The heyday of real-time strategy games will always be the golden period of 1995 - 2003 for many, primarily because of the caliber of games that were released from this era. From the near genre-defining Warcraft II and Starcraft, to massive hits like Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, and Shogun: Total War, RTS games were the king of the PC landscape to the point of near-ubiquitous praise for the depth and complexity the genre was known for. One series that began in this golden age was Stronghold by Firefly Studios. To date, they are one of the few companies still producing games linked to their more traditional roots, as their latest title, Stronghold: Warlords, showcases.
Stronghold: Warlords is the type of game that revels in its lineage while adding some improvements along the way. For some, especially veterans in the RTS genre, it is a throwback to that golden age. For others, it may be old and creaky when it comes to the more modern successors in the genre, which offer more complexity and micromanaging than ever before. The question now though is does Stronghold: Warlords hold up to modern standards?
Anyone familiar with Firefly Studio’s output will feel right at home with Stronghold: Warlords. The mechanics are instantly recognizable, with players having to build up a large castle town using a combination of resources, military might, economics, and diplomacy to protect themselves. You simply need to survive and defeat your opponents by taking over their strongholds, a task that is not as easy as it sounds.
The mechanics and general loop of gameplay pretty much follow a tried and true structure; you build a workshop and granary first, followed by farms, houses, and worksites such as logging camps and quarries. There are a total of 70 structures you can build once you obtain the required resources to do so, each of them unlocked right out of the gate in any of the free play skirmish modes with only a few building trees to follow.
One of the better design choices is how Firefly Studios streamlined the whole process. Your peasants, for example, wait at your place until they are employed for work. Instead of assigning them, however, they are automatically employed every time a farm or workstation is constructed. This act alone eliminates a major element of the typical micromanagement found in classic RTS games and is a welcome change that doesn’t harm the game's typical loop at all.
In fact, the removal of assigning peasants is now replaced by their needs and happiness completely. While happiness has always been a present mechanic in the Stronghold games, Warlords use it as a barometer of your peasant's mood based on how they are fed, how much you tax them, general protection and living conditions, and even loyalty through inspiring them with statues and other structures. With it being a simple toggle between different degrees of rationing and taxation, a lot of the guesswork of production is removed completely from Warlords, giving the player free rein to focus on building and troop production fully.
A United Front
The two biggest hooks to Warlords are ultimately its setting and its titular warlords mechanic. The uncommonly used East-Asian aesthetic offers a unique flavor compared to Firefly’s standard Medieval setting, one that offers a variety of troop types you would rarely see in other RTS titles. Some of the unique features include region-specific troops such as Ninjas and Samurai, Horse Archers, and unique siege weapons such as the Hwacha launcher.
This is not without some drawbacks, though. While the games theming is perfect, the sort of ‘one size fits all’ blending of multiple East-Asian cultures is a bit off. Building imperialist China castles surrounded by Japanese Samurai is a bit jarring at first, though Firefly Studios has always taken some liberties to regions and troop types in the Stronghold series. It is just more pronounced when you have several cultures from different time periods smashed together into an Asian-fusion blend.
The biggest change is the warlord system, where you can forcibly or use diplomacy to occupy neutral warlords dotted across the game map. Gaining these warlords is almost essential to being successful in Warlords, as each of the eight different warlord types provides a different bonus to the player, provided they have enough influence points to spend on some bonuses. For example, Ox Warlords provide bonuses to resource production, and spending influence points can supply your stronghold with extra resources as they are upgraded. Others, like the Dragon Warlord, make your military troops more effective in battle, along with offering money and support when marching against your enemies.
The strategic complexity this adds to Warlords is also noticeable. Instead, for example, turtling up behind your stronghold walls, players will need to make a choice as to whether or not they will protect their warlords from invasion. New defenses and parameters of patrol may stretch your resources and troops thin if you are not careful. Finally, knowing when and how to make a coordinated attack against enemy warlords is often a key to starving out your opponent's resources, making them the main focal point of key battles in Warlords.
If there is one major drawback to Stronghold: Warlords, it is the fact that the game is fairly bare-bones when put up against more modern RTS’s. Warlords boasts a boilerplate campaign mode, with 31 battles across four time periods that cover pretty much all of the mechanics as they slowly open up for the player to use. This is a very classic approach to an RTS campaign, where it is training you for play online. It is also one of the few parts of Warlords that has aged poorly.
Other modes of play are also pretty standard and lack a lot of content. Skirmish mode offers 9 different maps where players can fight A.I. or human opponents. Each map is slightly customizable when it comes to starting resources, warlord types, and the number of players for the larger maps. The options are nice, but it's the lack of maps that could hurt the long-term replay value. This carries over into the multiplayer, which is severely limited by the small number of maps and options available at launch, though this will change over time as more maps and user-generated content is created.
The only other mode available for players is a free build mode, where you can construct your dream castle without the threat of any enemy troops. This is a cool addition that allows for more casual play, a chance to just sit and relax a bit without too many worries. While I appreciate its inclusion, it is a toothless mode that defies the point of Warlords being an RTS completely, and sort of just exists as a nebulous option for the more creative players out there.
Final Thoughts - Like a Fine Wine
Even with the gripes of its overall package, Stronghold: Warlords represents a tired but true formula that has aged like a fine wine. The mechanics are familiar but streamlined, the aesthetic is unique enough to provide variety, and the new mechanics fit perfectly by providing new strategies of play beyond what is standard for most RTS titles. It is a blend of old and new that plays on its strengths while streamlining its weaknesses, a rarity in a genre that constantly tries to grow more complex.
The lack of features out of the gate may hurt it a bit, but Stronghold: Warlords is a game that can still thrive in the RTS landscape with relative ease. For the hardcore fans looking for a vintage experience, it is a perfect fit. For interested newcomers, the classic style and pick-up and play nature of most of its mechanics make it a solid choice for a purchase. Overall, Stronghold: Warlords is a solid title that is worthy of a space in your gaming library.
TechRaptor reviewed Stronghold: Warlords on PC, with a copy of the game provided by the publisher.
- Old School RTS Mechanics...
- Quality Additions Such as the Warlords and Diplomacy...
- Solid Visuals and Sound Design
- Great Use of the East-Asian Setting
- Perfect Blend of Mechanics for a Wide Variety of Players
- ...Lackluster Campaign Mode
- ...A Bit Thin on Content Out of the Gate