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by Take Two Interactive

gal10-01.jpg (4888 bytes)Simulator games breed a strange ambivalence. Back when it was just Sim City, people could enjoy playing guilt-free because whenever someone asked how you could waste so much time building imaginary cities over and over, there was always the I’m- just- replicating- what- city- planners- do-and- therefore- it’s- a- learning- exercise excuse. Besides, anybody who had ever sat down with Sim City understood the obsession that soon overtook them. There was the recurring question that haunted every waking and sleeping hour: how can I build the perfect city?

gal07-01.jpg (7654 bytes)This addictive quality, despite people’s better judgment, has been an innate part of every good sim title since. When the people-simulator The Sims came out—the logical extension of an industry in which it makes sense to tell your character when to pee—none of my hardcore gaming friends would admit liking it. If you got them drunk, however, you would learn how obsessed they had become with getting their Sim a position as godfather of a crime syndicate, or how they could build the perfect house. The fact is, almost everybody obsesses over a good sim for the first month, after which they either continue tinkering or the game lies forgotten on a dusty closet shelf. With this precept in mind, Firefly Studios presents Stronghold, a castle sim that’s part real time strategy and part medieval fortress simulator.

stronghold_ss1-01.jpg (7733 bytes)And, like most sims, you’ll probably obsess over Stronghold for a month or so. First there’s the military campaign, in which your father was trying to negotiate the release of the king when he was slaughtered, while you and your forces were beaten far back into the neutral lands of a kingdom full of counties. On the way to claiming vengeance for your father’s death, you’ll fight the Rat, the Pig, the Snake, and the Wolf, rulers whose demeanors resemble their eponymous animals and who all want you dead. You begin this campaign battling crop-stealing rabbits and packs of wolves, assembling wooden strongholds while keeping your people happy and your granary stocked. Eventually you’ll lay siege to massive fortresses, using catapults and tunnel diggers to maximum advantage, as well as defending fortresses with boiling oil and flaming arrows. On the way you just might rescue a king.

gal01-01.jpg (8336 bytes)Next you’ll try the economic campaign, in which you race to stockpile money and goods while building a stronghold you can defend from bandits, plagues, and the occasional fire. This campaign casts you as an underling to the king, who assigns certain tasks like replenishing the castle’s armory or growing wheat for the royal larder. There’s less focus on war here and more on keeping people both productive and happy (which don’t often go hand in hand) while protecting your goods from thieves and natural disasters. You will find yourself, for instance, recruiting spearmen to defend the wheat farms from hordes of vicious bunnies. Unglamorous soldiery to say the least, this is nevertheless vital work.

gal09-01.jpg (8479 bytes)There are also the usual multi-player options, in which you can lay siege to friends’ castles over LAN or internet. There’s also a setting in which you just get to build a castle without fear of attack or disaster. You’re provided a variety of maps that offer the chance to improve the design of historical castles, or maps that have all the resources necessary to build the perfect castle. Once you’ve constructed these fortresses you can post them on the internet, where other Stronghold players will download your castle and then storm it, giving you a score based on how well it held. Oddly enough, this setting was one of the most fun, as the absence of conflict provided a welcome calm after the often stressful conditions of the campaigns.

gal08-01.jpg (8508 bytes)And the war campaign is at times extraordinarily stressful. In one notably difficult scenario, you have to storm a castle and then raise 5,000 gold pieces while defending from constant attacks, all the while recruiting and paying your defense soldiers from the very gold you’re required to hoard. I played through this scenario at least five times before setting it on Easy (where you only have to save 3,000 gold) and barely surviving. There are other, more difficult challenges ahead, and sometimes the exhilaration of the challenge threatens to lapse into plain old frustration. However, this frustration is part of the addictive quality of sim games because it presents a problem that you will consciously stop thinking about, and you’ll go about your normal day, assuming you’ve given up, when out of nowhere some new strategy will occur to you. You will burn with the need to try this strategy.

gal02-01.jpg (9020 bytes)Other than these moments of difficulty, game play is blameless. You look down upon a terrain of forests for woodcutting, stone heaps for quarrying, marshes for pitch digging, and iron reserves for mining. From these resources you gather materials to build your castle, patiently waiting to finish the inner curtain as ox loads of stone gradually roll in. But there’s never a dull moment if you’re doing your job. There are always new woodcutters to make, farms to plant, wells to dig. And there is the perennial threat of attack, forcing you to decide whether to use your stone reserves building soldiers’ barracks instead of finishing that protective wall. After brigands overtake you because you dumped all your wood into building apple orchards, you’ll probably just start the mission over (fortunately available on the Options menu). Chances are you’ll replay many missions at least once. But game play is smooth enough that your joy doesn’t die until the fourth or fifth time through.

stronghold_ss3-01.jpg (9360 bytes)Unlike some castle sims, Stronghold doesn’t require you to commit time or resources to actually constructing walls and buildings; they just appear where you click them. This must have been a difficult decision for the game designers because on one hand waiting for your materials is hard enough without also having to wait for the walls to be built. On the other hand, there’s something strange about throwing up a stone tower and a second curtain in front of the army that just appeared on your horizon. In the end, this was the right choice. Waiting for walls to be built might have pushed over the edge a game that sometimes flirts with tedium.

stronghold_ss4-01.jpg (9839 bytes)Of course, the detail of the medieval war craft in Stronghold more than compensates for any tedium presented by the building process. Because Stronghold isn’t just a castle sim, it’s a complete castle-and-siege simulator, with catapults, portable shields, tunnel diggers, ladder bearers, boiling oil, mounted knights, and a scribe that complains whenever you raise taxes or halve rations. You must recruit and disperse troops in the most efficient manner possible while simultaneously keeping your people happy enough that they don’t leave. It’s enough to occupy the most active minds for hours. At times the scribe suggests that you eat a snack or take a nap— a reminder that you have a living body outside the game, and you have been neglecting it.

stronghold_ss2-01.jpg (4789 bytes)Stronghold doesn’t offer dragons or wizards or other fantasy fare. It’s a simulator of real life in a particular historical period. It simulates a simpler time when war was fought in the open, with obvious targets and easily distinguishable enemies. If someone was catapulting your castle walls, they were the bad guys and you poured boiling oil on them. That kind of nostalgic representation of conflict is one more reason to enjoy Stronghold; it’s a look at war when lines were clearly drawn, presented to us in a time when enemies are anything but obvious. If you’ve ever fancied yourself a general; if you’ve ever been enchanted by castles and the epic battles they inspire; if you’re anything like the man in a video I watched during my high school unit on King Arthur, who was obsessed with designing the perfect castle and had spent a decade cribbing ideas from various Saxon and Norman fortresses; or if you’re just hungry for a fight that begins and ends in one sitting without anyone actually dying, then Stronghold will not disappoint.

Paul Cockeram   (11/06/2001)


Ups: Cool, realistic medieval castle and battle simulator.

Downs: Borders on tedium replaying some missions.

Platform: PC