfortunately, you can't shift a worker from one industry to the abandoned one. This poses a problem when the abandoned post is critical, such as your gong pit. If your gong pit worker leaves his post, and you don't notice, gong will pile up, and your peasants will be unhappy. If you're already on the breaking point of happiness/unhappiness, people will start leaving the castle (and, thus, they'll start to leave other critical industries), putting you in a feedback loop you may never recover from. These are micromanagement issues you shouldn't have to face. More alerts for when critical posts get abandoned would have been a big help.
There are two campaigns in Stronghold 2: peace and war. They're what you'd expect. The peace campaign focuses on economic missions. The king is displeased with his vassals, so you must step up and fix the economy of his nation. You'll focus on collecting a set number of resources in a mission without worry of being sieged. The most fighting you'll see is against bandits or wolves. Since the economic portion of the game is pretty basic, this campaign can be boring if you expect heavy micromanagement. The war campaign, on the other hand, throws you into missions where you not only have to build up your castle, but also attack an enemy or defend your lands. The storyline of the war campaign is weak due to boring cutscenes and poor voice acting, but the missions are structured nicely. Some strategy games can be repetitive because you have to rebuild a base every time you start a new mission. In Stronghold 2, each mission is divided into several submissions played on the same map. As a result, you don't have to rebuild a castle every time you start a new objective.
The two campaigns aren't particularly challenging. The peace campaign can have some tricky situations, but you're not going to burst your brain trying to figure out how to win. The war campaign is a cakewalk, especially once you discover the limitations of the AI. You may have to restart a few missions, but you'll soon realize that the computer follows the same strategy every time. Whether you're defending or attacking, you won't find a worthy opponent in the AI.
When being sieged, it's very easy to adapt your defenses to thwart the attack. Some missions pit you against seemingly impossible odds. The easiest way to defend against these attacks is to build a bunch of wooden walls outside your main stone ones. Ladder men can't scale these walls, and enemy troops will happily hack at the wooden walls while under heavy fire from your archers. Even if the computer has siege equipment, it will be used against your wooden walls instead of your towers or your defenders. Rarely will the computer ever be able to get to your stone walls, much less your lord (if your lord dies, you lose, by the way). When you're on the offensive, the AI won't do much to lift your siege. You can methodically pick off defenders and towers one by one with your siege equipment, all without worry of retaliation. It makes the game really boring and simplistic, which is unfortunate, because there's high potential for great battles.
We wouldn't have had to resort to cheesy tactics if the other castle defenses weren't broken. You can mount logs and rocks on your walls that can be released to cause damage to soldiers underneath. The problem is that once ladder men get close to these walls, these defense mechanisms mysteriously disappear. It's extremely irritating to spend a bunch of gold on these defenses only to have them vanish. Of course, you can exploit this to your own advantage when you're the attacker.
Once you complete the campaigns, which can take around 15 to 20 hours, there's plenty to keep you occupied, if you so desire. You can play a free-build mode, where you just build up your economy and castle with no objectives. Kingmaker is the skirmish mode where you square off against computer or human opponents in multiplayer. Single-player skirmish suffers from the same faults as above, but multiplayer has a lot more to offer in terms of strategy and castle development. Human opponents can use the fairly large number of units and siege weapons to formulate counterstrategies that make gameplay much more rewarding. You can play multiplayer using a LAN or the in-game browser, which is rudimentary but gets the job done. Unfortunately, multiplayer is also buggy, though. In one game, we were suddenly dropped to the main menu. In another game, it appeared that all three of our opponents were dropped without warning. We didn't even notice until it became apparent that one of our siege victims wasn't responding to our attacks.
The biggest change between Stronghold 2 and its predecessor is the addition of a 3D engine. You can zoom in and spin the map around to accurately place walls and structures. However, the 3D engine isn't particularly flattering, because the graphics aren't very good. Aside from the lackluster combat animations, units tend to clump together in combat, making it difficult to control individual units or to even tell what's going on in a fight. Units clip through each other, so you'll see a wagon roll right through a peasant while on its way to the storehouse. Also, the game has a low frame rate during any action, even on high-end machines. And cutscenes are in-engine, so this issue rears its ugly head even during story sequences. Additionally, the audio to these cutscenes, and to the rest of the game, for that matter, is poor. Furthermore, the voice acting just isn't very good.
There's a patch out already that fixes some issues, but the low frame rate and other bugs mentioned above weren't fixed in it. The single-player experience isn't very rewarding, although the game does let you build your own missions with the editor. You can set victory and losing conditions, and you can even make a sequence of missions in a scenario. Players can also create more-challenging scenarios here, but being able to do so isn't going to make it worthwhile to pick up this game. Meanwhile, multiplayer would have been a more redeeming aspect if it wasn't so prone to dropping players. All things considered, Stronghold 2 has too many problems to be recommendable to even the most diehard strategy fan.