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Warlock: Master of the Arcane [Review] – A wizard wheeze

7 May 2012  by   Tim McDonald
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Describing something as a light strategy game has never sat well with me. Light shooter? Sure. Light RPG? I can go with that. But when I think strategy, I think “deep, complex, and involving,” which are words that “light” doesn’t bring to mind. So, in case you’re as pedantic as me and feel that “light strategy” is a bit of an oxymoron (despite there being many decent light strategy games) we’re going to go with “streamlined”.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a streamlined strategy game. And, for all of the above, it’s actually pretty damn good.

The lazy way of describing Warlock would be to say it’s like a hybrid of turn-based strategy king Civilization V and ageing Microprose classic Master of Magic. That’s also an interesting way of describing it as, despite giving you the right idea as to how it plays, it’s a description that’s wrong in almost every particular.

So here are the basics: Warlock is a turn-based strategy game in which you control a prospective empire (like Civ and MoM). You play a fully-customisable mage controlling one of three distinct factions, and use medieval troops and fantasy creatures – in addition to magic – to expand your empire and conquer your neighbours (like MoM). Everything’s hex-based and there’s no unit stacking, the upshot being that you can only have one set of troops in any given hex, and only one unit can really “attack” at once (like Civilization V).

The differences? Just about everything else.

For starters, understand that Warlock is a game about war. While there are elements of economy, research, and diplomacy, they very much take a backseat to crushing your enemies. Everything – everything – feeds into unit creation, and conquest, and destruction. This is not a game in which you can manipulate your opponents; you can’t steal research from one, trade it to another to hold off an attack, and then win with a diplomatic victory. There are victory conditions apart from total global conquest, but with the way things work, you’ll be fairly lucky to hit one before the point where you’re strong enough to win by force anyway.

Most of the non-combat elements are a tad anaemic, in fact. City-building is there to get you more powerful troops, and to grow your economy to pay for more powerful troops; there’s no real cross-city infrastructure. Research is there for spells, which are – again – either there to buoy up your economy or to be used for battle. Diplomacy is a means of holding off your opponents temporarily.

And I really do mean temporarily. Thus far, every game I’ve played has had alliances and non-aggression pacts fall apart incredibly quickly. There are no trade pacts or research pacts, no asking people to get out of your territory, and no counter-negotiation. If an opposing mage demands 200 gold, you either pay up or it’s instant war. In fact, I’m pretty sure every game I’ve played has had a full-blown war within 50 turns, and every game’s late stages have devolved into a massive free-for-all brawl. War is the default state. If you’ve got a peace treaty with even one person, you must be doing something right.

The reason I’m laying all of this out immediately is that anyone coming into this looking for a variation of Civilization is liable to be a bit disappointed. This is a strategy game focused on war. If you’re a diplomatic player; if you prefer building up a cultural empire; or if you want to do anything other than shuffle your armies around hexes and fight pitched battles for cities, then this really isn’t the game for you. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind.
And that’s not to say that the simple economy model is stupid, in any way. Every unit requires upkeep, but so too does almost every building: planning out your cities so that you can afford an army and some high-level buildings takes a bit of thought. Getting your economy balanced well enough that you can actually take enemy cities without immediately dropping your income into the negative, due to the upkeep on any surviving buildings, is also a bit more difficult than you’d think.

But the combat is where the effort has really gone in, and it shows. Melee units can only attack adjacent hexes; flying units can only be hit by ranged units; ranged units can attack over multiple hexes; some units are only effective against buildings. Building a cohesive force capable of dealing with threats and taking cities is imperative, and – while there’s no way to design your own units – they’re all heavily customisable through upgrades and levelling.

Units gain experience every turn, and even more when they fight. Each time they level up, you can choose one of three buffs – perhaps this group of vampires should have an aura protecting adjacent units against missile attacks, or maybe this earth elemental should do some bonus poison damage – and with monetary upgrades also available when you build certain structures in your town, you can tailor your force to your specifications. Factor in buffs via spells, teleportation, some direct damage abilities, and summonable units, and you’ve got an entire extra dimension. It’s a bit of a shame the spells don’t go further – I’d have liked to have seen some world-rending powers in the late game, because I’m the sort of cold-hearted bastard who likes raising volcanoes next to enemy cities – but they certainly work to give you something extra to think about.

The core principle seems to be to build up smaller, more experienced forces; a carefully-upgraded handful of units can hold off forever against hordes of weaker enemies crashing up against them. Sadly, the AI doesn’t seem to have noticed this, and will routinely give free experience to a high-level unit by smashing cheap, crap units into it.

In fact, the AI has a few other quirks. Its weird idea of diplomacy aside (which may include it annoying you into peace by suing for peace every single turn with the same damn terms) there’s a nasty tendency to go for the wrong units first in combat, or to spend its time building naval units in a 2×2 lake, or to – as mentioned above – hurt itself by hurling mass-produced units at a wall at exactly the wrong time. Not exactly ideal for a game which only has single-player. Ratcheting up the difficulty doesn’t seem to help much, either; I’ve seen the AI pull off some clever ploys but I’ve also seen it do very silly things, and I suspect the difficulty level stacks things against you rather than improving the calibre of your opponents. On the plus side, the portraits and voice acting make me hate every single one of the smug bastards I’ve ever fought against, and that’s something I always like to see in my foes.

Considering how warlike your opponents are, though, it’s still not all that easy a game to win, and the forethought required to keep your economy ticking over works nicely with the combat to create something that’s pretty hard to put down. So far, the quickest I’ve managed to stop playing Warlock after saying “oh no, I have no food in, I need to go to the shops before I starve to death” is about an hour (by which time the shops were, inevitably, shut). One-more-turn syndrome is in full effect here, and that’s pretty much the highest recommendation I can offer for any turn-based strategy title.

Special mention should also go out to the user interface. While there are a few issues – there’s an inability to check out a unit or an upgrade’s stats before you’ve created the corresponding building, and a “history” text box to see what spells have been cast on what units by what opponents would be nice – the game clearly points out everything that requires your personal attention on each turn, from which units are standing idle to which cities are ready for a new building. The economy tabs are laid out nicely so that you can see where your cash is coming from and where it’s going, and so for the most part the game does everything it can to help you out on a turn-by-turn basis.

So yes, Warlock is a streamlined strategy game, at a cut price, and that is absolutely no bad thing. It has a few unfortunate quirks, but if you fancy something a bit lighter and a bit more combat-focused than the usual fare, then you’ll get at least a few dozen hours of entertainment from this rather enjoyable title.

Recommended to anyone itching for something that's a bit like Civ, a bit like Master of Magic, and a lot like something entirely different.
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