Stronghold is cheap, available, and runs great on the EEE 701

Medieval city and siege simulator Stronghold has arrived on DRM-free game service Good Old Games (GOG). It is an old game, and it is pretty good. However, rather than evaluate the game as a game, I’m going to take a look at it in a very specific techincal sense: how well it suits play on a low-level netbook.

Seen here: Asus EEE 701, Stronghold on attached USB drive, and tiny cramp-inducing notebook mouse.

Stronghold is a decent enough RTS with good character, low system requirements, and doesn’t require too much micromanagement, though it won’t change your life or addict you for hours on end (which can be seen as a good thing). It’s six bucks American, and yours forever. I’ve also found that it’s a good game to take on the go, especially if you’re an owner of the diminutive Asus EEE 701 series.  

Aside: I’d already bought Stronghold packaged with Tropico for a song at the marvellous Half Price Books some years back, but never got too far into either. (With some work, however, the Tropico soundtrack can be extracted and converted to mp3, which made the $5 purchase more than worth it.) However, with the limited number of games that run respectably on the 701, Stronghold is a game worthy of a second look.

My setup (which may differ from yours):

  • Asus EEE 701 2G Surf with Windows XP
  • A built-in resolution of 800×480, with a virtual (ie. scrolling) resolution of 800×600
  • Re-released CD version of Stronghold, fully patched (the install package may not work portably as the CD version does)
  • Install size: 721MB playable, 531MB 7zipped

The EEE 701 series is pretty much the first and the least of the current netbook craze, that is, it came out roughly first and cheapest among the mass-produced ultra-portables (most UMPCs at the time were at least a thou each), and also has the smallest disk drive (a puny 2GB), the smallest screen resolution, the worst battery life, and the slowest processor. Most damning, the Intel GPU is unspeakably weak. In other words, if a game is going to work great on this netbook, it’ll probably run phenomenally on newer netbooks.

Stronghold overcomes or works with the limitations of the EEE 701 series as follows:

  • Low CPU and GPU requirements means it’s actually playable on the EEE, or any other low-spec machine. This may also indicate that it plays well with Linux virtualization software WINE.
  • Zero DRM on both the CD and GOG versions means no Steam-like activation or anti-consumer measures to overcome, and no internet connection required to play the single player version of the game.
  • Automatic resolution switching: Rather than crash on startup or refuse to run, Stronghold actually switches to the virtual 800×600 resolution native to the EEE’s Intel graphics driver. It just works! (Trust me, this is rare.)
  • It’s (mostly) portable. One of the concerns of the EEE platform and netbooks in general is the slightly fragile nature of the built-in disk drive. Designed to be tiny, quiet, and with low power usage, these drives have a limited life span compared with other hard drives, are difficult if not impossible to replace, and are limited in disk space (2 GB on the base 701). It’s important to be able to install a game to a separate USB drive if necessary, and have it run from there, as well as only minimally write to the disk drive. The CD version of Stronghold does this fairly well: install it on external PC, copy to USB flash drive or SD card, and run anywhere. No wastage of on-board disk space. I haven’t tested the GOG version, but if it’s little more than an install wrapper, you should be able to replicate this functionality.
  • It still sounds and looks great, even on tiny speakers and a tiny monitor. The voice acting, game event sounds, and music are all sharp and clear. The graphics are clearly sprite-based, but exist in a meaningful 3-D environment in which height has advantages. Using sprites allows the game to perform well on minimal hardware, and so trees sway in the breeze, chickens cluck and move about, and military units are relatively easy to discern.
  • The game exits quickly with an ALT-F4, and ALT-TABs to and fro with no difficulty.
  • If you enjoy the game enough, Stronghold is also quite replayable. Other than the base campaign, there are a number of fan-made maps available on the web, such as the Lord of the Rings map pack.
You'll forgive the massive barrelling effect my olde camerae imposes on this image.

Naturally, there are a few downsides to playing any game on a netbook:

  • The tiny screen and 800×480 resolution mean a lot of squinting, and some irritating virtual scrolling up and down.
  • You’ll need an external mouse to get any serious gaming done, due to the typical RTS need for quick scrolling and precision clicking. You can, however, crank down the game speed to a crawl if you need to. A turn-based game might be better suited to the form factor.
  • Stronghold, or any game, will gobble up battery power as it exercises your CPU, and to see anything, you’ll need to crank up your brightness. Find a power outlet if you can.

All told, Stronghold is a fun enough game and performs well enough to be taken along for any coffeeshop journey you may take your netbook on.