Everything about Stronghold: Warlords feels designed to challenge what you think you know about standard RTS games. That’s the impression the short preview build left me with. Unit formations liven up each combat encounter, making them feel more like the rewarding tactical rank and file battles of a Total War game than a drag-and-click pile-up. Complex trade, resource chains, and fortifications reward settlement planning, and classic Dawn of War-style point capture – with the prize the titular Warlords – keeps the fronts of battle ever-shifting. It’s brilliantly cerebral and highly involved at the same time.
I’ll talk about all that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about exploding suicide oxen. Strapping an ox with gunpowder and sending them to eviscerate the enemy may be of questionable historical accuracy to the game’s 3rd century BC China setting (or, maybe not!), but honestly, it’s too much fun to care.
Even outside the oxen, Warlords is far from limited to archers and footmen. The preview build kicks you off with a fire arrow cart, able to decimate enemies foolish enough to clump themselves together. There’s also catapults, ladders, and other siege equipment to counter enemy fortifications.
All of these units are based on the historical East Asian cultures the game portrays. The preview let me play around as the Vietnamese kingdom of u Lạc, while the full game promises that players will get to explore the “founding of the Qin dynasty, Japanese shogunate and eventually the arrival of Genghis Khan on the world stage.” The Shogun themselves have no shortage of digital real estate, of course, but getting to spend some time with ancient Vietnamese cultures has me very excited.
Resources being key to victory in an RTS are par for the course, but Warlords stands out for having intricate resource chains that support each other. You won’t just need buildings to gather resources, but peasants to work the buildings, houses for the peasants to live in, and food for them to eat. There’s diplomatic concerns as well, both in how you treat the people in your own kingdom and how you interact with subjugated Warlords. All in all, while it still feels about as abstracted as you’d expect for a strategy game that keeps the action moving, Stronghold: Warlords weaves together far more individual elements of kingdom ruling and warfare than many games, and feels all the richer for it. There’s a lot more moving parts, but it avoids feeling needlessly fiddly.
From what I could tell from the preview build, Warlords work very much like a resource capture point in a Relic game, like Dawn of War or Company of Heroes, but with some nifty touches. You can attack neutral warlords at any time, and once you’ve brought them to heel, you can spend diplomacy points – generated from buildings – to request resource deliveries. These resources then aid you in the conquest of your main opponent for that map. You can also spend diplomacy to upgrade these Warlords, increasing their efficiency. Since these Warlords can then be re-captured by your opponent, I wasn’t sure on whether these upgrades carry over, or disappear, so hopefully this gets cleared up.
Combat is the standout here, purely because of how important positioning and formation ends up being. You can tell your shield lads to line up, for example, creating a wall for your archers, who can then pepper any incoming assaults. Combined with the fortifications, it feels like Warlords puts far more stock in clever area control than straight-up aggression, which is refreshing.
If you can get over the unashamedly 90’s UI – that might even be a plus for some you – I’d say this is one to look forward to when it launches on 26th January. It’s very much the sort of experimental, crunchy strategy outing that makes PC gaming so unique and special, warts and all, and looks like a fine addition to a beloved series.