Those who’ve played a Stronghold game before will notice that Stronghold: Warlords, the latest incarnation in the popular castle-building strategy franchise, is a little different. Gone are the bland beige settings, replaced by stunning and more vibrant buildings dating back to third-century China.
There’s also a brand new way of conquering enemies and using your power to gain influence, favors, and resources through the Warlords system. Stronghold: Warlords draws on the strengths of the franchise, changes the setting then adds new functionality and units to create a truly immersive game that offers several different ways to play.
There are four main Warlords that you can control in multiplayer or skirmish campaigns and who also appear in the main questlines. These are complemented by eight minor Warlord archetypes that you can conquer, upgrade, and command.
The four historical figures are Thuc Phan, Qin Shi Huang, Genghis Khan, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Each Warlord has their own campaign based on their real-life battles. There’s also a fifth economic campaign led by The Scribe. Across the five narratives, there are 31 levels in total, spanning several different ways to play.
If you’re playing a campaign scenario with minor Warlords on your map you can conquer them to gain benefits for yourself. All you need to do is get the Warlord’s health low then stand next to them to accept their surrender. The benefits vary depending on the type of Warlord you conquer. Each minor Warlord is linked to an animal including ox, pig, horse, and dragon. It’s worth checking what each offers, as support includes sending food, resources, and even military reinforcements. Each scenario will render some Warlords more useful than others.
This adds a different element to gameplay and due to the fact that it isn’t present in every scenario and the variation of the warlords you encounter, it stays feeling unique and interesting.
While the tutorial level is very basic, the campaign itself does introduce new features quite well when played through in order.
As you progress through the different narratives, the levels themselves are varied in how they play. However, even in easy mode, quite a number require you to make the right choices if you want to succeed. While you can rush the odd scenario, as a general rule you’ll need to think before you build or attack.
The campaigns range from scenarios that involve you surviving with limited resources to those that require building massive structures, varied defenses, and thriving communities. Alternatively, some require you simply to command an army well to achieve a specific objective.
For those who enjoy the strategy elements of the game as well as the combat, the economic campaign is a highlight. You’ll be required to balance your resources and build carefully to hit economic-based goals while also keeping your community and your Lord safe. It requires having enough military force to defend your base, while not neglecting food, resources, and specific time-based goals.
If you prefer military play, then Genghis Khan’s campaign will be for you. As you’d expect if you know your history, there is a lot of killing and conquering involved as well as the building of some spectacular and explosive defenses and siege weapons, with gunpowder use highly encouraged.
As well as the single-player campaign, Stronghold: Warlords offers several more options. You can set up a completely custom skirmish against an AI opponent, battle against others in online multiplayer, or play on community-built maps. There’s also a free build option in which you can just sit and build a thriving community on one of three different maps. Start with nothing and build a castle and settlement worth defending.
There are several new units and troops as well as new defenses, but most notable are the ones that involve gunpowder. You can send out gunpowder laden fire oxen, create proximity mines or set up gunpowder trails that can be lit to produce huge walls of fire.
Gunpowder comes as stashes or trails and both can be combined to create some interesting effects when your enemy draws near. If you want to add even more unique defenses, then check out the tiger cages. These contain what look like sleeping tigers, but they are actually biding their time since they escape and attack when enemies draw near.
Don’t worry if this all sounds crazy. Many familiar castle staples are still around including the return of diseased animal ammunition. If you’ve always enjoyed the historically accurate launching of pigs and water buffalo to spread disease in enemy camps then you’re in luck. This is just one fan favorite to make a return.
The UI is something that may be a sticking point for some. For me, it’s manageable since I have a monitor with a 3440 x 1440 resolution, but on a smaller screen, it could easily dominate. The above image was taken in 2560 x 1440 resolution and you can see already the UI is quite large. In smaller resolutions or in 4:3 it is even more pronounced.
On the left is a permanent map with your resources and various currencies displayed to the right. You can minimize the resources tab but only by two-thirds. Above the map, text announcements appear and you can choose to leave these visible.
The right-hand side has a tall menu that displays your current popularity and allows you to easily adjust rations, taxes, and resource distribution. Clicking on each section will also display a large window with details of production or income. This window displays over the seemingly random blank space next to the main build menu that also displays troop formation information.
In terms of organization, the build menu is mostly intuitive and it’s occasionally handy to have so much information available at a glance. However, the key here is occasionally. Most of the information permanently displayed on the UI would be absolutely fine hidden behind a button, or at least displayed in a less obtrusive manner. Even a UI scaling option could make a difference but there isn’t one.
In fact, the options, in general, are very sparse. As you’d expect you can adjust the resolution, sound levels, and graphics quality. This includes an option to minimize the flashier effects which I appreciated as someone who is light sensitive at times. The only other options are subtitles on or off and a toggle to invert the camera rotation. You can also choose your screen name. That’s it.
Overall, Stronghold: Warlords plays to the strengths of the franchise and the change of scenery makes it feel more exciting and very different. The setting perfectly compliments the balance of strategy, building, and mechanics that the series is famous for. New units are interesting, unique, and fun to play with and it’s great to see some familiar favorites are still present.
As always, the entire thing is underpinned by a strong score that compliments the stories and locations. The mixture of narration and native language speaking also helps it feel more authentic. Each campaign scenario is well researched and written and offers a slice of history with your bloodbath.
The only letdown is the UI, which I would have preferred to be more minimalist. It’s fine when playing for a short while, or on a large widescreen monitor, but as the hours add up and the scenarios get more challenging, seeing what’s on the battlefield becomes more important than ever and not being able to minimize or downscale unnecessary information is more of an annoyance.
The difficulty is the only other thing that may be offputting to some. I’m a play-on-easy mode person for various reasons, but even then, I had to restart several scenarios because it took a few tries to get the resources and military balance correct. There are different difficulty levels but if you are new to the franchise or take a while to get your head around how new units and mechanics work the learning curve may feel steep. However, if you stick it out then you’ll find it’s all worth it. Also, if it all gets too much just hit up free build mode and explore the new troops, defenses, and mechanics in a far more relaxing environment.
A PC copy of Stronghold: Warlords was provided to TheGamer for this review. Stronghold: Warlords is available for PC via Steam from March 9, 2021.
Next: Interview: Firefly Studio’s Co-Founder Simon Bradbury On Stronghold’s New Direction And Playing With Gunpowder
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Helen began playing games at an early age with her first computer being a hand-me-down Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It didn’t put her off… She is all grown up now but is still a gamer at heart, especially when it comes to The Sims and other strategy and simulation games.
She juggles the daily demands of life with a family and somehow still finds the time to indulge her two passions in life, writing and gaming; sometimes both at the same time.
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