Noted poet Thomas Earl Petty once told us that the waiting is the hardest part, a lesson that is painfully taught once again in Stronghold 3. The Firefly Studios game of medieval micromanagement may have been a long time coming, since Stronghold 2 was released back in 2005, but despite the years since and the opportunity to do something different, Stronghold 3 sticks close to its predecessor's template, offering up more slow-moving gameplay that sees you doing more waiting and watching than constructing a Middle Ages empire. What could have been a good city builder has been buried under this design flaw, not to mention other serious issues with bugs, mission repetition, a tutorial that doesn't do much tutoring, and simplistic combat.
A barely there tutorial and incredibly slow-paced scenarios make it very tough to get into Stronghold 3's micromanagement.
Like its predecessors, Stronghold 3 is a real-time strategy game where you play as a lord attempting to build a happy little hamlet in the Middle Ages. It's all about the peasants, who need to be lured in with things like fair tax rates and then kept happy with jobs gathering and processing resources, reasonably plentiful food like apples and bread, and a half-decent standard of living without too much plague killing everybody off and blighting crops. The basic structure of the game mirrors traditional city builders going right back to the Caesar and Pharaoh franchises that developer Impressions created back in the '90s. The story recalls the original Stronghold, with the game picking up the tale of a boy battling traitors to seek revenge for the overthrow of his father, the previous king. Apparently impalement did not rid the world of the archvillain, the Wolf, at the end of the first game in the franchise, so he returns a decade later looking to even the score.
The modes of play have been broken up into two semi-linked single-player campaigns, one that focuses primarily on the economy in getting a kingdom rolling again (although you do have to battle a few menaces) and a more military-centered one that places war against the Wolf and his troops on the front burner, while still forcing you to keep the economy rolling back at home. Historical one-off scenarios are also on offer, featuring a handful of brutally unfair (and quick) castle sieges where you take on spectacular numbers of enemy troops whether you are attacking or defending. Free Build is a sandbox option where you build the medieval shantytown of your dreams without any goals or guidelines. Deathmatch and King of the Hill multiplayer games are available as well, although nobody seems to be playing online, and the game currently lacks popular options from previous Stronghold games, such as Kingmaker and Skirmish.
It's the Middle Ages. Can't we get all medieval on these peasants dragging their feet?
Gameplay is problematic across the board. For starters, bugs show up early and often. The game seems to have a serious problem with graphics-switching hardware on laptops. It refused to start on our test Dell system with both onboard visuals and a high-powered video card that more than matched the system requirements, providing nothing but a "Failed to initialize the engine" error on every launch attempt. Only manually adding a command to a config file got the game running, and then only in a window that occasionally started up with a mouse cursor issue that made it impossible to accurately point at anything. Crashes also take place on a regular basis. The game has a habit of fainting to the desktop out of the blue, particularly after you have been playing a mission for a considerable amount of time (save early, save often). All of these problems come with little in the way of reward. Nothing pushes the envelope when it comes to graphics or sound. Visuals are muddy and bland, with few details on the constricted maps. Story cutscenes are dressed up with black-and-white drawings that look more like rough storyboards than finished artwork. Sound is unmemorable save for a striking musical score that includes minstrel odes with a singer who comes off a bit like '70s-era Gordon Lightfoot. These tunes will linger long after you've forgotten the game.
Even when Stronghold 3 runs properly, it doesn't run well. The first problem you encounter is the lack of a thorough tutorial. While there is an interactive tutorial, it stops abruptly after just a few minutes, leaving virtually all of the game's core features and building functions completely unexplained. As a result, you go into the campaigns with no knowledge of how the game's economics function. So you often need to call up the in-game help for advice on why stone quarries aren't functioning or how to deal with pesky apple crop blight. Granted, there isn't anything completely out of left field, but some tips would be much appreciated, especially regarding the production line for resources. Because there are multiple steps for everything--making bread, for instance, requires a stop at a farm, storehouse, windmill, bakery, and granary--you need some help, especially when it comes to keeping all of your buildings close together to avoid lengthy production delays.