Warlock: Master of the Arcane is down with QQP

, | Game reviews

You have to come to Warlock on its own terms rather than holding against it that it looks like Civ V. This isn’t an epic strategy game in the traditional sense of the genre, where you build farms on plains and mines on hills and watch the cities grow accordingly. You will never set your tax rate, manage happiness, choose a government, or finesse diplomacy. Instead, Warlock is armies and spells and that’s pretty much it. It is a throwback to the sleeker fantasy wars of QQP, SSG, and, of course, SSI. If those letters don’t mean anything to you, this is going to be a new kind of strategy game.

After the jump, let’s do the monster mash

Warlock is all about armies beating each other up. The interplay of damage types. The various movement options and special abilities. The tech upgrades and perks from leveling up. All the fiddly bits that would have been part of city development in another game are instead focused on your armies. You cultivate them, grow them, upgrade them. Like any good RPG, you work your way up a leveling curve, going from killing — and recruiting — rats to recruiting — and killing — dragons. The path you take from the rats to the dragons is the story of Warlock.

The mostly good interface clicks you quickly through every upgrade, attack, and move. A few more hotkeys would have helped, and the button placement can be tortuous. But as far as a game about shuffling armies goes, Warlock is fast, easy, and focused.

The map is mostly for battles. You fuss with marching through forests and around mountains. You don’t fuss with putting your cities on plains or coasts. This isn’t Civ. Instead, placing cities is an easy matter of plopping them near special resources, most of which force a difficult choice. Do you use those gems for the income to buy more units and upgrades, or do they go toward making defensive trinkets for your spellcasters? Will you eat those pumpkins, or brew them into a magic healing potion? Will your next city upgrade unlock advanced units or the capacity to feed more units? These are one-time fire-and-forget decisions, not unlike the perks you choose when an army levels up, and they keep the game snappy. It’s exactly as much infrastructure as Warlock needs. The recent Conquest of Elysium 3 is always and only about the armies. The Civ games are largely about the city management. Warlock sits comfortably and confidently in the space between them.

As befits a fantasy game, the spells are huge for how dramatically they can swing the balance, either by letting you nuke stuff, or by letting you tune your units, or any combination between the two. Research dribbles out spells over time without giving you much control over the process. It’s like a tech tree, but without the tree. Call it a tech pot. You occasionally dip a spoon into the pot. Special nodes on the map support temples that align you with gods, unlocking advanced spells (and also unlocking a clever victory condition in which you can fight a god’s avatar). This is a satisfying touch of personal choice in lieu of a tech tree. Streamlining in action. See? Religion doesn’t have to be a big hassle.

There are only three races, but the asymmetry among the races is fantastic. The boundaries between them are relatively soft in that you can freely play with another race’s toys when you capture one of its cities. Heroes of Might and Magic discouraged mismatched armies with a morale system, but Warlock just dings production and city growth. This isn’t a very sharply felt disincentive unless you’re playing the harder difficulty levels.

And here’s where Warlock sorely needs a stronger guiding hand from the designers. It’s far too easy to click through the default set-up options and end up in a tedious unchallenging sprawl of open real estate and stalled AI opponents. After a hundred turns, Warlock will be a game about clicking through another hundred turns on the way to an inevitable ending. But on smaller maps — or, more accurately, on maps stocked with enough AI players — the inevitable mopping up phase is short enough to be tolerable.

The AI is particularly good at the tactical level, although it seems to fall apart when it comes to the larger issues of expanding and conquering. For instance, a typical Warlock map is built from a main world and a few pocket dimensions behind magic portals. These dimensions are like lucrative New Worlds, stocked with valuable unique resources and powerful enemies. The AI doesn’t seem to know how to get out there, which puts it at a disadvantage once you’re bringing back valuable metals, jewels, and dragon eggs. And when the AI is aggressive — and it can certainly be aggressive — its attacks might be best described as “feisty”. In other words, great AI for a terrier, but not ideal for a would-be conqueror.

Multiplayer support could have taken up a lot of the slack on these issues, but Warlock is single-player only. Which is a shame given that the snappy pace, unique armies, and tactical detail are ideal for multiplayer. But tuning issues aside, Warlock is a fantasy strategy game that’s more than just Civilization with dragons and elves because it’s not Civilization at all. Far too many strategy games rely on Sid Meiers’ classic formula, often bogging down in the process. It’s nice to see a developer getting back to the basics and down in the trenches with goblins, werewolves, skeletons, dragons, clerics and the odd angry fireball.

3 stars