Sound the call, bang the drums. The Warlords march to battle.
Just shy of the series’ 20th anniversary, Stronghold: Warlords finally swaggers up to the field of battle after several delays due to the ever-oppressive “real world” and concerns over the multiplayer mode. There’s been a worrying trend of late in delayed games seeming to suffer from the extra time in the oven – emerging scorched and tough and ultimately disappointing. Does Stronghold: Warlords succumb to the same fate?
Read on for HGG’s assessment.
This review is based on a pre-release build of the game.
- What is Stronghold: Warlords?: Stronghold: Warlords is a real-time strategy game with castle management aspects, offering single-player and multiplayer warfare with other AI and human warlords.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: $39.99
- Developer: FireFly Studios
- Release Date: March 9th, 2021
- Website: https://www.strongholdwarlords.com/
Where There’s a War, There’s a Way
I’ll be honest: my only experience with the Stronghold series was the very first game all the way back in 2001. It certainly scratched a unique itch for a castle management simulator. But as a veteran of every Age of Empires and Shogun: Total War, I found the real-time strategy elements wanting.
Stronghold: Warlords seems to streamline the mechanics in favor of familiar ground for RTS fans – without significantly compromising the castle management aspects.
You have a variety of foodstuffs at your disposal, ready to feed your hungry people. Increasing rations as supply outpace demand rewards you with increased popularity, a pseudo-resource you can spend to increase taxes and better fund your military ambitions. And once the essentials are handled, you can even branch out into tea, fine clothes, spirit-boosting temples, nourishing soul and body.
Micromanagement of your workforce – a staple of RTS games – is notably absent. Instead, peasants spawn at your keep and automatically fill job openings at production buildings as they become available. While some players may balk at the lack of control over who’s doing what, I never found it cumbersome in practice. Managing your population through the construction of homes – carefully balanced against your rations and popularity – provides a strong enough metagame to add context for and facilitate the ensuing siege warfare.
Building an impregnable stronghold is an essential ingredient in the series’ formula. You’ve got walls of varying thicknesses, gatehouses, stairs, and towers in your toolbox. Not to mention that buildings adjacent to walls dynamically integrate with them, allowing troops to position themselves on the roof or access the walls by stairs integrated into the design. It was a nice and unexpected touch that made each new stronghold feel unique and handcrafted.
Supplementing the economic and military aspects is the Warlord system, which sprinkles neutral AI-controlled warlords around the map. Subjugating a warlord by diplomacy or by force folds them into your empire, allowing you to spend diplomacy points to manage their holdings, have recruits sent to join your armies or order shipments of resources. As you might imagine, leveraging the opportunities offered by warlords is key to victory.
Crawling across the map with your armies, vacuuming up warlords in your wake, is sure to bring you in contact with hostile forces. So you draw swords and plant your feet, staring deep into each others’ eyes like erstwhile lovers.
And then the fight starts.
Lord It Over Them
Managing armies feels great here. While there aren’t as many formation options as you might like, it’s easy enough to micro your cavalry for hit-and-run tactics or split up your forces on the fly. It’s like the folks developing the UI were actually playing this and other RTS games during development.
While individual units can be rather squishy – especially against warlords or heavily armored late-game units – you never feel hopelessly outmatched. Sieging castles requires careful planning, rolling siege weapons into a position covered by infantry while your ranged units keep the defenders’ heads down. Turning walls and gatehouses to rubble and dust grants access to the juicy insides, and then it’s all over but the handshake.
Firefly Studios complements warfare with excellent sound design that punctuates the combat. The larger the army, the louder their battle cries and the thunder of feet and hooves. Your peasants also offer quippy comments on the state of your administration when selected, evoking memories of Warcraft and Starcraft. Much like the UI, it’s like the development team behind the game’s audio were playing and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.
The art direction on display in Stronghold: Warlords is likewise stellar. The Asian world of Warlords is beautiful and detailed without being distracting. Colorful without feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon. It embraces an indie aesthetic without feeling cheap – and that’s no small feat.
Unfortunately, the AI seems to suffer from some of the same shortcomings common to the genre. In one match, I noticed a group of enemy ranged cavalry repeatedly downing a neutral warlord – readying him for capture with infantry. Yet, there were no infantry in the raiding party. So the warlord healed, rose to his feet again, and the cycle continued. It’s a small complaint, as in my other engagements with the AI, they demonstrated micro tactics common to human opponents that kept me on my toes. But it was a peek at the man behind the curtain amid an otherwise mesmerizing production.
Campaigns and Skirmishes
For this review, I played through the Jungle Campaign centered on the rise and fall of Thuc Phan, as well as a custom skirmish or two. The first campaign is an excellent tutorial and on-ramp to the world of Warlords, showcasing all the mechanics in turn and offering a few sandboxes to play in.
Custom skirmishes are likely where players will be spending most of their time engaging AI lords or other humans in battles of wit and withering warfare. The open design of multiplayer maps makes careful stronghold design essential for funneling hostile troops so you can deal with them. And the back-and-forth action of conquering neutral warlords keeps the battlefield dynamic and the strategy fresh. There weren’t any maps that were truly impressive, but they were all serviceable – and perhaps that’s enough.
The After-Action Report
Overall, Stronghold: Warlords is a great time, especially for RTS fans. We’ve been in a bit of an RTS drought for – golly, a decade or so now. But Warlords is here to prove that strategy fans don’t have to settle for less. We’ve had quite enough remasters, thank you very much. While longtime series fans may feel like it’s a step away from the series’ roots, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air in the genre.
The mechanics are solid, the visuals and sound compliment the experience well, and despite a few flaws, it makes a strong impression. It’s not pushing the genre forward in any particularly novel ways – but perhaps it’s the warlord we need right now.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Stronghold: Warlords is a strong entry in the real-time-strategy genre that streamlines the Stronghold series formula in favor of simplified management and fast-paced combat. It looks and sounds great, demonstrates thoughtful design, but still struggles with genre-specific AI shortcomings.
- Castles are fun to build and even more fun to siege
- Rock solid RTS gameplay
- Thoughtful touches everywhere, making it a pleasure to play
- Common RTS AI pitfalls on display
- Some strong late-game units can feel overpowered at times
- Plays it safe in terms of design, which means little to no innovation