With Stronghold Warlords on our doorstep, Stronghold will get a new spin-off member after the release of Stronghold Crusader 2 in 2014. Known since 2016, Warlords have been in the works for more than 4 years. While it's a considerable timespan, the series saw a lot of games since the first game, with different reviews and themes.
Sit back, as I glance through the history of the Stronghold series and assess, how Firefly Studios handled themselves and their games, and if they truly lived up to their potential, judged by the community.
Warlords' precarious position
Stronghold Warlords is the newest aspirant in bringing the 'Stronghold' feeling. Its unique theme of relating entirely to history for the first time since Crusader caught the attention of many RTS-fans, as well as the promising Warlords system shifts emphasis from a player's individual mechanical skill to a higher political level.
With the Internet's close proximity and widespread availability, Firefly Studios launched a community Discord server, where people can come together discussing various topics, as well as participate in events to get information first-hand and get closer to each other. Also, the studios' official YouTube channel is more lively than ever, drip-feeding information and getting insights in the hard-working staff's working days. Yet, the majority of the community watches Warlord's evolution from a safe distance.
Out of the Stronghold games, the community ranks either Stronghold or Stronghold Crusader the highest, be it on either Reddit or Discord. These are the first two games that have been around for 20 years, bringing their unique recipe of castle management, supplying troops and interacting with various characters. Stronghold 2 follows them, and the rest of the games are roughly in correlation with time passing, except for the exceptional absolute negative for Stronghold 3. This leads to an overall average reputation for the Stronghold Series since around Legends, which has unsurprisingly planted seeds of confusion and nervousness among the community.
The sidesteps of Legends
Perhaps it is Stronghold Legends that was the first game not to have met with a general acclaim from the community. It has derived greatly from the realistic storylines to pure fantasy, introducing a lot of units and dynamic battles. It is also the only Stronghold game that consists of entirely different factions (not counting the merely cosmetic Arab/Crusader lords), laying out a recipe for different strategies and match-ups.
Despite its various optimizations and polish over Stronghold 2, Legends didn't quite hit the mark. While the game offers a truly unique experience, its world doesn't feel as memorable as the previous game. While its various campaigns are centered around fantasy lore and partly history (Vlad's campaign) that could be engaging, they do not feel as engaging and lively, as in the previous games, due to the characters being relatively stale. Legends omits interactive videos from the characters and relegates them only to avatars in a crystal ball. The characters' lines are mostly repetitive (eyeing at you, Beowulf) and while they are unique enough, they have no detailed backgrounds or distinctive personalities.
It doesn't help either that there are only 6 characters available in Skirmish mode. In my opinion, two characters per faction is not enough to provide variety in terms of challenge. Moreover, the difficulties are laughably polarized: the Good players and Dietrich are easy, Siegfried and Mordred are challenging, and Vlad is hard. Interestingly, there are also two campaign-only opponents, who could definitely have been featured here as well (Beowulf and Alfred the Great). Their inclusion would have definitely helped bring diversity to the overall experience.
In addition to the few opponents, Legends maps are also ridiculously small and uninspired, allowing for a maximum of 4 players. While this number is perfectly fine for human multiplayer, the offline player would definitely want battles in larger scales, however they were denied this possibility. It is no wonder that this is the only game with 4 player Skirmish maps.
An ambitious game left in the dust: Stronghold 3
Stronghold 3 by many is the worst title, not deserving mention due to the overall bad gameplay experience. Seeing a hasty release before a reasonable deadline, Firefly Studios continued to fix numerous bugs in the game until a point when the game was simply ceased to develop and buried. It is well-known that the game was riddled with errors and it was mostly unstable. Yet, it brought numerous new elements: physics, streamlined game mechanics, the continuation of Stronghold 1's story and many more. Even after the disastrous release of the game, Firefly didn't pick up and attempt to fix what they easily could have, despite the community's wish to do so. It is mostly the story and the very presence of bugs that broadcast the unfinished state of SH3: uncolored cutscene sketches, lack of characters, lack of Skirmish mode and bland(-ish) story The game engine and the potential there however was high-quality. Stronghold 3 looks good, even though its effects are rather rudimentary. An AI logic could also have been added, instead of coping with the naive invasion AI that controls troops. If a year or so were to spend with the game, we would never have the SH3 we currently know. It is highly suspected that the way to perfection went on with Crusader 2.
The reuse of a recipe in Crusader 2
Crusader 2 is the attempt to fix and innovate many of the aspects that made the original Crusader great: gameplay. The reimplementation of the 'golden formula' in 3D is by no means an easy challenge. Firefly went on carrying it out by adding new troops, dynamic mechanics and revamping the economy system, putting a huge emphasis on popularity and taxing. The core balance were retained, however many more units gained utility through passives and abilities. All in all, the gameplay was intriguing. The problem with Crusader 2 however is that not much effort was put in either the backstory or the other functionalities as well. There are lots of Skirmish campaigns, however they do not follow a story like in Stronghold 1, and they are all the same recipe, just with different enemies. Story campaigns are also non-existant, nor we can find historic recollections of past events. Due to this, Crusader 2 feels barely any more than Stronghold 3, however the game is much less buggy and the Skirmish mode is repeatable enough for a good experience. It must be noted that Firefly attempted to open towards the community with a brand new website and putting up Q&A videos. This was however not carried out in a very open way, due to the community not being interactively communicated with and listened to properly. DLCs were also supplied with the game over 2 years, however they barely brought anything new other than AI characters and skirmish campaigns.
The community as the mainline
Firefly Studios is a slow learner, there's no doubt. The lack of communication and listening to the community may very well have deprived all above games from evolving into something much better, polished and full of content. All of these games carry a sign of not enough work and lack of desire to finish and expand on their foundations. Platforms and forums have been existing for a very long time, where a bond could have been built between the fans and Firefly.
Warlords is perhaps the first game, where the community's feedback is continuously digested and the fans are kept in touch with. It is possible that if Warlords steps into beta phase, the community could help shape it into a complete game.