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Stronghold Legends Preview

Stronghold Legends pack shot
Developer:Firefly Studios
Publisher:2K Games
Genre:Real Time Strategy
Official Site:http://www.fireflyworlds.com/shl_index.php
Release Date:October 13, 2006 (UK)
Reviewer:Duncan Lawson (Sinna01)
Buy now at Amazon.co.uk

Even in our progressive and democracy loving society there are still plenty of social strictures and stereotypes placed upon us, perhaps especially at an early age. Girls over here playing at homemaking and building a dolls house. Boys over there, playing with little army men, moving them in squads over the playground floor. Was there ever a wistful glance across the two camps? A forbidden thought: maybe I could play with both a little army and make a real base for them? Were these strange feelings quickly suppressed, knowing the world would never accept them? Did any of these children grow up to work at Firefly Studios and make Stronghold: Legends?

The previous Stronghold games were generally more centered on the economics and mechanics of running a successful feudal society, which in play turned out to be significantly more rewarding than it sounds. The nod towards combat that had previously been included was usually more comparable to a natural disaster event in SimCity - something to run damage control over and get back to raising taxes and growing apples. Legends takes the franchise in a new direction, fully integrating RTS squad combat not just as aside but as at least half of the games focus.

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Firefly designer Simon Bradbury has described it as a city builder at heart with RTS elements, but while playing this press preview build it soon becomes apparent how much the focus has shifted away from managing wood harvesting and cheese production to manning the siege engines and arming the troops. And quite the outlandish array of troops it is, with the three playable factions loosely based upon fairytale kingdoms of yore - Arthur and his knights, Dracula and his legions, and Siegfried with his well upholstered ladies in pointy horned hats.

One of the things that strikes the player is the variety of the units, not so much in the quantity of them, but in their differences in size, appearance, and utility. Many an RTS, say Command and Conquer, frequently didn't really offer much unit variety, simply differing balances of amour and power. Legends, however, sees Frost Giants lumbering across the map a dozen times the size of archers perched atop towers, raining arrows at armored polar bears, with enormous dragons toasting men-at-arms by the battlement-load. The variety in scale and utility is impressive, and hopefully in the final version will also achieve that elusive and all important balance.

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Some aficionados of the old Strongholds might miss the quite peaceful experience the economic mode offered, wherein the goal in each level was to achieve a certain level of prosperity, or a stockpile of a certain good. These games turned out to be deceptively complicated and involved, with very fine balances to be struck between population levels, taxation levels, and how to keep the peasant masses distracted from their misery with either religion, booze, or both. Legends' economic system will be familiar to previous players, but has had the sting taken out of it with a significantly more forgiving attitude. In previous games one bad fire, miscalculation in food stocks or bandit would send your carefully constructed little village into a downward spiral that would take a while to complete but would be inevitable. This offered both enormous frustration in failure and satisfaction in success, so hopefully the new kinder system will not do away with both elements. The peasant units are never in your control, simply responding to the facilities that you create and running the rest autonomously, and are a pleasure to watch. Whilst in the early build the textures are still rough, each little quarry, pig farm, orchard, or eel hole (apparently that's what your Germanic type legendary hero like to eat) has nicely realized animations of teams of peasants chipping stone into blocks, milking cows, and indeed fishing for eels. It's a surprisingly pleasing touch, and might leave some of the old school economics-mode fans a bit annoyed at being attacked by pesky hordes of darkness. In Legends the player is more likely to spend his time with a zoomed-out wider view of the field to control their army and defend their castle.

At heart, the castle is still what Legends is all about. Recently LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 had a pretty good stab at the build-and-siege genre, but Legends looks to significantly surpass it in scale and detail. Castle fortifications can be thrown up comparatively quickly, and they are indeed huge, towering enormously over the battlefields units and posing a real challenge to capture, especially augmented with faction specific weapons - Dracula's dragon towers rain down liquid fire and Siegfried makes whole squads sitting ducks for archers with freezing mirror rays. Watching an ice giant slowly smashing his way through a triple-width wall, sending diminutive archer units flying through the air as hero units send magical beams zipping through the air is a good illustration of the emphasis Firefly has placed on the development. Even in this incomplete build it's obvious that emphasis hasn't been placed on minutiae detail. Stronghold: Legends instead sticks to a more fairytale approach, as bones don't crunch and pitched battles are not full of blood and desperation, instead the game is filled with the epic and the larger-than-life which makes for quite a unique gaming experience compared with the grit and gore the market seems to be leaning towards lately.

Stronghold: Legends is a refreshing change of pace from the ponderous realism that the RTS field is becoming overloaded with. Someone recently pointed out that games such as Joint Task Force have tried to veer away from potentially tedious resource management, whereas Legends has headed in exactly the opposite direction and by making resource management involved and interesting again. The finished game promises to deliver many of the standard bells and whistles, such as a skirmish mode and online play, but assuming the core gameplay remains the same in character after polishing, it defiantly should be worth a look as a fresh offering in the RTS field.

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