REVIEW – This time around, Stronghold: Warlords takes us back to the bloody Asian Middle Ages, where for the first time in the series’ history, we can subdue and control the AI-controlled overlords under our command. For a week and a half, we played armchair warlord in the latest instalment of the real-time strategy game series.
The once-popular “RTS” (real-time strategy game) genre, which enjoyed huge popularity on the PC, is nowadays less common, even on computers. If the genre hasn’t completely died out, it has certainly become a bit repetitive, and far fewer triple-A titles are being made, so fans should appreciate any more sophisticated work.
Firefly Studios is no newcomer to the game either, having released the first instalment of the Stronghold series in 2001, the first time we got to wear the blood-stained, battered armour of a medieval warlord. In the five episodes released so far, we’ve commanded armies in medieval Europe, and Stronghold Warlords is the first episode to take on Asia in the same period. In Warlords, we take control of Mongol hordes, Chinese imperial warriors and samurai clansmen, and storm Japanese castles and fortified Chinese cities.
To be honest, I’ve not been a big fan of the Stronghold series, but I’ve played a lot of the Age of Empires series and the city-building games that were very popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Ceasar, Pharaoh, Zeus: Master of Olympus, Emperor, etc.). Ultimately, Stronghold games have taken a lot of elements from these two franchises, so I was able to dive into the medieval wars of Stronghold Warlords quite quickly and without any problems.
“Ye rascal lords, ye dogs of Wales“
A new feature of the game is that you can “persuade” (enslave) neutral lords to serve the warlord you control. Once we have invaded the small fortress they are standing on with our armies, if we stand with our soldiers at their side, they will literally kneel to us. They are then under our control: they can be upgraded and paid not only with respect, but also with various resources, and they can even be used to reinforce borders and for various operations.
This sounds great and basically, the vassal system is a really special element of Stronghold Warlords, but a little more character, personality or uniqueness might have been nice for these vassals. After all, the Anglo-Saxon and Norman lords in 1986’s Defender of the Crown had their own characteristics, but here they just stand on the map, waiting to be conquered and then later commanded – and watched over like the apple of your eye, or they might be turned by the enemy. While the warlord we control is constantly pushing pep talks (and a bit of a non sequitur) in short transitions, these warlords are silent and lacking in unique character – this felt a bit of a missed gimmick.
Rice, pork, vegetables – the daily Chinese diet
The gameplay of Stronghold Warlords is roughly based on the two franchises mentioned above: you have to build various economic, military and diplomatic buildings (if you have enough gold and resources), which you then use to produce food and gold – both of which are necessary for war, as we know from our historical studies.
The developers have tried to diversify the food a little, as in the old Impressions games (Ceasar, Pharaoh, Zeus, etc.), but here it works in a less logical way, and it is not clear, for example, why it is better to have a vegetable farm and a pig farm in addition to the basic rice farm. Sure, the game tells us that it makes the farmers “feel better”, but beyond that, the in-game role of multiple foodstuffs is not very elaborate or clear.
During the campaign, our enemies will not leave us alone for long, and we must be well prepared for attacks, or we will be badly beaten. It’s a good idea to build up an effective defensive and offensive army as soon as possible: the former to protect against unexpected attacks on the centre, and the latter to subdue the warlords as quickly as possible. If we don’t, the enemy will come, and once the previously neutral vassals have bowed to them, it will be even harder to turn the tide in our favour.
Since we are in Asia and gunpowder is a well-known Chinese invention, we can also use and deploy new siege weapons that use gunpowder. These are worth keeping an eye on (and eliminating enemy weapons as quickly as possible) because they can cause considerable damage, to both the regular army of melee fighters and archers and the defensive walls.
Another tactical innovation is the use of fire chariots, which can be used to easily clear archers standing on the ramparts, whereas this was much more difficult in previous episodes. This is a feature that the developers were particularly proud of.
Finally, it is also worth getting the various castle walls up as quickly as possible, as they can seriously hamper a major siege.
I’m probably getting old and less addicted to these types of games, but the various Age of Empires games, or the city-building series, or the yet-mentioned Total War series, were somehow a little more addictive, and a little more logical and smoothly drawn into the whirlwind of war and economic events. For example, Total War is the real champion when it comes to army control, Ceasar or Pharaoh when it comes to the economic aspect, and the two are blended together brilliantly in the Age of Empires episodes. Compared to all these Stronghold Warlords falls a little short overall, even if this vassal aspect is a relative novelty in real-time strategy games.
+ An ever so pleasant mix of RTS and management/castle building
+ Enough single-player content to keep you busy for many hours
+ Some well thought out missions with interesting constraints
– AI often bugged
– Campaign without narrative flavour
– Too much classicism in its fights
Publisher: Firefly Studios
Developer: Firefly Studios
Genre: Real-time Strategy
Release date: March 9, 2021