Stronghold: Warlords Hands-On Impressions: A Compelling Tease

Stronghold Warlords has a lot going for it, even if bits of it are somewhat confusing.

Stronghold Warlords has a lot going for it, even if bits of it are somewhat confusing.

The Stronghold series of real-time strategy games is known for its unique use of castles and structures in a medieval setting, but developer Firefly Studios is looking to shake things up with the next release, Stronghold: Warlords, due out later this year.

Though we weren’t able to try the game out at PAX East 2020, I was able to go hands-on with a playable demo of the game a few weeks fter the event. The brief experience provides plenty of reason for optimism, even if it was a bit confusing as a new player.

Although there are some new systems in place, much of the game’s changes exist in the form of reskinning elements from the series to fit in with the change in setting from Europe to Asia.

Stronghold: Warlords Hands-On Impressions: A Compelling Tease

The primary new addition is that of warlords. These neutral commanders are a big change, however, the interface is relatively intuitive. You can subjugate the game’s three neutral factions (one of which begins under your opponent’s control) in one of two ways.

The most simple is brute force. Send your forces in and coerce the neutral warlord to bend the knee. Once you have gained their loyalty, you begin to spend Diplomacy points to gain favor that ranges from the delivery of supplies to commissioning army forces. Each warlord also provides a consistent bonus you don’t need to pay for, such as free rocket launchers to break down enemy walls.

You can also use those same diplomacy points to win over warlords without bloodshed. The two neutral sides come at an affordable cost, however, the subjugated faction in the north costs you triple if you want to take the peaceful route.

These diplomacy points generate at a steady pace, with diplomatic buildings helping to increase the rate of diplomacy point production. 

While the demo I played is a short mission and can be completed inside of 10 to 15 minutes relatively easily, it does provide a promising look at how the new warlords system will work, and that it should appeal to the series’ existing fans.

Deep Systems Make for Deep Strategy

While players familiar with the general feel of Stronghold games may be comfortable right away, as somebody new to the series, I struggled at first.

There’s not holding a player’s hand and then there’s Stronghold: Warlords. While there is a brief explainer given on the new warlords system, I was otherwise thrown in to figure things out on my own.

Without a clear in-game explanation of the various developmental trees and economic systems, it was confusing as a rookie to figure out what was expected of me.

I ultimately got my first win by spawning a bunch of soldiers to defend the river I held, building my full allotment of diplomacy options and then relying on the powerful siege troops my warlords could provide me to break down the enemy’s walls. After finding that to be effective but a bit unsatisfying, I went in search of some elaboration on a more effective way to play.

The good news is there are some helpful aides online that new players can check out. In particular, this video from the studio shows a successful approach to the mission, then returns a second time to give a more detailed look at the various systems and how to use them effectively.

As a newbie, it allowed me to go back and approach the mission again from a more tactical angle. (It also gives a great look at the game in action.)

While a brute-force approach was enough to carry me through the demo, playing again with a deeper understanding of the game’s intricate and interlocking systems shows the game’s true strength. It offers a tantalizing look at what will be expected of players in some of the more challenging campaign missions in the full release.

At the end of the day, the bite-sized taste at the game has me excited for a full serving. Although the classic look harkens back to some of the genre’s original hits, the more complex economic systems add an extra level of strategy, and the new warlords system promises a fun way to further customize your preferred approach to a given mission.

[Note: A demo of Stronghold: Warlords was provided by Firefly Studios for the purpose of this hands-on preview.]

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