Stronghold: Warlords Review – Stuck in a Moment
Stronghold: Warlords9th March, 2021
There's always a time when you do one thing a little too much. My go-to move for a preview or review subtitle is to go with a song title or lyrics from an apt song. I wanted to go with "We Built This City" for Stronghold: Warlords, but I've already used that for Anno 1800. Then I had a thought. What is Stronghold: Warlords, if not stuck in a moment? It's just that the moment is a good one, somewhere around 2002 when Stronghold was at its prime.
It's strange because Stronghold is a series I've always kept my eye on. It's a series I've always played. I still can't help but recognise the deterioration over time until FireFly Studios recognised that they needed to return to their roots following Stronghold 3. HD re-releases of Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader followed, then came Stronghold Crusader 2. Neatly bringing us to today and the first new Stronghold in six-and-a-half years, Stronghold: Warlords.
Sometimes being stuck in a moment, contrary to the U2 song, is a good thing. Stronghold: Warlords truly captures the feel of a city builder and real-time strategy, with an extra emphasis on the city building, particularly the use of space. It does this without diminishing the combat in the slightest. Space is paramount thanks to the region system implemented in the game, your temples' positioning, and more.
Let's talk regions. The new feature of Stronghold: Warlords are the warlords themselves. Each map in the game is divided into regions. Each faction has its own that they can't expand out of, so what resources you have there, that's it, and the warlords will rule other regions. Warlords come in all shapes and sizes, there being eight different types that you can encounter and eventually rule. Each of them comes with their own benefits and flaws.
The turtle warlord, for example, can build up his defence and act as a great shield, provided his base is positioned right. You can't get any resources out of him, though. The Tiger and Dragon Warlords are great for those who want to go on the attack, letting you launch an attack from their base, though again - you can't get any resources out of them, and their defensive capabilities are weaker. Other warlords can provide support in several other ways, letting you get resources and food from them, and more.
All of this is performed by using diplomatic points. You obtain these slowly as standard, though they can also be increased a huge amount by building embassies and consulates. These diplomatic points can also be used to capture the warlords initially. However, you'll likely find the quickest way for most is to go in and attack them, saving the diplomatic points for claiming resources and other benefits.
Sometimes this is the best way because gathering all the resources you need is impossible. Your plot of land may not have an Iron source, so getting some from a warlord is ideal. You may not have enough space to put enough farms down to feed your population and keep them happy, warlord time. The other option is to stock up on one resource, sell it on the market and buy in what you need. It's a fine balancing act, with limited space making it rare that you'll be self-sufficient in everything.
Keeping people happy is a major target. Happiness is directed by the tax rate you set and how much food and clothing you provide the people. Happiness can also be increased by placing faith buildings near houses and workplaces; the more faith, the happier the people. You'll also want to ensure the quality of houses is increased. If they're happy, more will join you. If not, they'll leave. Keeping them happy is also going to allow you to raise more taxes, funding the war effort.
As well as happiness, you can also choose between being a benevolent leader, placing down buildings like theatres and zen gardens, or being an evil dictator, putting down features like stocks or Iron Maidens. If you move towards benevolence, your workers will lose productivity - they're enjoying themselves too much - but the soldiers will be stronger; they want to fight for you. Go evil; the opposite happens.
It's a tough balancing act, but I tend to go for the good. Once I've got a strong economy running and the market with its automated buy and sell limits, I can use stronger troops, a strong army, to take out those that oppose me. It's also the impression this gives. The city is a living, breathing entity. Choices have consequences, and you need to find which trade-off works best for you.
Maybe it's strange, but fighting a war is far less satisfying than I imagined it would be in Stronghold: Warlords. Fighting in the open doesn't feel tactical, and everything is far too sluggish. I genuinely have to wonder why the units are as slow as they are. Maybe it's to increase the tension when you actually get to the best part of fighting, sieging. I should point out that some units aren't interminably slow, but those tend to be a lot weaker and less armoured.
So, sieging. This is where Stronghold: Warlords shines. Much like earlier stronghold games, your walls and defences are built piecemeal and fit together like some intricate jigsaw puzzle. Not only is building a good defence a great joy, attacking an enemy, finding their weak spots, and the best route of attack is the real battle. Can you destroy the walls from afar, using troops as a shield for your artillery? Personally, I like to launch dead animals in and spread disease, then spread other buildings on fire, which spreads beautifully, before lobbing big rocks at the walls.
You'll find yourself doing all of this in the six campaigns, taking forty-plus hours to complete. These are reasonably entertaining and developed, though nothing as special as the true greats like Age of Empires II, Company of Heroes or World in Conflict. You've got a fair amount of variety, a mixture of pure military based missions, other mixtures, others that are very much development focused. It's a mixed bag, but overall, it's worth playing. Outside of the campaign, the Skirmish is sadly limited with the number of maps. The free build is an option but not particularly interesting.
Stronghold: Warlords is a throwback to Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader, for better and for worse. It even looks like it, for the most part, with a mixed bag visually. Either way, if you like a strategy game that offers a great time when base building and the eventual sieging of an enemy's base, this is certainly worth checking out. It's far from perfect, but it's a return to form for the legendary strategy series.
Copy provided by the publisher.
Stronghold Warlords is a decent strategy game. While the city-building and sieging truly let the game shine, the slow and sluggish pace between these can truly drag it down. The new diplomacy and warlords system adds something to the series and makes for a welcome change, but it's impossible not to think of this as a game that feels and plays like a strategy game from 20 years ago, for better and for worse.
- Polished strategy mechanics that all work well together.
- Warlords and diplomacy system makes for an interesting addition and adds a strong layer to the game.
- City-building, defending, and sieging makes for excellently tactical combat.
- Interesting setting that makes for a nice change to the series.
- Visually unimpressive units, particularly when compared to buildings.
- Combat is a drag when out in the field, not sieging, and units are far too slow.
- Campaign forces you away from the strongest part of the game (building) far too often.