I’m not going to lie: I’m not overly familiar with the Stronghold franchise mainly because the idea of real-time strategy games intimidates me. My memory of playing games like this back in the day are more akin to night terrors because of how often I’m quickly steamrolled by AI (I don’t dare play against human players) faster than I can build a barrack. So I came to my appointment with Firefly Studios with some trepidation. Will they know I’m a complete and total novice to the RTS genre? Worst of all, would they expect me to actually play the game against an AI opponent? Well, the good news is that I didn’t have to embarrass myself in front of two developers from Firefly Studios. The better news was that I walked away from Stronghold Warlords thinking, “Hey, I might actually want to play this game!”
Stronghold Warlords takes the franchise’s brand of base building, economy management and warfare into the country of ancient China, which just goes to show that war never changes wherever you are. The core concept of the game is similar to those that came before: establish a base, use resources to build structures that eventually pave the way for special units and higher tier structures that all exist to serve the player’s interests in the area. And because you’re opponents are doing the same, victory is measured against who can be the first to build and sustain an army to conquer their enemies.
What gives the latest Stronghold its name is the inclusion of Warlords, AI controlled factions that start the game as a neutral party but can be conscripted to join your cause or the AI’s. To me, the Warlords reminded me of the City-States in Civilization V. Once acquired, the warlords can give you perks and bonuses that fall within different areas. One warlord may offer combat bonuses while another can assist with the base building stuff. The warlords will continue to serve you unless they are defeated by the opponent.
Being set in China, Warlords allowed the development team to explore a new, non-European setting. The studio conducted research into the technological advancements exclusive to the Far East, such as gunpowder and special explosives. This, of course, manifests itself as new combat units such as cows and oxen outfitted with bags of gunpowder to function as stampeding bomb units that can really decimate the enemy’s units (and yours if they’re in close proximity). Bamboo replaces wood as a core building material and I found myself really enjoying the animation sequence of workers hacking bamboo stalks, lifting them up over their shoulders, and carrying them to their stalls to chop them into smaller, more manageable pieces. As ruler of the people, Warlords lets you practice two methods of power, benevolence or maliciousness. Benevolent rulers can provide for their people and commit them to a production cycle that yields fewer results but keeps them happy. The more evil and ruthless minded can do the exact opposite by pushing their people hard for the best and most efficient results at the expense of their happiness. And should they act against your liking, there’s nothing a few torture devices can’t do to motivate.
I may not be an expert when it comes to real-time strategy games but as an outsider often looking in, there’s a lot about Stronghold Warlords that I kind of see myself wanting to try out. Even though I haven’t played any of the games, it looked fairly approachable and the developers on hand were keen to point out how easy it was to build units and design the city, which can be done any way you want. They were especially proud that their new system for constructing walls now takes terrain into account, so no more having to fudge them around mountains and hills. In the end, Stronghold Warlords look to be a new addition to the franchise that fans are really going to sink their teeth into when it releases in 2020. I may even play it myself! Offline, of course.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.