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...
The trick to dealing with this is to send a few torch-holding serfs patrolling your borders, or have archers alight the top of watch-towers with flaming arrows. Pools of light spring up and maybe, just maybe you’ll have early warning enough to fend off a midnight incursion.
Of course, the time will come when it’s your own turn to stage a midnight incursion - or, if you prefer, a daylight one. This isn’t just a matter of rolling up a couple of catapults (if you’ve been able to afford and build them), but of sending out soldiers to carve their way closer to the enemy’s walls. Even aside from sword-wielding enemies, don’t expect an easy time of it. Someone might roll burning logs over the ramparts at you, or release a cage full of angry, starving dogs at your shocked men, or impale them upon pop-up wooden stakes. Just pray that you’ve still got enough men standing by the time you finally make it to the castle walls.
The new engine lends the like of ragdoll physics to proceedings, which the developers cheerily admit has led to them finding a lot of excuses to build castles on top of towering cliffs and mountains - nothing says successful siege like a clutch of floppy-bodied archer corpses tumbling down a sheer, rocky face.
The visual show-offery extends to less bloody aspects of the game too. Take a breather to watch your castle’s denizens going about their business, and you’ll see kids chasing chickens, old women chastising their drunken husbands and captured criminals groaning away on torture devices.
If you’d rather focus on this simulation aspect without the distraction of conflict, the game features an economic-only campaign as well as the main military singleplayer game. Here, you’re tasked with using your economic and resource-managing nous to make your castle as efficient and grand as possible, with no fear of sword-wielding nutters trying to scale your walls.
On top of that is a fully-fleshed multiplayer mode and a few missions designed around accurate-as-possible recreations of famed castles so history gonks can scratch a few itches. If all goes to plan - if it definitely doesn’t disappear into a black hole of over-complication - we’re in for a delicious brew of strategy and simulation, and a game that both harkens back to the golden age of PC RTS while confidently embracing the technological cutting-edge.
Oh, and did we mention that you can catapult sacks full of diseased badgers over enemy walls?