Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Wellhold HD

Been meaning to try Stronghold for a while now, having heard some describe it as the greatest thing since sliced awesomeness and others as... meh, y'know, could've been better. So I fire the damn thing up and immediately realize this must've been made sometime just after Age of Empires 2 for all the aesthetic copycatting. Sure enough, only a year or two separate the two games. A bit more charm, a bit less historic scope, but Stronghold's proportions, animations and decorations certainly seem to have been intended as suggestive of a certain much more famous title.

A few superficial aesthetics aside, though, Stronghold's definitely not a clone. It truncates the classic point and click RTS routine somewhat in favor of mixing in some more robust city simulator infrastructure development. Or maybe it was a simplistic city sim with a few RTS combat mechanics stapled to it. Either way, the developers made the mistake of never completely combining its two halves, shipping it with two game modes - the "economics" and "military" missions and campaigns, to be precise, focusing on either aspect while including a bit of the other.

As an RTS, Stronghold can't hold a candle to games with much more detailed unit AI, abilities and stats. Its city simulator side is a bit more interesting, making you balance taxing your people for money to train soldiers while also keeping everyone happy and fed. Wheat harvested from farms has to be moved to mills, then bakeries before it can be eaten and weapons manufactories must be supplied with iron to function, giving the game a little bit of depth despite its lack of a tech tree. Still, not much to talk about here. If you've seen other resource-management games you've seen Stronghold, and even RTSes made years prior will have better combat. It's not a bad game. Had it been expanded into some truly epic city sim with fully integrated combat featuring distinct units, this could easily have blown much more famous titles out of the water. The design team obviously had a fair bit of talent. Truncated and schizophrenic as it is, though, Stronghold can't really offer much except to players completely unfamiliar with the genres on which it's based.

One more thing, though: fire. Like many half-made products, Stronghold includes some game-breakingly untested features. I've heard others complain mostly about units' irrational combat algorithms and paper-thin castle masonry, and those seem like valid bitching, but since I've mostly been playing the largest "economic" map, I'd like to offer Stronghold's firefighting mechanics as a negative object lesson for any would-be designers.

See, your buildings can catch fire. That'd another city simulator gimmick, been around since the early Sim Cities. In most such games you usually fight to prevent fires by making sure all buildings are placed within the radius of a fire station, or by allocating more of your budget to hire bronze-age firefighters to patrol the streets, etcetera. Fires in SH cannot be prevented. They seem to be scripted events. They just happen. What's more, they spread instantly. Within a couple of seconds (literally!) every building within several spaces of the original spark will go up in flames. A couple more seconds after that, the ones next to them.

Aside from building everything impractically far apart, the only thing you can do to help is build wells. Your citizens can grab water from these and rush over (for a certain lackadaisical definition of rushing) to put out the blaze.... which does very little since if a building gets doused, it will, again, within a second or two, re-ignite from its neighbours. Plus, while they're as instantly flammable as buildings your townsfolk's AI contains nothing to the tune of "fire bad" so more often than not most of your population will amble casually into the towering inferno then run around like quaint little two-legged candles before collapsing in a gruesome fiery death.

The picture above shows one of my attempts to build an efficiently-packed castle while still keeping fires under control. I've circled all the nearby wells I can remember placing or can spot visually
(where's Welldo?)

That is a shitload of wells.
- and most of the buildings which caught fire were still destroyed.
Including a few wells.

Look, whack-a-mole's a quaint little game in its own right, but as part of any larger activity it's mostly just disruptive. It's why we don't buy whack-a-mole games from arcades in real life to play them with one hand while, say, writing a blog post, chopping vegetables or doing our taxes. Game developers will too often appeal to this sort of gimmick to artificially insert some tension into an otherwise coherent pattern of game mechanics.
It can work... sometimes. Not this time. Stronghold's developers obviously wanted fire to be a fearsome entity, one gargantuan freakin' mole popping up in your city now and then. What they wound up with is a restriction which completely over-rides the considerations which should actually be the point of their product. Fire, by itself, an event which occurs completely out of the player's control or prediction, can cause a faster loss than an enemy attack, a famine or loss of popularity. Boom, half your infrastructure's gone.

Interestingly, all the mechanics surrounding fires also seem to have been designed to prevent the player from being able to combat this pyrotechnic Mole-zilla, to make it as much of a chore to deal with as possible. Aside from the lack of prevention or forewarning, the spread faster than anything else in the game, the anemic firefighting via underpowered wells and your workforce cheerfully running in to burn to death, you also have to manually replace each and every one of the buildings you lost. That's right. No automated rebuilding. So you have to sit there trying to remember whether this clump of rubble was a bakery or tannery and try getting each little square back to exactly the minute placement you had it in before... again, and again, and again.

Were nothing else wrong or unfinished with Stronghold, this one minor chore so utterly overblown into an all-consuming grind would still eclipse most of the game's better points.

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