At the conclusion of its slightly cockeyed introduction movie, Stronghold 2 gives you one piece of advice: "Build your castle well". And by castle, they pretty much mean "metropolis". Imagine a scaled down version of Sim City which focuses primarily on a medieval setting, but on top of building an economy and keeping a populace in harmony, it has an additional component where you fight other cities trying to do the same thing. That's Stronghold 2 in a nutshell, and it's almost as good as it sounds.
Where many real-time strategy (RTS) games will simply ask you to plop down buildings according to a set technology tree (eg, Warcraft 3, Command & Conquer), Stronghold 2 shifts the focus inward and complicates that process quite skillfully. You'll have to start thinking about supply chains, resource locations and drop-off points, and this means planning where each building will be placed in order to complement another, which in turn will affect the production output of even more and differing industries. Basically, the player must coordinate a functioning economy, and then on top of that, keep their citizens happy, fed, secure, and so on.
Fortunately, you don't have to micromanage any of this, and the developers have gone with the increasingly popular RTS model where city and economic affairs are run autonomously by its population (ie, you can't control your workers), while your army is micromanaged by the player. After planning your economy, and then defences, you can leave it and start concentrating on expanding your territory and achieving military objectives.
However, there is one huge nuisance which spoils this, and it's the fact that your buildings spontaneously implode after a period, requiring a rebuild.
A major flaw that hits you much harder, though, is the actual command system for your troops. The developers have decided on a single-unit system rather than controlling your men in groups or companies, which is generally fine except that in Stronghold 2's case, your men are prone to splitting up during battle and getting themselves killed. It's also a nightmare simply getting your men to kill something - anything! With the blatant absence of an attack-move feature, Firefly Games has committed the definitive RTS sin, and it single-handedly diminishes Stronghold 2's military component from something potentially great into something just above mediocre. No attempt has been made to remedy the attack-move's absence with clever (or even competent) AI either - another unforgivable flaw.
We don't see how these things couldn't be easily fixed in an upcoming patch, although this certainly isn't something to rely on. To Stronghold 2's credit, it's still fun to play even with the aforementioned gameplay problems. In fact, it almost becomes an intriguing part of the challenge.
Stronghold 2 still got many things right, and RTS players will be able to appreciate its ingenuity, while Stronghold fans will at least be impressed by its snazzy new 3-D engine.
Visuals: A much-improved 3-D graphics engine gives this sequel a prettier appearance. Audio: Solid audio, if a little uninspiring. In-game effects match current action well. Gameplay: Sloppy troop management and visual/audio bugs turn a great game into just a good one. Score: 4 Publisher: GlobalStar Developer: Firefly Games URL: www.2kgames.com/stronghold2 Price: $79.95