If your sphere of PC game tastes includes either of the words “medieval” or “RTS”, you probably know the Stronghold games. They are about attacking and defending castles, and the 2001 original was pretty great. It had approximately two and a half million sequels, each of which was either equally ace, or a bin fire, depending on who you ask. As such, this review of Stronghold: Warlords could easily get swallowed up in a long, dull attempt to compare it to every one of its predecessors, identifying which of their various features it does or does not retain, and then agonising over where among them to rank it.
Instead, I’m going to review Warstrong: Lordhold as if it exists in blissful isolation from any of its bucket-helmeted elder brothers, and just say how much fun I’ve had with it. The answer is that I’ve had lots of fun with it! There are some caveats to go with that, sure. But the bottom line is that I’ve found at least as much pleasure in playing it, as my 17 year-old self did with Stronghold in 2001. To me at least, the series is back at the top of its very slightly wonky form.
Imagine a sliding scale containing all games which include both making a town of some kind, and fighting. At one end you’ve got stuff like Company Of Heroes, where you make a couple of token buildings, purely as strategic anchors for the fighting that the game is actually about. Then at the other end of the scale, you’ve perhaps got ye olde Caesar III and company, which are city builders through and through, and only truly have a military component in order to add hurdles to economic challenges.
Most buildy-fighty games gravitate towards one end of this spectrum or the other, which makes Warlords stand out for sitting right in the middle. It’s a combat-focused game, certainly. But there’s a lot of city-building involved in building up a decent war machine. And while it’s all simplified a little to let you focus on battle, it’s still the case that production lines, food supply and the like are still central to everything you do.
But the series is not called “Vegetable Farm”, is it? No; easily the most satisfying thing in any Stronghold game, by a mile, is the building of stone walls and towers around your base, and manning them with arrow gits. It feels good in Warlords, and I’m only half-joking when I say my favourite thing about it is the very precise satisfaction involved in placing a line of thick stone wall over steep rocky ground. When my mind’s eye pictures the game, that’s what I’m doing, and that’s what makes me want to play.
One clear differentiator from the rest of the series that I should mention, I suppose, are the Warlords referred to in the title. Both in the single player campaign and on multiplayer skirmish maps, there are neutral settlements to be captured (either by peaceful or beastmode means) which offer your faction buffs, provide resources, send out armies to support yours, or do other helpful things.
They are an absolutely central feature to the game, to the point where victory almost universally hinges on who on a map has control of the warlords. It’s a good thing, then, that they feel consistently satisfying and rewarding to interact with: capturing them feels way more of an “I want to do this” task than a “suppose I must, if I don’t want to lose,” task.
The warlords are, however, where a few of my little doubts creep in. To acquire them non-violently, and to upgrade them, you need diplomacy points, which are most dependably generated by a set of buildings that cost a ton of gold. In almost all games I’ve played, including against human opponents, I found the surefire way to win was to spend all my starting gold on these structures, and continue to spend money solely on them until I had the maximum number.
I’m pretty sure the diplomacy buildings are something you’re meant to ramp up in the mid to late game. But rushing them all at the start pretty much made me an unstoppable god capable of mind-controlling an entire map full of minor nobles, to the point where in a skirmish game against three AIs, I won a game without building a single defensive structure.
I could talk at similar length about the vast significance of wood collection, or of spamming farms, or the enormous power of certain units, but I wouldn’t want to sound like I was complaining. You see, none of these things make the game less fun, in particular. But I do wonder how they’re going to pan out if - or hopefully when - the game develops a decent-sized multiplayer scene.
At best, they could result in a rapidly evolving, bizarro arms race of a meta, where every strategy is more high-powered than the last. At worst, they could lead to a stagnant situation, dominated by one cheese tactic that cannot be dethroned. To me, Warlords feels like it’s trying to kick off a multiplayer sensation from a series known for single player campaign play - and while I hope it succeeds, I think the approach to balance feels a bit cavalier at launch, at least.
Even if it doesn’t soar as a multiplayer game, it’s still got some cracking single player campaigns. There’s only five (including one economic-only campaign and one tutorial), of six missions apiece, so they won’t keep you going for too long. But they’re a really solid weekend of fun, with scenarios that offer every permutation of attack, defence, fixed-force battle and build-and-destroy epic, so I sincerely hope there’s more coming down the pipe. At the very least, Stronghold has always had a rich vein of user-designed missions, which is a tradition that has every reason to continue here.
I know that I’ve said the multiplayer mode is a potential loose cannon, and the single player content feels a bit slim, but I can’t let you leave this review without reinforcing the fact I really enjoyed this game. The things at the heart of it - demolishing towers with dodgy medieval rockets, seeing that each individual pig wandering your farms has a name, upgrading a warlord’s castle, placing those beautiful stone walls - are all immensely satisfying. It’s good stuff, essentially. But it’s wearing armour that’s very slightly too big for it, and that has the potential to weigh it down in the long run.