Stronghold 3 is an unfinished, broken game. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to release this version of the castle-building franchise and expect consumers to pay full retail for an obviously flawed and sub-par product. For that, there is really no excuse. This is also quite a difficult title to review—there are glimmers of a decent game buried underneath a mess of half-baked code, but I have no way of knowing if a given problem is part of a conscious decision on the part of the developers, or if it is instead simply a bug or glitch. Worst of all, like many fans out there, I held some high hopes that Stronghold 3 was going to put the franchise back on the right track.
I’ll begin with the positives. Stronghold 3 looks to clear up some of the problems encountered by Stronghold 2, especially on the economic side of things. Much of the city-building aspects of the game have been simplified from the overly-complex earlier title. While players still need to balance peasant happiness by carefully setting up and running an interwoven city machine, it is no longer the extremely convoluted and finicky undertaking that was the previous title. Individual buildings can now be shut down to free up workers, rather than turning off entire industries. And while losing one particular important worker to unhappiness or ravening wolves can still have devastating effects on the economy, players get a little more leeway than before.
The actual castle and city building mechanics work fairly well, too. With many, many options to choose from in city and castle layout, the interface is decent enough to allow players to build in just about any configuration they choose. Whether those choices work well enough in the almost claustrophobic map sizes is another matter altogether. I was also annoyed at the fact that players cannot build on a space currently occupied by a worker. Give that players cannot control worker units directly, this becomes a big problem as populations rise and the crowded spaces begin teeming with peasants.
A few other high points of the game include fantastic voice acting (when it occurs), and some surprisingly charming atmosphere. Zooming in on a particular unit or building often produces a chuckle-worthy comment or tooltip description, making me believe that there is a glimmer of hope buried somewhere under all those bugs.
And bugs there are aplenty. The rest of my review might seem like a laundry-list of complaints, and I probably won’t even cover everything I’ve seen. There are simply too many shortcomings to make me believe that this game was even close to ready for release. From the moment I fired it up, it was apparent that Stronghold 3 was rushed, jury-rigged to the point where it could be considered “functional”, and sent out the door.
Even the tutorial seems shorted. With its complexity, Stronghold 3 is not an easy game to dive into. The tutorial covers only the bare minimum of the basics, including building a few types of buildings and generating a military unit. After that, players are forced to work it all out for themselves. Given that much of the game involves setting up carefully-designed layouts of buildings to efficient and proper flow of goods and products from one point to the next, this complete lack of teaching left me reloading missions frequently. I don’t mind trial-and-error, but this tended to the extreme. Unfortunately, this short-sighted guidance was the least of the games problems.
First up is unit control. In a game that relies, in large part, in military actions, it would seem fitting that at least basic RTS controls should be implemented. But unit control (and cursor control in general) is terrible. For whatever reason, the action point of the cursor is some random distance and direction from the cursor that appears on the screen. This means that when trying to click on a specific unit, enemy, or even building, it can take several tries in several different directions to actually perform an action. In the heat of battle, this can mean the difference between victory and a senseless slaughter. Because the unit AI certainly won’t help matters any.
The AI for the game is absolutely horrible. It’s a coin-toss whether troops will react to the enemy, even when under direct attack. Units will mindlessly stand around as, inches away, allied units are brutally cut down. Of course, this can be used to players’ advantage. I have cleared entire maps by creeping my units along, ordering them to attack a single enemy, and then patiently waiting to reload their spears while the remaining enemy troops stand around like oblivious cattle. I am also infuriated when I order my troops to battle, only to find them saunter off at a gentle walk to the front lines. I think they’re capable of running—I swear I noticed the enemy move quickly with a running animation—but I have never seen friendly troops move at anything other than a pleasant stroll. Should I take too long to get my units in place, the map is lost and I’m forced to reload. Which is a problem, as Stronghold 3 crashed to desktop on almost every-other reload or change of map.
Castle walls, which one would assume are important in a castle-building simulation, do not provide the protection one would imagine. While they do keep units from crossing, they seem completely ineffective against ranged weapons. Spears and arrows pass right through these walls, easily striking units hiding behind for the supposed cover. While ranged units can easily return fire (on the off chance they actually respond to the attack), melee units are sitting ducks. To make matters even worse, there are almost no audio or visual cues that an attack is happening. From enemy attacks to wolves brutally slaughtering peasants, players have no way of knowing units are dying, apart from constant vigilance. I’ve had my entire peasantry wiped out by a single wolf before knowing anything untoward was happening, resulting in another reload and desktop crash.
I could go on with a long list of additional problems, but at this point it’s just not worth it. Stronghold 3 is currently broken beyond the point of being in the least bit entertaining. Future patches may clear up many of the bugs, balance issues, and AI troubles, but the game I received was a frustrating mess. Avoid this one for now.