Stronghold 2 is the sequel to 2001’s Stronghold and 2002’s semi expansion pack Stronghold: Crusader. It is a “more” sequel, where the gameplay mechanics remain the same, but there is more of everything. There are more units, there are more buildings, and there are more game modes. But is “more” better? Sometimes it can be, and in Stronghold 2 it could have been, but developer Firefly Studios also revamped the game engine for the sequel, and somewhere in converting the game to 3D the AI got left behind, and as a result Stronghold 2 isn’t nearly as much fun as the original.
But back to basics. Stronghold 2 is a real-time strategy game with a strong castle-building component. It also has a larger economic model than most other real-time strategy games, and so, for example, you don’t just click on a barracks to train a swordsman. First you have to mine some iron, then the iron has to be transported by an ox to a supply depot, then smiths have to make a suit of armor and a sword, and then you have to recruit the swordsman from the available peasantry. Other areas are similar. There are four kinds of food, churches need candles which in turn require beeswax, inns require ale which in turn requires hops, and so forth.
I liked the complex economic model (which includes over 50 types of buildings), and constructing castles is a lot of fun as well. The engine makes it very easy to place towers and walls, and some of the annoying things about Stronghold have been dispensed with. For example, you no longer have to create stairways so your troops can climb up to the walls. Now towers have built in stairways. You can also make your castle walls as thick as you like by simply adding layers to them, and the game handles things like the crenellations automatically.
Where Stronghold 2 starts to have some problems is that apparently Firefly Studios decided to make it a better game for multiplayer than for single player. That means, for example, that the game maps have been divided into “estates.” Each estate is autonomous, and so if you build a hovel in an estate, then you’ll only increase the population limit for that estate, and if you build a wheat farm in an estate, then you’ll only feed the people of that estate. However, estates can trade goods, and you’ll earn gold just for holding an estate. That means you won’t just have major battles at castles -- you’ll have battles all over the map to protect your estates -- and it means you won’t just be sitting back in your castle and defending. Not only will you have to sally forth to protect your estates, you’ll have to maintain a couple estates just to contain your complete economy.
The idea of estates isn’t bad -- although, really, I preferred Stronghold’s format of building and defending castles, and doing very little attacking -- but then Firefly completely neglected the AI for the game. Enemies are thoroughly stupid. They’ll lead charges with their catapults and archers. They’ll stand around and do nothing while you decimate their castles with trebuchets. They won’t attempt to capture an estate unless they happen to walk past it. Worse, even some of the basic AI routines are off. For example, you can recruit ladder carriers to prop up ladders on walls so other units can climb up and attack. What the defending units are supposed to do is try to knock the ladders down, but what they often do instead is climb down the ladders to meet their enemies in the field. And so not only do they get themselves killed, they also leave an open path into your castle, leading to all sorts of mayhem. Amusingly, sometimes every archer in a tower will run down to knock over a single ladder, leaving your castle even more exposed.
The nonexistent AI is enough to kill the single player part of the game all by itself, but Stronghold 2 also has some performance issues. You can pretty much ignore the system requirements on the game box. I played Stronghold 2 using a 3 GHz machine with a GB of RAM, and I had to turn down all sorts of graphics options just to get the game to run smoothly most of the time. Even on some small maps the engine had trouble, and I guess I should have known something was wrong when it consistently took the game 2-5 minutes to load. At a guess, Stronghold 2 wasn’t converted to 3D as efficiently as one might wish.
And so, sadly, despite liking Stronghold and Stronghold: Crusader, I didn’t like Stronghold 2 very much. It wasn’t a lot of fun to play, and it didn’t run very well on my computer. All it did was remind me how much fun Stronghold was, and that I should go back and play it sometime. And so I wouldn’t recommend that you buy Stronghold 2, even once it hits the bargain bin.