The Stronghold Collection

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Complete Review & Description

There’s nothing like getting stoned on a weeknight. Stoned with rocks that is. And when it comes to rock-throwing, arrow shooting, boiling-oil pouring goodness, you don’t need to look much further than the iconic Stronghold series.

This charming take on the real time strategy genre has been going since the original Stronghold was released in 2001. It was closely followed by Stronghold: Crusader. An expansion pack, a sequel here and a fantasy re-imagining there, and the canon is now five titles strong.

So, nine years after the release of the original, Firefly Studios, along with the support of 2K Games, have decided to pack all five games together into one easy to access title. The pack includes Stronghold, Stronghold Crusader, its expansion pack Crusader Extreme, Stronghold 2 and Stronghold Legends.

To call the original Stronghold a breakthrough in strategy gaming would be a bit bold. Anyone who claims that Stronghold singlehandedly revolutionised real time strategy gaming doesn’t know what they are talking about. But what Stronghold most definitely did do, was push the real time strategy genre in a new, focused and fruitful direction.

Stronghold decided to narrow your strategy gaming down to dealing with a specific threat in a specific scenario. This was a break from popular strategy titles at the time, such as Age of Empires 2 or Empire Earth, which were mainly concerned with building large armies and constructing expansive bases. In reacting against this style of gameplay, Firefly Studios made the conscious decision to do away with wide plains, and replace them with walls and portcullises.

The mechanic of all the Stronghold games is simple. You are a lord, and you need a place to stay. Other people don’t like you very much and they all want you dead. Back in the days before homing missiles or sniper rifles the only way to do that was to put a sword in your gut or an arrow through your helmet. The best way to make sure that never happened was to surround yourself with stone. Even back in the Middle Ages every man’s Lord’s home was his castle, so Firefly Studios decided to let you create your own.

That’s all there is to the Stronghold series. Its premise is really that simple. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because the concept is clear, this game isn’t intricate. Running a castle is serious business.

And businesses are crucially important to your success as a castle lord. One of the most interesting elements of the stronghold series was its strong focus on the development of your castle’s internal economy. To keep enemies at bay you need a home guard, and those troops need feeding and equipping. Fletchers are needed to create arrows and bows, bakers are needed to feed your troops and peasants, and everyone needs housing.

Like the best simulators, in the Stronghold series your population is constantly judging you. Keep them happy and your economy will grow, piss them off and they will pack up and leave. You don’t want that to happen. Emigrating peasants are bad. Not only does it mean fewer resources, but it also means fewer bodies to fire bows, or men to wield maces. This is important, as unlike other strategy titles of its time, Stronghold requires your entire economy to work together. For example, before you can recruit an archer, you need to have enough available recruits and enough bows and arrows being made by your Fletcher.

This intricate network of supply chains ends up requiring much more attention than you think. If fairness isn’t your style, or you prefer the stick over the carrot, Stronghold 2 added the ability for players to build crime and punishment buildings. Sometimes it’s just so much more efficient to be feared than loved.

For many, Stronghold’s economic gameplay is its most rewarding element. But for those of us who like gore over gold, the Stronghold series doesn’t disappoint.

The combat is mainly concerned with castle defense. A secure castle is a well designed one, and the Stronghold series gives you a blank canvas. It’s up to your where you put your walls, towers, gatehouses and moats. Just make sure you have enough archers and melee troops to man the ramparts. If you’ve done things right they will be lined up next to some pretty nasty surprises, such as strategically placed pots of boiling oil. The ability to construct hidden (and flammable) pitch ditches is especially brutal. Unfortunately your units can’t heal, but with the additions in Stronghold: Crusader and Crusader Extreme, you can now build armies thousands strong.

From its humble beginnings the Stronghold series was a bit of a gamble. Firefly had thrown caution to the wind and combined real time strategy with what was essentially a castle simulator. In a gaming environment that was expecting priests, palaces and Persian empires, this new approach to the RTS genre was novel. Stronghold could have been besieged by vitriolic critics, but its walls held firm. The critical consensus was that this new approach to strategy gaming not only worked, it was also damn fun to play.

Advancements in computing power and graphics technology have inevitably meant that the series does look a little dated. Time is a cruel mistress, and it has not been especially kind to Stronghold’s earlier installments. But graphics are only one part of a titles charm. Stronghold’s walls may look a little cracked but it’s still standing strong as a franchise.

What sets excellent titles apart from pretenders to the throne is interesting, exciting and fun gameplay. Nine years on from the original and with five titles to call its own, the Stronghold series can rightly be said to have stood the test of time. And when it comes to the ultimate in citadel-orientated real-time-strategy, the Stronghold series is still the King of the Castle.

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