The Stronghold series has always been a bit different in the RTS genre; Castle management with siege combat thrown in for good measure is a mixture not often employed by RTS game makers, and with Stronghold 2, its third installment just released, 2KGames (Or Take2) and developer Firelfly don't intend to change this. However, with the move to 3D, a risky period in any game series, and the ever inclining expectations of the RTS fanbase, Stronghold 2 fails to impress.
Stronghold 2 features all the usual suspects when it comes to game modes - campaign, skirmishes, a tutorial etc, however these modes have depth you don't typically see in an RTS title. For instance, both campaign mode and skirmish modes are broken down into two categories - The Path of Peace, and The Path of War. If you feel like a battle, you obviously choose War, and if you feel like a quieter, "community" building style of play, you choose Peace. There are campaigns for both sides, with the ability to play custom made campaigns as well.
Outside of campaigns, both the Peace and War modes have unique sub modes - for example, in Peace mode you can do a "free build" or play on a custom map, whilst in War mode, which can also do custom maps, you can setup instant battles in the form of "Kingmaker" - a classical skirmish mode, or "Siege" - which pits defenders of a castle against attackers, allowing you to take control of either side. In fact, Siege is quite possibly the best mode in the game - while it has no storyline or rewards as such, it is good fun to just load up an all out war every so often and watch the chaos unfold without the hassles of micromanagement.
Unfortunately though, at times the chaos is not really all that fun no matter which mode you're playing in. Battles are obviously a big part of the game - the Peace campaigns will only probably take your interest for a little while if at all. There are just too many problems in the game associated with battles - first of all, the frame rate performance of the game is absolutely terrible at times, particularly when a lot of action is happening on screen, but even with moderate to low action the game will usually stutter along poorly. Turning the detail settings down does help, but not entirely - it simply comes down to the fact the game's engine is really not optimized for this sort of gameplay. Unfortunately, this is not a minor issue - it most certainly does affect your performance on the battlefield.
Even when the game's engine isn't making your battle performance suffer, the AI of your army will. Whilst they will attack near by enemies sometimes, more often than not it is up to you to command them to do so, which can become very annoying at the best of times. On top of this, just about everything else requires your babysitting - attacking new targets after successfully eliminating a previous one, positioning and formations etc, it really is a game which doesn't do itself any favours in the "user friendly" department. At times it seems like the more units you build, the less chance you have of actually winning when you combine the performance and command issues. With that said though, there are at least a decent range of unit types available - covering everything you'd expect from swordsman to large siege weapons.
On top of this, other aspects to battles just don't come off as very impressive. While the essential elements are all there, it is the little things which really expose the "rushed" feel this game has - for example, if a siege weapon knocks down an enemy wall which has archers on it, usually the archers will simply fall to the ground completely unhurt showing no signs of such a fall at all, and there are plenty more aspects like this that are equally as damaging to the game's overall feel. Although the era's are not exactly the same, if you compare Stronghold 2 to a game like Rome: Total War as far as the battle gameplay goes, the difference in feel and polish is worlds apart, and Rome wasn't exactly the most polished game out at its time either.
Seeing as the War modes outside of the "Siege" mode still involves quite a significant amount of building and community management, it is obviously the more difficult style of play in Stronghold 2, but that's not to say the Peace missions are easy. A lot has to be considered when you build a successful community - the morale of your population, the levels of raw material stock, the flow of gold etc, it really is quite challenging in itself. Although, the fact that these aspects still strongly exist in some War modes is not great for the game's combat vs micromanagement ratio - at times it definitely feels a little overwhelming, which is perhaps why the Siege mode can be such a relief seeing as it is all war and nothing else.
Included in the game is a map editor which is always welcome, and it is good to see little restrictions here. You can build pretty much whatever map it is you want - just about anything you see during the course of the game's other modes can be placed on a custom map. This obviously allows for a decent level of online community involvement, but whether or not enough involvement to make Stronghold 2 an online success actually eventuates is another matter. Nevertheless, you can always build your own maps for yourself, which is enough to at least extend the game's "harddrive life", albeit probably not significantly.
The visuals in Stronghold 2 are nothing to really write home about, even at the highest settings nothing strikes you as inspiring. The environments, like in most RTS games, are the best visual aspect here but even so, they are far from the best you'll find in this genre. That's not to say the game is ugly though, it just isn't special, and with a genre that's pushing the envelope as of late in the visual department, some people may have expected more. While you can zoom in reasonably close to the action, all this does is further expose the game's ordinary visuals including some very rough looking animations - Stronghold 2 is certainly best played using a far camera angle.
Stronghold 2 is a reasonably original take on the 3D RTS genre and it does offer some good gameplay, but some of the more technical aspects let it down - such as the visuals, the engine's performance even on lower settings and the somewhat disappointing battles - all in all, it feels like a very unpolished and rushed game that could have used far more attention in the areas fundamental to a successful RTS. It remains viable purchase for the absolute RTS nuts out there who don't mind putting up with obvious flaws, but for everyone else, it is probably a good title to avoid as it does not serve the prestigious genre it lends itself to very well.