Stronghold Warlords Review: Building the Great Wall of China

The Stronghold name covers a series of strategy games where you build monumental castles and lay siege to your enemies. This series has many duds in its arsenal, but the original game will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Let's see if Firefly Studios' decision to take their ventures to ancient China will give Stronghold the revival it deserves.

Stronghold Warlords Review: Building the Great Wall of China

The first Stronghold was released by Firefly Studios in 2001. This RTS contained some city-building elements and tasked you with building an impenetrable fortress while also massing an army to storm the enemy’s castle. The first game in the series was brilliant on all counts and, even though it contained aspects of several other games, it stood proudly on its own. 

Unfortunately, the series spawned a number of sequels, many of which were just remakes of some sort, but none of them hit the mark like the original and its immediate successor, Stronghold Crusader. Today I bring you Stronghold Warlords, and for the first time, the franchise has abandoned its medieval routes and traveled to ancient China. It’s been seven years since the last Stronghold game, so I was definitely keen to give it another go. I was not disappointed.

Stronghold Warlords is available on Steam, Humble Bundle, and GOG.

Stronghold: Warlords - E3 Reveal Trailer

STORY – THE ROAD TO GREATNESS

There are several campaigns to enjoy, and each comes with its own backstory, complete with heroes and villains. The first tells the story of Thuc Phan, a young ruler who inherited the kingdom at a very young age after his father’s passing. The warlords in the region saw his young age and inexperience as a clear weakness and decided to move into his territory when resistance should be minimal. You are tasked with saving Thuc Phan’s kingdom from invasion and making it known that his legacy will not be so easily wiped from history. 

Next, you are given the choice of an economic or military campaign. I opted for the economic one first, which has you leading the Jin dynasty, which for many years has been oppressed by the Liao. Unfortunately, I encountered a bug in the second mission, which prevented me from destroying some of the ruins around my keep. As this was one of my victory conditions, it forced me to abandon this campaign and start on the other. I trust this will be resolved while the developers are doing their final polish.

The citadel

The citadel

GAMEPLAY – TRIED, TESTED, AND IMPROVED

For those of you who’ve never played Stronghold, this is a real-time strategy game with a strong focus on resource management and castle building. There are numerous resources to gather, like wood, stone, and steel. You also have several farms to produce food and supply chains that provide clothing, weapons, and siege equipment. You also need to build houses to lure people to your keep who will become part of the workforce or army. Keeping your people happy means that more citizens will join your settlement; however, if they are upset, then they will find another place to call home, leaving you without a workforce.

The mechanic that gave this game series its identity is the ability to build magnificent strongholds. With the combination of gateways, walls, and towers, you can build a truly masterful fortress that will keep you safe from your foes. Obviously, the same can be said for your opponents, which means you’ll need to use the various soldiers and siege units to execute devastating attacks that will bring down the walls of those who oppose you. Your armies will consist of simple spearmen and marksman archers to wind-chasing horsemen and armored Samurai, while siege weapons include catapults, siege towers, rocket launchers, and many more. 

Looking back at city-management, your popularity rating determines whether people want to live in your settlement or not. This is affected by many things, such as the quality of housing. There are six types of homes for your people, each providing the same space for new citizens, while the more expensive homes provide increased popularity. Popularity can also be increased by providing various types of food, tea, or clothing or by constructing temples that provide nearby houses with spirit. When you are in need of funding, you can increase your taxes, which will have a negative effect on your popularity. 

Food for the people

Food for the people

You also have several buildings that affect your fear factor like stocks, torture presses, zen gardens, and opera houses. Having a positive fear factor will increase your popularity and give your soldiers additional combat strength while a negative fear factor will increase the efficiency of your workers. 

What I’ve always enjoyed about the Stronghold games is the balance of city-building versus combat, neither mechanic is overwhelmingly complicated and you can play each game with an emphasis on either one and still have a fun and fulfilling experience. Some of the games in this series got this balance wrong but Warlords returns to its glory days.

Despite me not playing Stronghold in many years, I was able to pick things up and get cracking in no time. So far the maps you find in the campaign are on the small side so you have less opportunity to build the way you want to but the multiplayer maps don’t share this restriction so this is a minor grievance. The rest of the mechanics work incredibly well, many actions have positive and negative effects and it’s up to you to decide which result is most important at this moment. 

