Soon into the military campaign the penny dropped. An hour into the mission, and I had built up a fairly respectable village. I had enough food to go around, plenty of wood and stone tinkling in, and I was massing an army at my north gate. The rival Lord to the north-west had been harrying my walls with a few bands of archers and spear-men – once actually breaking past my slightly myopic archers to slaughter some wood-cutters. The guy was starting to geteth on mine tits. Two dozen fighting men and another dozen archers will wipe that sneer off his face. At this point, I did what any sensible commander would do – save the game in case it all goes to hell. And that’s when Stronghold 3 crashed for the Nth time.
Stronghold 3 is the third iteration of the very popular castle-building strategy from Firefly (I miss that show so much), and has been touted as the return to form after a rather lacklustre sequel. It places you in the medieval-management-shoes of an ousted lord, trying desperately to reclaim his lands from the bitter claws of The Wolf, the main baddie from the first game, whose miraculous recovery has, for some reason, left him a little short on patience and quite insane. The story itself is delivered by slightly ropey voice-overs and some very rough comic-style artwork reminiscent of my own high-school portfolio (I liked to crosshatch too), and it completely failed to enthral me. None of this really matters, however, as building a working, breathing and self-contained world within four stone walls is the order of the day for Stronghold 3, and it almost succeeds. Haroo!
The idea for building a productive castle is fairly straightforward: various farms produce food, which in turn keep the peasants happy. Happy peasants means more will come to your castle to work for you, allowing you to expand your territory and gather even more resources. Eventually, you can start turning spare workers into military units, from fork-wielding toe-rags to mounted cavalry. There is a working economy within your walls too, meaning almost everything you need, from apples to swords, must be made from local sources. Most of the hard work is done by your villagers thanks to a fairly simple building hierarchy. You just place the buildings, and your peasants sort the rest out. Build a Poleturner’s Workshop, for example, and a villager will take up the mantle, grab a piece of wood (provided you have some), and get to work. He then takes the finished spear to the armoury, which allows you to make a spear-man. It’s a surprisingly slick system that works quite well.
The combat is not so intuitive. The AI in Stronghold 3 swings from daft to infuriatingly useless. Your soldiers are almost blind, very stupid, and woefully prone to spears through the neck as their comrades stand idly by, ignoring the carnage three feet away. Of course, the enemy soldiers suffer the same problems too, so at least things are even. Archers and other ranged units are better – if only because they are slightly more homicidal and aggressive, though they do all tend to aim for the same guy, before taking an age to reload… The thing is, while the combat is dull and unsatisfying, the biggest issue is the control system. It simply doesn’t work. Take clicking on a unit, for example: it’s easy enough, provided you compensate for gravity, wind and bullet-drop. Seriously, depending on the camera angle and distance, you can find yourself clicking on the guy at the top of the formation, only to select the chap at the bottom – the mouse-cursor clearly has no idea where it is on-screen. And it gets worse. When directing your troops to attack the enemy, nine times out of ten you’ll find your little army simply marches through the enemy units and then ambles to a halt. Then, after half your soldiers are dead, they eventually decide it would be a fitting time to attack.
And it gets even worse. Ranged units can fire through walls for some reason, they receive no advantage to being in an elevated position (in other words, standing on top of a wall makes no difference whatsoever), and I’ve even seen clipping issues that resulted in my very thick walls being rendered useless as an entire enemy army marches through solid stone. For a game focused on building castles, having walls that appear to be made out of imagination is a bit of a tough sell. There are a huge number of interface issues, and basic AI problems that make the combat in Stronghold 3 less part of the game, and more something to tolerate as you build more apple orchards. There are a number of resource issues too – your villagers eat food ridiculously quickly, making running at full rations almost impossible. You can reduce the amount they eat to half or even less, but your peasant happiness will be adversely effected. Random world-events, such as apple-blight or mad-cow-disease can strike your farms too, stopping all production from those affected, and piss your villagers off to the point where they start leaving. If they strike at a critical moment, as the enemy is mounting an assault, for example, it can be very difficult to regain balance.
There is an economic campaign, set just after the military one closes, that focuses on rebuilding the shattered realm. This is far less frustrating, asking you to harvest resources and build up fledgling settlements. Unfortunately, the odd interface problems still plague what should be a rather relaxing set of challenges, but as combat here is reserved for dealing with the occasional wolf attack – it’s nowhere near as crippling. There are also a number of historical sieges to play through too, all playable as either the attackers or the defenders. Although as the combat appears to be borked at the moment, these tend to be either brutally difficult or so easy you could eat your dinner while it plays itself. The real star of the show, for me, was the Free-Build mode – a lush, open landscape, where you start with a few peasants and the freedom to build whatever you like. Cleverly, the village management still counts here, so you still have to build up a working infrastructure of farms and the like to maintain your creation.
The bottom line is that Stronghold 3 feels utterly unfinished. Which is a crying shame as there is a fantastic game under all the bugs, the useless interface and dodgy archer-blindness. There are moments when your little castle is buzzing away, all your guys are happy and thriving, and you feel a real sense of achievement. Then it crashes again and you break another keyboard. To Firefly’s credit, during the week I played the game, there have been two patches in quick succession, and the latter one fixed a huge number of AI problems and added a much-needed game-speed control. But even now, it still feels under-cooked. Still, it is a welcome sign that Firefly is determined to iron this wrinkly game to release standard. But at this moment in time, I honestly can’t recommend Stronghold 3 at its current cash-zapping new release price. There is a wealth of enjoyment to be had, provided you are willing to put in the time and effort – and overlook the crash related frustrations. For the fans, you’re better off sticking with the original Stronghold until this game is finished. I’d give it another few months.