13th May 2005 | 11:23
It appears I've become something of an authority on poop 'em ups - after reviewing Zoo Tycoon 2 a couple of issues ago (a game where shovelling animal dung was a rare treat), I've been assigned to critique this medieval affair, where at least the economic necessity of dealing in digestive by-product is tempered by a more distant view of the sanitation process.
Nevertheless, in order to facilitate a strong feudal economy and therefore build and maintain the most opulent keep, slop plop your citizens must, as well as chop wood, pick apples, slaughter pigs and brew ale - all so that your high-and-mighty lord can live it up on their shit-caked shoulders.
Of course, there's much more to this than pillaging the land of resources, but it must be said that unlike the great morass of real-time strategy games, one of Stronghold's great strengths is the way in which your management of resources impacts into every facet of medieval life. For example apples, veg, meat, eels, berries and beer will provide obvious sustenance, but will also cheer the unwashed (so long as you clear up afterwards). They also enable you to - with the correct facilities in place - to throw lavish feasts for local dignitaries, from which honour points can be cashed in for specialist units and buildings. In short, the pursuit of honour points means you must focus attentions on your leader as much as your subjects.
IRON FIST, VELVET GLOVE
Building your economy would be for naught if you weren't required to defend and expand your borders, and Stronghold 2 is just as accomplished here. Again, building keeps, towers and walls is central, as is maintaining a full complement of soldiery and siege engines. And because it's now in 3D, you even get to see soldiers charging up staircases. As elsewhere in the game, the sheer detail soon presents itself as an ingenious addition.
Stronghold 2 is much more than an excuse to shoehorn the exact same game as before into a 3D engine. There's a lot of new stuff here, and Firefly has gone to impressive lengths to ensure the detail remains high, the game is as easy to navigate and the gameplay is expanded into different areas. There's still no Skirmish option, but the campaigns (one each for those bent on war or peace) have that rare quality of introducing new features and neat little touches at every turn, and the new Kingmaker option goes some way to making amends.
There are a handful of games that provide greater economic depth, or are more immediate and spectacular on the field of battle, but few marry these two traditional aspects of real-time strategy so seamlessly and with so much charm. As much as Stronghold 2 is a very modern game, it also has an indefinable quality that will remind gamers of the classic Bullfrog games; full of humour, depth, subtle detail and replayability, with enough human misery thrown in to remind you why you started playing games in the first place.