A new feature introduced in Stronghold Warlords is the inclusion of warlords. These are neutral rulers scattered around the maps that will not pose you any harm if you don’t enter their territories and can be captured and turned into vassals. Once under your rule, you can issue edicts by spending influence points that are automatically generated and can be increased by buildings such as consulates and embassies. 

Different warlords have different edicts available and can be upgraded to unlock more. The Pig warlord’s edicts include sending you shipments of various food, while the Crane warlord can send you gold or boost your diplomacy. The Tiger warlord can be ordered to attack your enemies making him one of the most useful, but he’s also more difficult to conquer. Instead of conquering warlords with your military prowess, you can instead choose to use your influence points. When enough influence points have been spent, the warlord can be ordered to bow to your will.

The enemy hides behind his walls

The enemy hides behind his walls

I’m not completely sold on the warlords mechanic, however. Once a warlord is conquered, they don’t retrain their troops or expand their economy; they just sit and wait for an edict to be issued or to be conquered by another player. When playing multiplayer games I was constantly running my troops around the field, trying to defend my helpless vassals instead of spending resources to build my own castle. The warlords can be useful in providing you with resources and troops but the amount of effort it takes to keep them under your control feels to negate this to some extent. I like the idea of this mechanic; I just feel that it is underutilized in its current state and honestly, the game would be better without it.

DESIGN – A GIFT FOR ALL THE SENSES

The first screenshots and videos I saw of Stronghold Warlords did little to impress me, it just looked like a slightly higher def version of the games that came before. Let me tell you that the media does not do this game any justice. This is definitely one of my top contenders for the prettiest strategy game out there.

Masterful illustrations

Masterful illustrations

Everything in this game is beautiful, from the rivers to the plant life that moves along under the waves. The ground has numerous textures ranging from dirt and gravel to stone and various types of grass. The building designs are breathtaking, with their rich color palette and authentic Eastern designs; they even have the odd lamp hanging from the walls that lights a small area around it. When you zoom in real close, you can really appreciate the unit models. Each civilian and soldier type is clearly discernable by the incredible detail.

The animations, deserve praise too. I was mesmerized watching the farmers go about their day and tend to their duties. The pig farmer would grab a pig and kill it with a club, then sling it over his shoulders to take it in for slaughtering. The rice farmers would move across the field and extract each plant one by one and load it in his basket. Even the drawn illustrations that tell the story of each campaign are glorious works of art. 

Warlords management screen

Warlords management screen

If I truly had to nitpick, I’d say that when zoomed in, the rocks look like cubes with some pointy bits. Honestly, that’s the only thing I could find to complain about.

Looking at the audio things are similarly impressive. I’ll be honest that I’m not a big fan of traditional Oriental music, but the tracks included here never forced me to turn the volume down and did an excellent job of filling in the background. Even better was the superb voice acting from the narrator to the various citizens and soldiers roaming your city. There are a finite number of responses you’ll receive when selecting your people, but they are all authentic Chinese while not lathered with such a thick accent that they’re difficult to understand.

Stronghold Warlords was reviewed on Steam, with a review key provided by Evolve PR.

Summary
Stronghold Warlords takes the winning formula of the series and returns to the original's near-perfect form while improving on almost all aspects of the game. The newly added warlords mechanic didn't strike my fancy in the way I suppose the developers would have wanted, but that's not because it's a bad addition, just that it needs some tweaking to make it a more integral part of the game. As a reviewer of games and someone who particularly likes the strategy genre, I'm especially tough on them when it comes to audio and visual design. For the first time in ages, I have nothing but praise in this department. If you enjoyed any of the previous Stronghold games, or enjoy strategy, city-building, or management games in general, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Stronghold Warlords. This is a great game, period.
Good
  • Captures the essence of the original and improves on it
  • Deeply strategic gameplay that's fun and challenging
  • One of the best looking strategy games I've seen
  • Music and voice acting is top notch
Bad
  • New warlords mechanic is not the game changer I hoped for
8
Great

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