There are brief, fleeting moments when Stronghold 3's mix of medieval RTS and city building coalesce into something enjoyable. Garrisoning troops in watchtowers, using trebuchets to launch diseased cattle at the enemy, then switching back to your Keep to construct more hovels, and using the popularity boost to tax the socks off your impoverished workers. It can be a frantic challenge that's wholly satisfying.
The rest of the time, you'll be too busy fighting bugs and obtuse systems to engage in deep and empowering strategy.
The first thing you'll notice is how miserly the game is at providing you with essential information: the tutorial gives only basic instruction about early-game units and industry. As more complex relationships between raw goods and workshops develop, you're left to figure out why your stone isn't moving from the quarry (it needs oxen to transport it). That lack of feedback plagues your military understanding as well. Units have three stances – defensive, aggressive and stand ground – but no information is provided as to the benefits and drawbacks of each style. The interface doesn't even give basic statistics about a unit's armour, attack power or function. As for the overhead view, all it really tells you is that, surprisingly, there is a castle on the map.
It doesn't help that troop management is unintuitive and full of glitches. Archers routinely refuse to attack enemies in elevated positions. The only reliable way to overcome this is to order them into the line of fire, then set them into a defensive stance until they realise they're being slaughtered and eventually retaliate. As workarounds go, it's brutally stupid.
Even attacking regular units is problematic, as the game's position detection is inaccurate. The location you have to click is never quite where you expect, always slightly above or below where an enemy appears on the map. Losing a man because the game hasn't recognised that you've selected another target is a frequent and rage-inducing event.
Weirdly for a game that's all about the creation and defence of castles, walls offer no defensive bonus. Ranged units occupying fortified structures are just as vulnerable as those attacking from the ground. Arrows and spears can also pass straight through walls, and yet the AI can't see behind them. This means that skirting the enemy's stronghold, killing all units too close to the castle borders, becomes a viable, if cheap, tactic.
There is a separate economic campaign, which primarily focuses on castle-building and upkeep, and it's consistently the most entertaining part of the game. It's really lacking any form of speed control, however, with multiple missions, where you're waiting for your stockpile to hit the required amount, left at a loose end while your workers sluggishly go about their tasks.
But the economic campaign doesn't offer what should be Stronghold 3's highlight: epic sieges against grand fortifications. The Historical Siege mode attempts this, but with no way to call in back-up, every unfair loss frustrates. A more obvious solution would have been a skirmish mode. The best missions in the military campaign already follow this template, and the ability to create custom battles would, at least, have made it easier to get at Stronghold 3's rare moments of excitement.
Review by Phil Savage.