It's gotten to the point that you don't know what you're going to get when you open the box of a new Stronghold game. The castle-building franchise from Hartford's Firefly Studios has gone through some significant changes over the past two years, but the latest version throws the whole formula out the window. Stronghold Legends moves the series out of the history books and into D&D-styled real-time strategy territory with mythical heroes, dragons, and dwarves. Yet while this is admittedly a nifty idea, the switch from reality to fantasy kills the historical authenticity that has long been a trademark of the Stronghold line. Even worse, everything seems to have been crowbarred into the aged Stronghold 2 engine, resulting in a generic RTS that has more than a few serious technical and design issues.
Giant-sized opponents and giant-sized problems.
The actual gameplay in Stronghold has little to do with the earlier games in the franchise. Here, instead of building a castle and getting knee-deep into the nitty-gritty of what it was like to live during the Middle Ages, you sign up for three campaigns out of medieval mythology. In the opener, you take on the role of King Arthur, battling against the Saxons for control of Britain. In the others, you play as Siegfried, the German dragon slayer and star of a Wagnerian opera, and Vlad the Impaler, the Transylvanian Turk-killer best known today as the bloody inspiration for Dracula.
But nothing of interest has been done to develop these storylines or settings. Buildings follow the RTS template and feature barracks, armories, granaries, and so forth. Resource gathering goes beyond the usual food, wood, and stone, but it does so by adding an annoying level of micromanagement to what should be a straightforward grind of building armies and attacking the bad guys. A game this simplistic probably shouldn't demand the collection and processing of any resources, as mission objectives always involve straightforward building armies and killing enemies.
All of the soldiers featured in each faction are virtually identical. There is little difference here whether you're fighting on behalf of the evil forces of Dracula or the noble knights of King Arthur. Also, since the units themselves are generic, the gee-whiz factor of getting to play Count Blah and his evil minions in an RTS fades quickly. You get little aside from the same old pikemen, archers, crossbowmen, and swordsmen. There is only so much that a developer can do with a medieval setting, of course, but no effort was made to provide significantly different troops to represent the nationalities and time periods represented. A millennium passed between the King Arthur campaign of the mid-400s and the Vlad campaign of the mid-15th century. You would think that more than the color of the shirts would have changed during that time.
At least the three sides vary quite a bit when it comes to the menageries of mythological beasties that they can throw into battle. Heroes like Arthur, Merlin, Siegfried, and Vlad have special powers that give them the ability to pull off feats like casting spells, knocking down walls, and summoning magical creatures. In the Arthur scenarios, you have access to heroic knights and wizards straight out of Malory; in the Siegfried ones, you deal with figures out of Norse legend such as frost giants; and in the Dracula missions, you get to play with Halloween refugees like creepers and werewolves. All of the units fit perfectly into their settings and make the game feel like a collection of folktales come to life.
Yet while these beasties add color to Stronghold Legends, and some cool moments like giants stomping pesky soldiers with their feet and Merlin blasting archers with lightning bolts, they don't do much for gameplay. For starters, most are underpowered. Dragons, for instance, are second-rate compared to Tolkien's Smaug and can be taken out by well-placed archers. Giants can be ganged up on by regular infantry grunts like pikemen and felled quicker than you can say fee-fi-fo-fum. And just breathing on the frail Merlin seems to kill him. More play testing was also needed to root out some big problems with mission design and artificial intelligence. Most missions are laid out in an extremely linear fashion. You start at point A and kill everything until you reach point B, you defend a fortress until the clock runs out, and so on. But lack of imagination is the least of the game's issues. Enemy troops often continue patrolling mindlessly and actually ignore huge columns of your soldiers even after you've just smashed down or climbed a castle wall. They often don't react to crossbowmen or archers firing away at them, either, and sometimes choose to walk away from battles or abandon sieges. The narrator who provides tips on enemy attacks frequently comes out with lines like, "Woodsmen have seen a band of enemy troops heading this way!" right before they turn around and head back home. The game was obviously shipped without a fully functioning AI.