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Can you handle a Castle?

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Stronghold
Macsoft
Rating: 4/5

Stronghold is one of the most accurately named games to come out for a while. As the name says, the game is about strongholds, whether making, protecting, besieging and even supporting one. If this interests you then Stronghold is the game for you. Broad in scope and playability, this is type of game that you find yourself playing for a long time to come. A quick and easy strategic fix it isn?t and even online games are epic. This is certainly not the game to play if you pay for your local calls. Before I start the review, I would like to thank Stan of The Mac Smith for my copy of the game.

The game is very complete in its attempts to give the player a view of ongoing life in Saxon England. In the game you have a choice of playing a military campaign (all across England), an economic campaign, something that is both or just free build. The tutorial for the game is a bit too basic. It is, in fact, the weakest link of the game and is rather disappointing. The learning curve on Stronghold is steep after the first few missions, even on the easiest of settings. This is not a newbie friendly game in the slightest, but perseverance is ultimately rewarded. Be prepared to play scenarios over and over again until you get it right. Frustratingly there are times when one move or wrong click will cost you scenario. Saving, as with most strategy games, is required often. Failure to save often can result in many frustrating repetitions. Even with correct actions, Stronghold is a time sink in extremis. Expect to wonder where entire hours have disappeared to as you happily build your great Saxon town.

It is truly Age of Empires meets Simcity set in the Middle Ages. The economic aspects to the game are a bit simplistic, and resources are a bit basic. There could have been a bit more extensive treatments of some of the other aspects of medieval life. There is a lot of micromanagement in this game and it can be tedious at times.

Graphically the game is pleasing to the eye if not bleeding edge. The visuals are interesting enough that it is tempting to sit back and watch what is going on the screen. The requirements are reasonable and will not tax the average Mac. I played the game both on a B&W 450mhz with 512 RAM and on an Emac 700mhz with 340 RAM. It is carbonized for OSX, but runs much better and faster in OS9.

Gameplay is rather good here, the interface, while not being totally intuitive is not in the horrid league of Caeser III or the like. It take a bit of getting used to, but afterwards it rewards the player with the right amount of info. You can get all sorts of info from various screens or by looking at visual cues on the action game screen. For instance, there is a halo over your “hearth” that glows different colours depending on whether you are growing, static or losing people. A monk, who holds a book with some quick facts on it on the right side of the screen, has a face that displays the overall view of your peasants towards you. He smiles when they are happy and frowns when they aren’t, simple but cute just the same. One thing that is necessary to remember with this game is that effects of your actions, are anything but instant and forward planning even on the most basic of needs is necessary.

There are some nice touches in the game. For instance, during a siege you can catapult infected cows into the enemies citadel in order to decrease his willingness to fight. The inevitable Monty Python’s Holy Grail, French knight gags will so soon follow your first encounter with a diseased cow. The game contains several historical castles (such a Windsor) for one to either try to penetrate or defend, there are even more castles online designed by fans of the game. I have yet to find the keep in the Holy Grail, but maybe this review will inspire someone to make one. The game really demonstrates how much a task it is to both build a decent castle and to defend one during a siege. To make things easier for those inside, the game helpfully provides hot tar to pour on those indecent enough to try to take your citadel. There are nifty spike traps too.

I was unable to crash Stronghold and the game run well on both machines I played it on. The cutscenes are rather pleasant and short. They do not sync well with the vocals but that is a rather minor quibble.

Ultimately, Stronghold is an excellent strategy that will provide hours of entertainment to the hard-core fan of the genre. It is a good stable port that is worthy of the Macsoft brand. Kudos to Macsoft for bringing this game to the platform. Let us hope they plan to bring its sequel, Stronghold:Crusader, to Mac users as well. Its sequel is most timely.

But for its poor tutorial and documentation this game would be absolutely perfect. In the end it might be one of the best strategy games ever made for any platform.

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