Even from an early age there seems to be an unconscious urge to build. Whether it's Lego, Play-doh or even a bed fort; it's something we've all done. Which I think goes a long way to explaining the popularity of games like Civilization and Populous- games where construction is key. Yeah, human beings also love destroying stuff too, no question about it. I mean, that's why games like Halo exist. Though fundamentally, the construction of something, and the ability to look and admire it, is an integral part of every person. In every aspect of life this is true. Take the shelves I've just put up for instance. They're magnificent, even if I do say so myself. Capturing this feeling is what a lot of God games attempt and it's the essence of what Firefly studios is trying to create with Stronghold 2. Sadly, it's maybe not quite as successful in doing this as we'd hoped.
Stronghold 2 is, as you'd imagine, a castle building game, which is broken down into both an RTS and management aspect. Starting with a lord and some meagre provisions you construct a Keep and then let your, err, Stronghold build up around you. The game itself is broadly divided into two different campaigns - war and peace. Now, the peace campaign is essentially the construction and upkeep of your castle. This mostly involves creating buildings and keeping your people happy. It all affects your popularity level and it's this element that dominates most of the game. Keeping your popularity over 50% is your most important job in Stronghold 2 and this is managed in various ways. Obviously, the most critical aspect is keeping your people fed and watered, with a roof over their heads. But just like any bloody peasant, they get uppity after a while and want more; like streets not covered in human waste (or gong, as the game calls it), which is just being picky if you ask me.
Stronghold 2 tends to offer simple solutions for these things, meaning that issues are easily solved without too much hunting through menus for a certain command. This is a double-edged sword, however. Where as certain gamers like things to be made easy, many want a challenge, particularly the typical management-sim audience. This leaves Stronghold 2 in an awkward halfway house situation, particularly when trying to appeal to both audiences. This is perhaps slightly unfair to the management side of the game though, as it certainly has some intriguing aspects and some of the challenges the game throws up are challenging and different.
Fortunately, the actual building of your castle really lifts this side of the game, with a range of options for developing and expanding your domain. It's satisfyingly easy to get a nice big fortress constructed, obviously being careful to build up your defences if you're playing the War mode. Sadly, the combat in war mode is disappointing and feels very basic when compared to other RTS games. Rather than carefully choosing my battles and strategies, I found myself exploiting some of the game's bugs to win -which really takes the fun out of the whole thing. In this respect it's almost better to treat the game as more of a management sim and just take on the Peace campaign. It certainly brings up more interesting challenges and still allows combat with bandits and wolves.
I'd love to be able to say that the graphics and sound elevate the game to something special, but they really are very average. While adequate, the game engine really looks poor beside so many other RTS games out there. While Stronghold 2 is a rather different beast, RTS is the genre that Stronghold 2 will still inevitably find itself compared to. The voice acting throughout the game is fine, but nothing special, and is just a variation of the peasant voice you'll be so used to hearing from other games.
The biggest problem with Stronghold 2 is that it feels very average. It has tried to stretch itself too thinly with both the RTS and management elements, creating a weak mixture. Certainly the management side of it is the stronger aspect of the two and it does have its moments. Indeed, if you enjoy management games, it's definitely worth checking out. It's just a shame that the combat feels very weak and lessens the overall package. So, one that's worth a look if you're a sim fan, or one to avoid if you're a Warcraft fan.