Warlock: Master of the Review
Gaze into that pic (gaze harder) and tell me it doesn’t look like Civilization V to you. Right, right—it doesn’t look like Civ V to you, but I’m sure you can see how everyone else might assume that Warlock: Master of the Arcane from Paradox Interactive is a mod-gone-commercial. Which is really doing it a disservice. Because even though Warlock looks like Civ V minus the culture and happiness mechanics and polish and broken tactical AI, Warlock has an abundance of soul. You know, the one resource that Civ V desperately lacked.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a member of the delightful sub-genre of jealous mages, wizards, demigods… fine, and warlocks, all of whom have the lofty aim of inheriting the world by exterminating anyone else with a chance at power. Which places it in good company with such games as the classic Master of Magic and the more-recent Conquest of Elysium 3 (which I may have written about a few times). Of course, the downside to standing in such tall company is that you run the risk of looking pathetically husky, so it’s with relief that I can say that Warlock passes the first test of any turn-based game by being addicting. It’s possibly the best compliment that I can pay Warlock to tell you that to write this review I started a new game with the intent of taking a few screenshots of the character generation screen and the starting layout, and two hours later I’d forged an empire that spanned three micro-continents and was well on its way to total domination.
As you can see above, there are plenty of options to choose from when designing your warlock. There are only three races to choose from—human, monster, and undead—which sounds limited until you run into an enemy warlock and discover that each of these archetypes are broad enough that you aren’t going to exhaust the game’s variety in a mere handful of plays. Beyond that, your warlock can choose from a selection of perks and initial spells. Most of the perks are boring +x% bonuses (as with my “Trader” perk above, which gives me a 20% bonus to gold income), but some of them are much more interesting, such as the “Master of Blades” perk that lets me begin the game with a giant warrior in addition to my usual puny rogues and ranged hunters.
A single extra unit might not sound like much, but the High Blademaster turns out to be a sound investment when on turn one I run into the independent city of Wizdorn. With nothing else to do but begin building my capital’s infrastructure and researching new magic spells, I march my army north to hopefully nab an early second city. This results in Wizdorn sending out a pack of rogues against my giant, which hilariously ends with the rogues all but wiped out and my giant feeling fine and gaining a pretty pile of experience points.
You’ll be doing lots of this. Warlock is all about combat—unlike Civilization, you aren’t going to be winning by building lots of theaters or spaceship boosters. Instead, it’s over when you’ve heaped your enemies’ skulls into a makeshift throne. With that in mind, the fighting starts early and only lets up long enough for you to find someone else to conquer. Everything you build in your cities feeds into this: there is no happiness to manage, no culture to expand. There are religions, but they’re Old Testament genuflect-and-I’ll-give-you-huscarls types of religion, and they’re entirely optional. Structures fuel economies of gold and food, permit new and better units to be recruited, and act as defensive forts to block and rain fire on enemy movements. Beyond that, who on earth cares about culture when there’s a war of wizards on?
I realize that the Civilization comparison is increasingly inapt—especially since I hear the game is based on the engine that powered the enjoyable Elven Legacy, which I cannot confirm (too lazy) but sounds about right given that game’s strong hex-based tactical combat. Still, it’s hard to not draw parallels when the game feels like it was 50% influenced by some of Civilization V’s most recognizable systems—which were, incidentally, often Civ V’s most mishandled. The one-unit-per-hex rule is in effect (which, as a hater of doomstacks, pleased me in theory and disappointed me in fact in Civ V), though here the tactical AI will actually give you a decent fight on harder difficulty levels. Once the proper prerequisite has been met (a harbor, I believe), your land troops will be able to transform into fragile boats, eliminating the need for specific transport units. And plenty of special resources are scattered around the world, just begging to be exploited.
