Review by BMT Gander

"For those of you who would be king"

I'll start this off with an admission: I'm a ren geek. One of those guys who dresses up in ''garb'' straps on sword and dagger, and heads off to the renaissance fair. I'm also in the SCA, which means I armor up and whack on people with a rattan sword. So when I saw Stronghold on the shelf, I went ''oooooooohhh!'' I looked inside the cover flap and said it again. When I finally got the game from my Sim addicted better half, I said it louder and longer. Then I had to fight her for it, since she'd tried it herself. On to the review.

I'll be mixing the bad with the good, and there are significant dabs of both.
The game starts with a very entertaining video that pales very quickly after the fifth or sixth time you see it. Fortunately, both it and the opening credits are a click away from oblivion. This means that you can get up and running without the twenty minute wait of a game like Dungeon Siege. Good thing, too, since you'll need that time. Other reviewers have gone into the detailed graphics, but I just can't help myself. They are amazing. The first time I played, I lost the game because I got lost watching the hunters and woodcutters working. One word of caution: if you are soft-hearted, be careful of clicking on the NPCs. You can't control them even a little bit (this is very bad, since they have absolutely NO sense of self-preservation, and will wander blithely into an oncoming formation of enemy soldiers-- even the old warcraft peasants would run away after the first thwack!) It can get annoying trying to pen them into safe areas so they won't, for instance, wander into the shadow of an enemy fortress to hunt or chop wood. a sense of personal preservation would greatly improve gameplay. They all have names, even the hunting dogs, and each has something to say, of course, which is cool, although they tend toward the doom and gloom whenever enemies are on the map. Also, and here's where the tender-hearted are in trouble, the dialog box displays the NPC's current action. I had the bad fortune to click on one of the hunters' dogs just as an enemy archer dispatched it. The caption read ''Snowy: dying'' After that, I tried not to do that anymore if there were enemies around.
Control of the soldiers is much better, and in some cases, humorous. (click on a tunneler and listen to his phobias)
Another bad thing is that you can't really control the Lord. You can attack with him, but if you have to do that, the gooey stuff has already impacted the impellers. It isn't as big a deal as with the NPC's, but can get annoying.
Building is quick, assuming you use some basic sense, easy, and intuitive, with certain reservations. The 4 point perspective is awful, especially when you start getting some rugged terrain on the map. There are places where the only way to ensure complete blockage of a particular location is the slather it on with a shovel method, which is a real waste of sometimes scarce resources. The zoom feature is also a pain, with only two settings: panoramic, and still not quite close enough. Some of the really beautiful terrain features are lost to distance, with no way to get a close look The walls go up (after you read the instructions) very well, for the most part. You have to be careful about angles, since the engine tends to choose its own angle unless you break up a long stretch into shorter segments. The crenelated sections can be a real pain, too, if you build a wall that isn't on a squared axis relative to the playing field.

The detail of the economic growth of your kingdom has enough detail to keep it a challenge, without going crazy. You can, for instance, put a tanner right next to a bakery without adverse effects, although you want to put the bakery close to the granary and the tanner close to the armory.

I haven't yet played either free play or the economic campaigns, but conversations with sim freaks reveal that such gameplay, while entertaining early on, pales quickly, as the available options are limited.

The combat based campaign is another matter. The game gives you just not quite enough time to figure out the the best ways to configure your fortress/town. Expect restarts. This isn't a terrible thing, although it can be frustrating. It simply means that the game isn't a cake walk. The enemies come at you quicker than you'd like, and seem fully able to exploit the smallest weakness in your defense. The stories are interesting, although the animations accompanying the setup are very limited, and you wonder how these guys are talking to one another across miles and miles without modern technology. Several scenarios seem impossible at first, but eventually yield a ''D'oh!'' moment when you realize just how they can be done.

In summation:
Good points: beautiful graphics, amazing day to day life detail that just doesn't seem to get old, easy, intuitive, yet detailed building of both economy and fortifications, engaging storyline, challenging scenarios that aren't quite impossible, noticeable game progression, and a scribe who seems genuinely concerned for your welfare.
Bad: Suicidally oblivious civilians with no control options, limited visibility due to the 4 point viewing system, not enough control on the zoom feature, certain fortification features that don't seem to work on the diagonal, scenarios that only just miss being impossible.
Overall, the good far outweighs the bad, making the game a long term active part of my library.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/26/02, Updated 08/26/02


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