PC Review

Stronghold: Legends

Sam stumbles upon the RTS that time forgot

I'm going to mark my return to this site with a short personal anecdote, a small aside that unusually for me will actually be related to the body of the review itself. You see, a few years ago I applied for a testing job with Firefly. Firefly is the software house that produced the code on the DVD Luke sent me to review as a gentle re-introduction to the world of game reviewing (an environment abandoned for over 18 long months when Luke naively sent me a copy of World of Warcraft to 'take a look at'). Anyway, they turned me down. If I had been successful in my attempts to join in at the bottom rung of the games industry then in all likelihood I would have been involved in testing Stronghold: Legends. After playing this game over the last couple of days I can only express my heartfelt gratitude to the Firefly HR department for sparing me from what would have been excruciating torment.

Stronghold: Legends is the third in the Stronghold series of games which up until now has carved itself a mildly successful niche out of the market for castle-building games. For some reason Legends has decided to all but ditch the construction element and opt instead for reviving the kind of RTS last seen circa 1999. But in three dimensions! Sure, the Stronghold games were never particularly sturdy titles but they had their little patch all to themselves and Firefly could probably have gone on pumping out sequels until they finally got the mix just right and delivered the kind of engrossing gameplay that you always suspected building great big dirty castles could offer. Instead they have decided to bring King Arthur and two other mythological entities into the mix, thrown in some other fantasy elements like dragons and ogres, and strip out all that made the Stronghold series somewhat unique and instead replicate each of the elements that had burnt the RTS genre out so quickly around the turn of the millennium.

Boring missions? Check. Simplistic AI, unit pathing and formations? Tick. Enforced material collection and tedious unit construction? Affirmative. Strategy no more complex than build a load of units, lasso them all together and chuck at the enemy positions? By God, yes. There are three campaigns to wade your way through in addition to a series of battles that get progressively tougher, a knockout tournament kind of thing which is an interesting idea let down by the mendacity of the actual gameplay experience. Stronghold: Legends

Legends is unfortunately almost completely devoid of anything that would warrant a purchase. In its favour it does have some amusingly camp and surprisingly well delivered voice acting with the Welsh accents being just about the best I've ever heard in a game that has just managed to wander on the right side of parody. The rest of the sounds are mentionable only for their utterly negligible impact. You could probably break your soundcard half way through a mission and go the rest of the night without realizing it. Until you had given up on the game and checked out the latest private acquisition from Emule that is.

And even the worst Divx compression makes Legends visuals look like the lovechild of ILM and one of those rare Blu-Ray diodes. To give them their due, the graphics quite happily tick along at full detail on even a three year old gaming PC. Never once did I suffer any of the slowdown of camera jerk often associated with the modern RTS and anything but the most pimped out rigs. However, not only does this hint at a paucity of advanced AI routines, (a suspicion backed up by 5 minutes on a skirmish map) but also betrays the weakness of the graphics engine. The models aren't too terrible but they would not suffer from a good bit more imagination and a lot more triangles. The camera even behaves itself commendably, although a little more zoom would not have gone amiss. It is the textures, or practical absences of them, that fatally weakens Legends attractiveness. It's almost as if the 3DFX card had not been invented. They are blander than sandwiches from a garage forecourt and less detailed then a treatise on the rights of man by George W Bush.

Naturally there's multiplayer included in the box but all I wanted to do was ask people how they felt about game shops which don't allow returns. I have to admit I didn't spend any longer investigating this part of the game than was absolutely necessary to determine that it functioned along the same rudimentary lines as the rest of Legends. There were a few games in progress the few times I tried it out, but the majority were locked so getting a multiplayer game going took longer than it should. The eventual experience quickly had my mind thinking about the hours of my life I would never be able to reclaim. As is common with the Legends experience, there is an amazing sense of stepping back in time. It's almost as if this game really was developed over half a decade ago and then had sat forgotten on the shelf, only to be rediscovered by the movers as the company shifted offices, slapped on a DVD and pushed out onto an unsuspecting and undeserving public.

And this is the thing about this title. It's not an abomination by any stretch of the imagination. It works, it's competently put together and it does indeed run like a dream on any old machine. Yet it is totally lacking in any spark and there really is an unbearable sense of ennui from the very outset of the tired looking and cliched intro sequence. The RTS genre is one of the most crowded in PC gaming history and you have to do something pretty damn special to stand out from the crowd, a mission whose objectives Stronghold: Legends spectacularly fails to achieve. The only accolade I can give this game in good conscience is that it makes mediocrity look bad. Stronghold: Legends

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