Stronghold: Warlords Review — Building the Biggest Wall
The Stronghold series doesn't quite have the same following as the big dogs of the RTS genre like StarCraft or Command & Conquer, but it certainly has its fair share of true believers. Stronghold: Warlords is the first entry in the series since Stronghold: Crusaders 2 released for PC in 2014. Warlords improves on many of the quality of life improvements Firefly Studios added in Crusaders 2, and also transports the series from medieval Europe to East Asia.
Here, you'll still balance your economy, protect your citizens with intricate walls and gates, and crush your foes with all sorts of devious weapons and tactics. Stronghold: Warlords will definitely provide a fun new sandbox for fans of the "castle sim" series to play in, but it suffers from a few weaknesses that demonstrate why the series never quite found as much mainstream success as others in the genre.
Stronghold: Warlords Review — Building the Biggest Wall
If I described Stronghold: Warlords in the simplest way possible, it's this: a real-time strategy game with an emphasis on walls.
This time out, the game features the kingdoms of East Asia. In the single-player portion of the game, you'll take the role of many historical figures: Thuc Phan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and even Genghis Khan. Across multiple campaigns, you'll find a variety of missions that lay out very basic historical contexts of their rise to and hold on power.
The basic systems of Stronghold: Warlords are not too difficult to wrap your brain around. As you build up certain elements of your settlement, such as houses, farms, and production centers, more citizens will flock to you. These citizens can be assigned to more production jobs or conscripted into your army, adding to your stout defense and helping you to conquer your foes.
There's an element of medieval urban planning involved, with several types of walls, gates, and other creative ways to keep your enemies at bay and your populace happy. As you move into later campaign levels, you'll gain access to new buildings and elements of the tech tree, which will help you fend off the stronger threats that come your way.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to get into your enemies' fortresses, too — or deal with them from afar.
Warlords still employs plenty of micromanagement elements that will help you carry the day, but strategizing and adapting on the fly is pivotal. Probing your enemy's defense to find a weak area in their fortress can let you sneak a few troops in over the walls and unleash a surprise attack, paving the way for your larger force to take over.
These are the moments where it's easy to see why the Stronghold series has always had a following. It feels really good when you execute a perfect plan. Unlike the rock-paper-scissors style of hard counters you see in many RTS games, Stronghold: Warlords rewards you for thinking like a commander, rather than someone playing a commander. Trying to take down a foe's siege tower as it rumbles towards your keep is a harrowing experience.
Then it has to throw those damn warlords into the mix.
The big draw with this newest release, other than the brand-new setting, is the introduction of warlords. These powerful neutral units are scattered across the map with a few defenses placed here and there. Capturing a warlord, either through attacking them or using diplomatic favor, can unlock powerful abilities for your clan.
On paper, it's a sound concept: warlords provide constant objectives on the map, and ways for players to mount both dominant victories and incredible comebacks. In practice, warlords feel incredibly, well, game-y.
The idea of sending a bunch of troops to stab a guy a whole bunch so he joins your team is weird. And the idea of your opponent then sending a bunch of their troops to stab the same guy a bunch so he betrays you and joins their team is even weirder.
They can't (really) be ignored, either, as each warlord has a powerful effect on the game. In the campaign, for example, many objectives are directly tied to warlords and, in skirmishes, ignoring them only allows your opponent to reap the rewards, putting you at a disadvantage.
On top of the frustrating way warlords are used, it's difficult to tell units apart at a glance, and there are often a lot of them in your army. In the thick of things, assigning certain troop types to perform specific tasks is messy.
At the same time, the AI lacks sophistication, both for friendlies and enemies. Even after several hours of play, I could never quite tell who my troops were going to attack or if they were just going to stroll past certain enemies on their way to another. When battling against AI, it was far too easy to goad units into traps and chokepoints repeatedly, cheesing out wins without a lot of thought.
For every impressive aspect of Stronghold: Warlords, there's something else that holds it back. Blasting down walls with a catapult and sending archers flying never gets old. Trying to locate your tiny troops hidden across a battlefield... not so much.
Stronghold: Warlords Review — The Bottom Line
- Physics and strategy of siege battles is fun
- Variety of viable troops and strategies
- Builds some great moments of tension
- Hard to tell unit types apart
- Warlords don't really tie into the gameplay well
- AI leaves a lot to be desired
Stronghold: Warlords certainly isn't bad, but there just isn't a lot that makes it stand out. The siege battles and enclosed settlements add an extra layer of strategy to things, but certain problematic areas keep it from properly utilizing those positives to create something special.
This is a game that seems like it will find a niche audience, but it's doubtful those focused on single-player will get a lot out of it. While there wasn't a ton of opportunity to get into multiplayer games with this early build, it seems like that's where most of the action is going to be. The campaigns are more glorified tutorials than an impressive and comprehensive single-player experience, so it seems like setting up elaborate skirmishes is where developer Firefly Studios thought most of the value would be here, too.
If Stronghold: Warlords sees a little post-release love from the developers, it could turn into a great stepping stone for the franchise; there are some kinks that need to be ironed out, but it's got a strong base to build off of. If you're a long-term fan of the series or want something a little different with your next RTS, this might be what you're looking for.
[Note: Firefly Studios provided the copy of Stronghold: Warlords used for this review.]