Nostalgia is a good thing. Well, it can be. Spinning up the HD version of Stronghold, the eighties tunes of Cock Robin playing through my speakers, I get myself ready for a trip down to memory lane with an old friend.
Originally released in 2001, Stronghold thrusts the player into the role of a medieval lord, fighting for a slice of the English landscape. The game applied (for the time) modern Real-Time Strategy gameplay mechanics predominantly used for sci-fi themed titles, to something that could best be described as a castle building simulation. Instead of building futuristic tanks and nuclear power plants, players built castle walls and pig farms. It was unique, sold millions of copies and gathered a huge cult following of people who play the game even today.
Until today, however, fans have seen their screen resolutions get bigger and bigger while the game’s resolution has been stuck at 1024x768. Stronghold HD fixes this shortcoming, bumping the resolution up to 2560x1600, more than quadrupling the screen real-estate. There are plenty of Stronghold reviews out on the web and reviewing the actual game does not make much sense. I will cover the basics and then go into the impact and changes that are unique to the HD version.
A game of stones
Stronghold is all about building up castles that are strong enough to withstand enemy attacks. Whether you play in the single player campaign or go up against a human opponent, you will need to build up an economy, and feed and house the population required to keep that economy going. Starting out with a simple keep, you build up production lines for wood, stone, bread and other commodities and food types. As your settlement gains momentum and ability to take care of its basic needs, you place rudimentary wooden walls and start looking into weaponry such as bows and pikes for your defense.
In most missions, AI enemy units will appear at pre-scripted intervals, each wave more powerful and more difficult to beat back than the previous. Survive each wave, and you are ‘promoted’ to the next mission. It sounds simple, but it really is not. There is a lot to keep track of and only during the middle segment of the campaign will you have the feeling you have things under control. Before and after that segment, you are either busy learning what you need to know to play the game, or fending off the waves of attackers that the game throws at you.
Pixels, a lot of them
Everything is pretty self explanatory, which is a good thing as the interface remains unchanged from the 2001 version. It was nothing to look at back then, but given the evolution of the UI, it is barely useable by today’s standards. It is even crammed into the same 1024 pixels as it was in the original engine. Navigating through the building menus means shifting back and forth until you find what you are looking for and click on tiny little icons to find ‘hidden’ options with mysterious labels such as “Good things” and “Bad things”. Similarly, the menu to switch the viewing angle and zoom in or out is a little difficult and unintuitive to use. Everything is functional and if you are still playing the original game, you will not mind it much, but it feels like a missed opportunity to not spend some time and provide gamers with a better interface.
That said, the ability to play in higher resolutions is a godsend. Playing Stronghold in higher resolutions has a dramatic effect on your own efficiency. Playing at 1920x1200, I felt more in control of my settlement and better able to select the best locations for buildings. During combat sequences, it is much easier to keep track of incoming forces. In the past, not detecting a large incoming wave while fighting off another one is not uncommon. In Stronghold HD, you will notice enemy units much quicker, allowing you to rethink your defensive strategy in time for the wave to actually hit.
High Definition judging
Judging the game as a modern day release would be folly. It cannot stand up against recent strategy titles (few as there may be) and it does not have to. I have to look at the value that the HD version offers over its original and the pricing as well.
It has to be said that Stronghold HD’s interface is detrimental to the overall experience. It has not aged gracefully and is more of a hindrance than a useful tool. Gameplay on the other hand, did age gracefully. I found myself fully engrossed in the ebb and flow of building and defending medieval castles, perhaps even more so than in the original game simply because my view felt so much less constricted.
In the grand scheme of things, it is the strategic advantage of being able to see a far larger portion of the map, combined with the ability to play the game in your screen’s native resolution that make Stronghold HD a worthy upgrade of the original game. It is not much more than that though, as HD does not mean that the graphics are any better: there is just more real estate to look at. I had fun playing though, and that is a testament to the strong basics of Stronghold, a game that is still as playable a decade after it was first released.
Whopping new screen resolutions will make you feel more in control. Eleven years after release, Stronghold is still a captivating game.
The aging interface should have been updated. HD only means higher resolutions, not new graphics.