All this glossy action and ambitious role-playing has made 2011 a memorable enough year for games, but there’s been at least one genre left in the cold - the humble strategy game. With the exception of a new Total War title a few months, there really hasn’t been much to shout about in terms of ushering tiny men across a battlefield.
Fortunately, a familiar name has sloped back into view. Castle-building series Stronghold has been slumbering for some years, but back in 2001 this British-made medieval strategy gem was popular enough to outsell Grand Theft Auto 3 in Euro-zones such as Germany.
As some time with an early build proves, a few years of rest have done Stronghold 3 the world of good. A brand new graphics engine and a salient sense of mistakes made in the over-complicated second game point to something slick and smart. Most of all, it’s going back to basics - those basics being to build an enormous castle of your own devising, make sure it’s got a watertight economy then defend it from the slings and arrows of dastardly rival lords. In turn, naturally, you’ll want to go siege your enemy’s castles, primarily in the form of lobbing bloody great rocks at them.
Stronghold’s main draw is actual building. Where most strategy games settle for pop-up structures capable of spitting out perfectly-formed armies, here it’s all about how you place your castle’s individual walls and buildings. Some layouts will provide more effective defence; others might include critical weak points that a canny opponent will exploit; others still might actively seek a weaker, more open structure but that allows its inhabitants to more efficiently go about their daily tasks.
Your castle’s economy is what powers its expansion, so simply building a grim, towering fortress of solitude won’t get you too far. You’ll need woodcutters gathering the timber you need to construct arrows for your archers, a few chaps quarrying stone to build those precious walls, and the likes of bakers to keep your populace happy. It’s a delicate balancing act, but developer Firefly promises that it’s removed the arduous over-complexity the second Stronghold was guilty of in favour of something that accentuates the best parts of the castle-lord fantasy.
Part of that, quite naturally, is warfare. The new graphics engine means walls are procedurally-generated: a fancy-soundin’ term that in practice means when you pelt a castle with catapult fire, it gradually and visibly disintegrates until eventually collapsing, rather than removing neat, pre-determined chunks. It lends the sense that the castle’s really there, rather than being simply a graphic. Same goes for building the thing - walls and towers and whatnot snap together and mesh into one another rather than awkwardly jutting out or being restricted only to certain angles (as was the case in the previous Strongholds).
The night-time sieges look to be the game’s most spectacular conflicts. This isn’t just a matter of things being a bit darker - any area that you haven’t placed a light source in will be pitch black to you. Any invader worth their salt will spot this and try and sneak up to your castle under cover of darkness, meaning if you’ve planned badly you’re likely to find your walls crumbling and your archers tumbling to their doom before you even know there’s an enemy nearby.
Next page: Angry dogs and diseased badgers...