It’s that exploitation that makes city-building interesting. Unlike Civilization, you can build your city structures anywhere. A farm can be built on a hilly tundra forest for all the game cares, and any terrain under your control gives a movement bonus, so there’s no need to chisel roads into the landscape. While this can be convenient, it also has the unfortunate result of making cities feel samey, as there’s never much reason to place structures in any specific spot—you can plop your farms on hills and your windmills in the valleys without any murmur of discontent. The exception appears with special resources. Take a look at Livendell, which is built near to two brownish resources. These are minotaur dens. When you bring a special resource under your control, you can build special structures, and often these special structures will present maddening decisions. In this instance, a minotaur den will permit me to either construct a Minotaur Palace, which will let me recruit tough minotaur troops, or a Minotaur Labyrinth, which will let me train my infantry with the “Tried by Labyrinth” perk, which gives them a whopping 30% bonus to their melee attacks. It was sheer luck that I was able to build a city near to two instances of this rare resource—for the most part, these are real decisions with lasting consequences. Donkeys, for instance, will give human players either a huge boost to that city’s gold income, or powerful Stubborn Knights that cannot be routed (and which are fairly expensive to maintain).
The other exception to Warlock’s dull city building are the defensive structures. Rather than just conferring a bonus to the city’s natural defenses, they place actual forts and towers on the map. These locations block enemy movement and shoot arrows or magic in their direction. In the above pic, my expansion off my starting island is blocked by a sea serpent. The only affordable ships are too weak to dislodge this monster and clear its nest, so a well-placed magic tower chips away at the creature until it’s weak enough for my tiny navy to finish off. With the strait cleared, my army is free to set sail for browner pastures:
If you can’t already tell, I’ll say it outright: I’m a big fan of this type of game, and for the most part Warlock nails it. Still, there are a few major downsides that need fixing before I can fully endorse it.
First of all, the AI. I can say that it’s very tactically competent, which is a humongous relief. The AI knows what to do with its troops for the most part, and unlike Civ V, you’ll never see archers bravely charging up a hill and into a spear formation. However, I’m unconvinced of the AI’s strategic side. I’ve watched multiple computer nations fail to thrive, ignoring nearby resources or succumbing to attacks from the game’s monsters. In fact, the constant spawning from monster dens around the map has usually given me more trouble in the late game than most of my artificial opponents. Once you’ve got the AI on the ropes, they aren’t going to figure out a way to turn the tides—they’ll just hold out for a while. Sometimes a long and boring while. To its credit, the AI will often offer alliances and make absurd demands, which makes it about 300% better than most strategy games, but to see a nation that you’ve soundly thumped offer you diminishing bribes with every turn is a bit sad.
My second issue is that there isn’t currently any multiplayer, which perplexes me. This is the perfect game to add to my play-by-email group (hear that, Paradox? That’s like five guaranteed sales!), and multiplayer would go a long way towards diminishing my first complaint, since I wouldn’t have to rely on playing the AI. I have no idea if there are currently plans for adding multiplayer, but I hope so, because I consider it the number one addition that would transform this game into something truly worthy of love.
Third, I wish the magic system were a bit more balanced. As it stands, it’s a confusing buffet of research options. There’s no tree, just a random-ish selection of possible spells to learn at any given time. Unfortunately, there are a ton of spells, and it’s too easy to learn them all and then never cast any of them because there are too many vaguely differentiated options. Despite having all kinds of elemental blasts, summons, and enchantments to cast, I find myself relying on the basic heal spell more than anything, with the occasional death bolt or summoned imps tossed in. You can also earn spells by increasing your reputation with the game’s various gods, but there doesn’t seem to be much benefit for all the trouble you have to go to in courting those prima donnas. For a game that’s ostensibly about magicians, the magic sure needs some balancing to be worthwhile.
At any rate, I consider Warlock worth a purchase. My final score is that if Warlock: Master of the Arcane were one of its power-hungry mages, he’d win, but it would take a while, and he’d only have won against AI opponents, thus tarnishing a potentially great victory.