You know there's probably something to be said for how worthwhile a game is when you go online and not one single person is playing. Such is what I discovered when I tried to play Stronghold 2 late one night online. Maybe it was just the time, or maybe somehow I didn't set up Gamespy properly but when I found nobody playing online, I was a little bit surprised. As poor as Stronghold 2 is, I did have some fun with it somewhere between the 3rd and 15th hours of gameplay. After that time, the minor quirks soon became major annoyances, and the game started to wear on me. That isn't to say the game is without merit; it's just that many of the problems could have been easily fixed given a few more months in development. This could easily have been a title to recommend, but instead, it's merely a slightly above average title that joins the legions of games that could have been more.

Stronghold 2 maintains the core elements of its predecessors; the first Stronghold and Stronghold: Crusader. The focus is on castle building and management, and protecting and laying siege to castles. There are two primary single player campaigns. The peace campaign focuses on the building and management of your castle, while the war campaign focuses on defending and attacking castles. The basic gameplay is like most real time strategy games. The maps are a little bit different though as they are divided up into estates with borders. You are confined to these areas, but are able to purchase more estates with honor points. Honor is gained by keeping your peasants happy by feeding them well, entertaining them and generally keeping your castle well run. Honor points can also be used to create knight units. The game does take place in 3D, however the graphics are fairly mediocre. This is in stark contrast to some of the other production values of the game such as the voice acting which is right in character and the out of engine cut scenes and even the menu screen. While not awful, the graphics do look like they are missing overall polish, as if the game was still in its beta stages.

In the peace campaign, the game manages to entertain, at least initially, while being relatively simple. Building your castle and its industries is as simple as placing buildings. There are no non-military units as peasants come and work where they are needed automatically. The only thing dictating when and how quickly peasants come to your castle is how happy the existing townsfolk are with your job. This can

be seen by reviewing statistics that show how your peasants rate your ability to keep a clean castle, provide entertainment, religion, different food types etc. In this campaign there is very little combat, and the focus is more on gathering, or creating a certain amount of a good within an allotted time frame. There are quite a few resources to gather and industries to manage which is sure to please those who can't get enough of controlling and manipulating things.

The main problem I've found with the peace campaign and the castle building and management aspect of the game is the way in which the goods are distributed and how the workers work. For instance, goods must first come into the stockpile and go out to its refining post or building. An example of this would be wheat coming in from the farm, must first be dropped off at the stockpile. Then the miller will have to come and get wheat, take it back to the mill to change it into flour. Then the miller takes the flour back to the stockpile where it gets picked up by the baker and taken back to the bakery. Finally the baker takes the bread to the granary for consumption. I have no problem with such a flow of goods, however, the fact that you can initially only place one stockpile and one granary and that there no roads or indicators to show the efficiency of the supply chain is frustrating. In many cases, with limited space, you are working to cram everything as close as possible to the stockpile and granary. With no indicators to show the efficiency of such a set up, you really have no way of gauging how effective your supply chain is. The same problem is also applicable to your maintenance services. To control rats, waste and fires, you need falconers, gong pits, and wells. Unfortunately you won't be able to see their effective radius and as such are left to guess where to best place your buildings.

Throughout the campaign, you are eventually given access to multiple estates, or areas of land. I found this a bit confusing because although you may own more than one estate, you only really play in one estate. Placing buildings in other estates uses the resources of the estate you are currently playing in for that mission, but you don't get to reap the benefit. However, I found that leaving my other estates alone, they would automatically begin to send goods to my current estate. While confusing, it seemed to me as if this aspect of the game was conceptually incomplete. It would have been nice to have to manage more than one castle and estate at a time, however maybe the focus in the campaign was meant to be more directed at a specific task.

The War campaign focuses more on battle missions where you must defend a castle from attacking soldiers and siege weapons, or attempt to successfully breach the enemies castle. The battle portion also has some strange design decisions. For instance, once your laddermen have placed their ladders, they can not move them to a different part of the wall. Also, if you move them away from the ladders, they become virtually useless units. Next, having a legion of archers on a wall can sometimes be almost too effective a defense. This can prove to be very frustrating when attacking a castle without any siege weapons as support. Conversely this can make things too easy when defending a castle. Also, I found the AI to have very poor intuition. The best example of this is that I had my units set to defend an area. When the enemy approached, the enemies did not attack my soldiers but rather went for my peasants and buildings. Because they were not directly threatened, they did nothing. Not until I changed my units to an aggressive stance did they decide to attack the enemy units. The good news is that there are plenty of military units and each has their own strength and weakness. This variety does make things interesting along with the formations you are able to use, as well as the ability to group units, and set patrol routes. All the ingredients are there to be able to set some elaborate battles but, unfortunately, with a few problems.

The game also has some other minor quirks. For instance, at times I would not be able to select an item from the interface menu. Instead, it would select the building over which the cursor was hovering when I was actually attempting to select an item from that menu. The design of the game also has some deadly chicken and egg situations where you will be hard pressed to work your way out of it. This often happens when for whatever reason your peasants begin to leave your castle. The subsequent damage to the industries they were working leads to more problems which further spirals into more peasants leaving. Working your way out of such a mess can seem impossible and often comes down to placing a few more buildings and just waiting for things to get better.

The rest of the game offers a myriad of single player game modes in both the peace and war sides of the game. While the enemy AI isn't particularly good, it is serviceable enough. When things get dull alone, you have the option of hopping online to play a game as well. As a package, what Stronghold 2 offers can't really be had somewhere else as the concept is unique enough for those who have tried everything else. However, with the combination of some of the absent design aspects, the forcing of micromanagement, and the sub par graphics, I can only marginally recommend this game.

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