Simply a fantastic game
I can remember when I first played Castles. It was a dream come true, I had always wanted to play a game where you build massive beautiful castles and defend it from large armies. Castles had it's flaws, but it was a really cool game. Stronghold is very similar, only a thousand times better. Everything has been done to perfect detail, the castle you build is filled with people doing their work, and you can follow them in detail in everything they do. Graphically, this game simply rocks, it's one of the 2D games out and personally I think that's good in every way. This game in 3D just wouldn't be right, 2D still has that detail and charm 3D's yet to capture.
The game's mainly split in two, the economical side and warfare side. You begin a level with the former, building your castles, cutting down trees to build buildings, setting the taxes to gain money, giving the peasants more food so your castle'll be more popular and so on. And then there's the other side, when the enemy arrives. The warfare part, which is definately the most fun. Seeing the arrows rain down on the enemy is a lovely and unique sight to behold. And the pitch ditch... oooooh, I've never ever had a more satisfying weapon to use in a game. Hidden holes filled with pitch, and when you fire a flame arrow on it... wheeeeee... it's pretty normal to see fifty men die instantly because of it. There's also one thing I especially like about the combat, most RTS games have a pretty lousy AI and you have to give individual orders to every unit, which make you waste time on micromanagement instead of concentrating on the overall strategy. Stronghold is not like this, every unit can be set to three stances, Stand Ground, Defensive and Aggressive. So all you have to do is to select one stance, give a simple move order and from there it'll the smartest thing and you have no need to give it more orders. Although when the table has turned, you're the attacker and the enemy's the defender, there's a lot more orders to be given (although it's far from extreme). You can feel slightly "out of control" with all the chaos going on, but that's just part of the fun :-)
The game also features *lot* of game modes, in the game menu you have lots of choices. So either you want to have a quick siege fight, a big level where you contruct a castle and defend it, play the normal campaign, play some economical missions with no military element, or whatever, you have the choices here. It's a little disappointing to see that the level selection in some of the choices are a bit weak, but then again, there's a level editor in the game so that's no problem (and there's already a good deal of fanmade levels on the net).
The sounds and music is just wonderful. This seems to be one of those games where they actually used a lot time to make *real* sounds. Most games have few sounds, and those which is are taken from some cheesy sound cd. This is not the case here, it's lot of unique sounds in high quality. For instance, there's 36 sounds just the action where a soldier gets hurt. The music is simply gorgeous! It fantastically sets the atmosphere, and it's especially fitting in the battle area, I converted the music to Mp3 just so I could listen to it while doing other things. The speech is also very well made, some of the units just sounds insanely cool (swordsman for instance), although I have to say that some of the voices are a bit... weird (namely crossbowmen and female peasants), but it's nothing which gets annoying.
Well, I've already mentioned a few things. But there's some other things. There's no skirmish AI, when you think about it it's not at all strange since making an AI which designs and builds castles can't be easy, but since it's a standard in games I thought I'd just mention it. And there's not possible in anyway to have an AI player in multiplayer games, not even fake one as in C&C. Which is a letdown, since although there's no skirmish, one could at least try to fake on in the map editor.
I'd also like to have seen the economical part in the game a bit more complicated and challenging, being used to games like Settlers 2 I expected more in this area.
And there's some minor gripes, the multiplayer balance could be a bit tweaked, and there's some bugs here and there. And on the other hand, there's probably a good deal of patches to come which may fix all these fix, and even add new features.
The Bottom Line
I *love* this game. It's the best game I've played in years. Mediaeval warfare has never been so fun, and constructing castles is fun, fun and fun. It doesn't even have any high computer requirements (which is far too common these days). I'd recommend this game to anyone who's interested in strategy games in general, especially mediaeval ones. It may not be the game for those who like the simplicity of RTS games like Age of Empires and Starcraft, unlike those games Stronghold isn't just to make a big army and attack, in Stronghold you have to plan the attack in detail and execute it with perfection.
Now then, I want to end this review so I can get back to playing the game some more :-)