Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a new grand strategy game from those lovely people at Paradox Interactive. And, as you can see from the screenshots, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Civilization V - is it just the same game with a different skin? Or is there more to it than that?
Well, without spoiling the rest of the review, Warlock does share many, many characteristics with Civilization V (and most other 4X games.) You control cities and armies, spending turns building up your empire and trying to defeat your opponents or working towards one of the victory conditions. Warlock’s combat is also very similar to Civilization’s - with the controversial “one unit per tile” rule firmly in place and archers able to fire for about 5 miles without handicap. In fact, as time and space are essentially finite, it’s probably better for me to tell you which bits of Warlock differ from the norm - so that you can decide whether you want to buy it.
Ratmen. More games need ratmen.
To start with, and pretty obviously with a name like Warlock: Master of the Arcane, this is a game with a fantasy setting. You can play as one of three different races (humans, monsters or undead) - each with different buildings and different units. One of the best bits about Warlock is the sheer number of potential troop types available to you. From goblin archers to rogues, imps, ghost wolves, zombies, earth elementals, rats, strong rats and ratmen - the roster reads like a who’s who of every fantasy game of the past thirty years. What’s more, as your minions fight they gain experience and you can pick perks to enhance their lethality (lethalness?). There is something very exciting about creating and commanding your own fantasy army and letting it loose to lay waste to the surrounding countryside - and this provides one of the main reasons to play Warlock.
This is certainly helped by the fact that the world that you live in (and lay waste to) is full to the brim with monsters. You can’t move three hexes without bumping into the mangy little beggars. This makes your surroundings much more of a living, breathing environment than would otherwise be the case. The monsters are a source of experience for your troops, and their lairs provide loot for your budding kingdom - but they also make you feel like you are exploring, rather than just trying to work towards your victory goal. There is a real sense with this game that there are secrets and wonders hidden away behind the fog of war that surrounds you. A good example of this are the sea monsters. A Leviathan, or a sea serpent, will quickly kill your caravel or equivalent in a way that is reminiscent of old maps with “here be dragons” fearfully scrawled across them. The world is full of dangers for your troops,especially at the beginning of the game, and this can lend some genuine tension to moving units before you have gained access to the more powerful armies.
Welcome to the new world, same as the old world
This sense of exploration is enhanced by another addition to Warlock - alternate planes. There are portals on the world map which lead to locations in dimensions other than your own. Your troops can go through these and explore these worlds, which often contain great perils and great rewards. It’s a good idea, but unfortunately the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The new dimensions don’t actually appear to be too different to your own. They use the same tileset and the rewards are the standard gold or mana - there are just a lot of powerful monsters living there. It would have been great if these worlds were truly different and your troops were transported to a hell, or a heaven - or something truly remarkable. As it is, they provide a nice distraction and a challenge but it could have been so much more.
Another difference between Warlock and other strategy games is that, well, you are a warlock. This may sound obvious but, as an archmage, you are able to research spells. This takes the place of the more normal technology research that appears in (cough) other games and provides another strategic dimension to the goings on. Spells can have many and varied effects - teleportation, summoning, buffs for your troops or the more direct fireball and its ilk which deal damage straight to your enemies. These can often turn the tide of a battle, but beware because your enemies also possess them and will use them often and to great effect.
So this all sounds great - it’s a grand strategy game with a fantasy setting, alternate dimensions, loads of cool troops to command and some decent spells with which to destroy large portions of the countryside. What’s not to love? Well, unfortunately it’s not all rosy and there are some problems that we probably need to talk about.
It might look like butter wouldn’t melt but she’s evil, EVIL I TELL YOU!
Let’s start with diplomacy. It is present but it is very limited. You can ally or trade with other mages, you can declare war or you can demand tribute and that’s about it. If another mage contacts you to ask for gold or mana then the only options available are “yes, take all my stuff” or “no, have at you sir, this is war”. There are no subtleties, no negotiations, nothing except “yes” or “no”. It’s all very basic, and this is a shame because it turns the other leaders, who actually look quite interesting and varied, into mere pictures because they all act the same. For example, in a recent game I bumped into “Anna the Benign”. I reasoned that she’d probably be a pacifist, especially as my leader was also a human good type. Before long, however, she was gleefully breaking stereotypes, demanding gold and threatening war. The leaders don’t seem to have any personalities of their own, they all give the same responses to the same situations as their peers.
Another probem area is religion. This is present in Warlock but it is, again, undefined and very basic. There are eight gods in Ardania and your relationship with them varies according to whether you complete their quests or not. If you annoy a god sufficiently he will send an avatar to smite you, and defeating this is one of the ways to win the game. On the other hand, cultivate a decent working relationship with a god and you can access extra units and different spells. This all sounds good, but there are no backgrounds to any of them. They’re just names. You can work out a bit about them from the spells they control but it would have been so much better to know who it is exactly that you’re worshipping. If you’re playing the Lich King you don’t want to be following some namby pamby nature god, do you?
Hang on... you’re an ELF?!?
And both of these issues reflect a more general problem with Warlock. It lacks polish. For example when you have finished giving orders to a unit you have to press the “Assign Orders” button to move on to the next, the game doesn’t do that automatically. You can feel sometimes that you are fighting the interface and it makes moving a large number of troops a real chore. Similarly the spell research screen doesn’t seem to follow any system. You would expect that all fire spells, or all healing spells, or all summon spells or however you want to classify them would follow on from each other but they don’t. The selection appears to be completely random. It means that you can’t follow a particular path for your mage, because you don’t know which path to follow or even if there is a path at all.
So where does this leave us? It would be easy to dismiss Warlock as just a Civ V mod. It isn’t, and I think that this is lazy and unfair. It’s true that it does share a lot of similarities with its “inspiration” but it also introduces and uses a number of other really interesting ideas. However, the main problem is that a lot of these ideas aren’t implemented fully, or with enough polish. As it stands the game should be commended for creating a very good strategy / exploration mix, and allowing the player to assemble a motley fantasy army with which to wreak havoc - but it could have been so much more. It falls just short of greatness, and that is a real shame.