- RTS/Resource management gameplay at its finest;
- Epic musical score;
- Satisfying story and/or campaign;
- Nice use of real historical figures and battles.
- No auto-save feature;
- Mouse controls feel a bit touchy;
- VO work sounds “off” in places.
The eighth entry in Firefly Studios' long-standing real-time strategy series emphasizing extensive resource and troop management, Stronghold: Warlords is the first game to be set on the sprawling landscapes of Eastern Asia. In Warlords, players take command of the dreaded Mongol hordes, fierce imperial warriors, and strict samurai clansmen, as they assault Japanese castles and reinforced Chinese cities across 31 campaign missions, multiplayer, skirmish, and free-build modes.
And for the first time in the Stronghold series, Warlords lets you recruit, upgrade, and control AI lords (the eponymous “Warlords”) that you conquer on the field of battle. Each warlord under your thrall boosts your strategic abilities by adding unique perks, characteristics, and upgradeable capabilities. By way of example, you can work them to increase your industry, fortify your borders, forge weapons, or combine forces for a devastating barrage. Each campaign mission, skirmish match, and multiplayer battle means there’s a brand new set of Warlords to command and a completely fresh and innovative way to play this newest effort in the Stronghold franchise.
My cheeky introduction and/or subtitle to this review is honestly how I always refer to RTS games because, in my mind, that’s exactly what they are – just Sims that let you kill indiscriminately with a wide variety of cool weapons and armaments… not just bathtubs, toasters, or malfunctioning refrigerators. And yes, I have played the Sims: Medieval, which this experience reminds me a great deal of… just swapping out the distinctly European setting for an Asian one.
That being said, RTS games aren’t typically my bag. The last one I recall playing with any frequency was the original PC version of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, and after that, it was Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis. And, quite frankly, the only reason I played Herzog Zwei was because my vertically challenged friend (with something of a Napoleonic Complex) was very good at it and enjoyed stomping my ass in to the ground. Being a short guy, I had to give him something, right? And it seemed to make him happy, so there you go. I’m a good friend; what can I say.
So here I am, approximately 10+ years later, dipping my toes in the RTS wellspring once again with Firefly Studios much-anticipated, Stronghold: Warlords, and I’m pleased to report that the overall experience is quite sublime, mostly because I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to truly enjoy the minutia of resource management… and taxing the bejeezus out of lowly peasants. Maybe I WAS a feudal lord in a past life or something? Hmmm, makes you wonder…
A lesson of history
The campaign itself is constructed quite masterfully, with a wide variety of well-balanced missions (plus a tutorial and an “Easy” difficulty setting, which is a godsend to a newcomer). The historical timeline here runs the gamut from third-century Vietnam and China (the jungle kingdoms of Thuc Phan and Qin Shi Huang’s attempts to unite the warring Chinese states) through to the rise of the Japanese Shogunate (the “Japan at war” scenarios featuring Toyotomi Hideyoshi), and the coming of the Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan and the Huns, of course).
The campaign includes a straightforward mission structure with economic/diplomatic missions (most notably the “Path of Peace” with the fictional Scribe) offset by pure attack/war missions. There are also a few “either/or” decisions to be made in the campaign, which makes Stronghold: Warlords an almost infinitely re-playable experience – with the plethora of achievements, community-created maps, a “Sims-ish” free-build mode, and both local and online multiplayer/skirmish (although I couldn’t find any other players to match with and/or challenge during the beta period; same goes for community-created content at this stage of the game).
All that glitters…
As far as graphics, my mid-range rig had few problems running this game at high settings (1920x1080/16:9 full-screen resolution; V-Sync On). I had a couple of hiccups and stutters here and there, but nothing to get upset about. The art design of everything in this universe is lush, imaginative, highly detailed, and very cool… Especially the painterly, scroll-like cutscenes that introduce each campaign.
Beyond the attractive visuals, and epic, suitably Asian-tinged musical score (composed by Robert L. Euvino), the thing that truly sticks out in my mind is just how gripping the gameplay itself is in Stronghold: Warlords. Case in point: one of the missions a little more than halfway through (in the Japanese campaign), the game tasks Hideyoshi with attacking Inabayama Castle of the rival Saito clan, located on a mountaintop. Sounds simple enough, right? I gleefully plowed through the mission in what seemed to me like 15-20 minutes. When the stats/score screen loaded up at the end of the mission, I was rather incredulous to find that I was playing that mission for over ninety minutes. That hasn’t happened to me in quite a while with video games, and I applaud that level of immersion in any form of entertainment. But there were a few other missions that seemed to drag on a bit too long, and that’s when I found myself repeating the famous line from the Princess Bride, when Vizzini quips, “You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia!”
I only have a few minor gripes with this game overall. The first one being that there is no auto-save feature which bit me in the ass a few times, especially at the outset. What can I say? I’ve gotten used to this feature over the years… And I’m sure I’m not alone on this. Secondly, I found the default mouse controls a bit touchy for my liking. They can be tweaked a bit, but not all that much and, unfortunately, this led to me losing my armies in the trees or what have you when quick and decisive actions were necessary. And lastly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the voice acting here; the accents seemed off and/or overdone to my ears. I do, however, like that Firefly went out their way to hire many Asian actors to portray the Asian characters depicted in this experience.
Ultimately though, Stronghold: Warlords is a well-crafted video game that the hardcore RTS gamers and even newcomers like me cannot help but appreciate and have a blast playing. And once the online features get up-to-speed, I’m sure the RTS experts and long-standing players of the Stronghold series will enjoy the gleeful destruction (and rage-filled tears) of amateurs such as myself.
We received a copy of the game from Evolve PR company.
Jerry Bonner | Gamepressure.com