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Hear ye, ambitious lord. If ye seeketh conquest and glory, then take a gander at Warlock: Master of the Arcane. That should suffice to introduce this fantasy strategy game that takes elements from the 4X structure of exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating and then infuses that with a universe filled with magical splendor. The hex grid element, combined with a fast pace and smaller scope makes this a more streamlined epic for better or for worse. There are, however, a series of lackadaisical elements that blemish this otherwise rough gem with undeniable charm.
The game sure puts on a good first impression. A bright and lush color palette graces the screen with a good amount of varying landscapes to paint its map. Any given world can change between just fields of green to more desolate places like deserts or even wide expanses of volcanoes and lava fields. Units fill the landscape with a cornucopia of unique and properly animated models, which by itself is a reason to get enamored with Warlock.
But wait, there’s more! Aside from a soothing background track that chimes through unit grunts, coastal sounds and more white noise, the unit voice cast itself is a smile-inducing marvel. Goblins holler their arrival with much vigor, mages give snippy remarks; the full list of characters in this piece are a pleasure to interact with. There aren’t enough games that have towering Bear-men growling as they attack a city. Warlock: Master of the Arcane makes sure this hole is filled. The narrator is the sole exception to this, with a hacky Sean Connery accent that chimes in every so often. Luckily, this is immediately forgotten as the first goblin archer unleashes its arrows with a loud “Sproing!”
In order to start a game in Warlock’s sole sandbox mode, players can choose a set of different modifiers, including an important difficulty setting that will shape the whole game. The standard setting is rather easy for veterans, but the more complex ratings will bring the pain. More so, it’s even possible to customize a leader by choosing one of 3 factions and by distributing 10 points into startup skills. They’re not all equally valid, but it can add some flavor to games.
After that, it’s quickly off to the first few turns of a map where the most basic of tools are prompted. The tutorial does nothing and this will lead to eventual grievances, but luckily Warlock is smooth and easy to pick up on. Unlike most 4X strategy games, this game drops most of the micromanagement and instead offers a few simple choices mixed between gold, magic, food and research. Additionally, all the bigger busywork of empire creation is kept at bay and instead this game is set on rapid expansion and war machines. If there was such a thing as an arcade version of 4X strategy games, Warlock would be the new standard to it.
Research isn’t focused on technology; rather, it is used on new spells that can be cast if enough mana is harvested. More powerful spells require more turns to cast and from there players can choose an extensive list of options from simple attack spells, buffs, summoning creatures and so on. It’s even possible to add beneficiary effects to entire cities or even the Great Mages themselves.
Buildings only require a certain amount of population and units can be simultaneously built that require only an amount of gold. There are few production prerequisites and upkeep is as simple as managing one or two interfaces. Again, this won’t be a complete utopia, as it falls short in other aspects, but as a startup it helps newcomers and veterans alike to build up momentum like a freight train on plutonium. Before it’s noticeable, this swift pace takes the game to the second or third act and players are knee-deep in fantastical combat, complete with unit level advancement, upgrades, and buyable perks. If this review were to end right here, Warlock would be anyone’s pick of top 5 games this year, as it offers the illusion of grandeur of paragon strategy themes and cuts away the fluff to drive in a great pace and action-oriented gameplay. Hell, it even periodically amuses players with some random quests that can also favor one of its deities. There is a ton to love about this game.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, there are downsides to prioritizing gameplay in this high-fantasy game of magic and combat. For one, the war machine seems to lack balance. Once a few elite units have been buffed to capacity, they’ll pretty much patch all existing weaknesses and just a handful will tear an entire empire to shreds in as little as 3 or 4 turns. Especially given the ease of churning out units and the limited negative consequence of city expansion, a huge army can just walk in the trenches created by any given indestructible unit. Additionally, the artificial intelligence (AI) is all over the place; both struggling to get ahead and not bound to rules for expanding its armies. It’s not rare to see a downtrodden AI suddenly spawn 5 or so elite units in one turn, nor is it uncommon to see it run away from a winning situation. The one sort of alleviates the other, but there is definitely a lack of balance when it comes to adjusting to situations properly.
This is equally the case with other planes of existence and monsters. Warlock: Master of the Arcane has a commendable amount of great ideas, such as neutral factions that generate an actual important part of the map. Monsters equally tear through any landscape and make exploration and conquest just that much more appealing. Some of these powerful behemoths spawn out of mystic portals to other worlds, which can be entered and conquered. But just as the avalanche coming out of any portal is tough to tackle, going in and trying to overcome the onslaught is equally rough. It creates an extended amount of challenge, but barring a few exclusive city resources, there isn’t much point in setting off for a demonic cleansing campaign, other than to acquire even more grossly overpowered units.
Armies can also become a burden to manage, as there is no quick way to mobilize; units on an automated route turn into idiots and defensive options are limited. Then there’s the occasional glitch, such as dispelling a negative enchantment simply by clicking it.
Diplomacy is shallow and doesn’t seem to have logical solutions. Even if an enemy is getting trounced, it will refuse all sanity until it’s good and ready to offer peace. Then it will come back with that same proposal every turn.
Yet, for all these issues with varying importance, none are as irksome as the total lack of in-game documentation. As mentioned, virtually nothing is explained in Warlock, yet inside knowledge is required to produce more powerful buildings and units, research better spells and so on. The game has vague prompts of what can lead to what, but other than that it remains unclear how to get from point A to point B and other elements are just not explained beyond a one-liner. It’s unfathomable how any expansive title would not try and gather some sort of glossary in order to give its players the necessary tools to map out a strategy. For instance, spells are divided in the research tab on a star, but there’s no way of telling what spell branch will lead to what spell. It’s hard to plan strategies based on speculation. That puts a serious strain on this experience and shows the bad side of its more superficial approach. This holds the same truths for sub-menus, as there are none. It’s commendable that Warlock doesn’t want to bore us with otherwise tedious micromanagement, but having a tab to locate units, look at city production on the fly or any of these options would’ve been nice, not to mention necessary.
Yet, by trimming so much, too much even, Warlock also generates a much faster pace that is noticeable both in gameplay as in system strain. By offering a smaller focus, load times are severely cut down to almost nothing and even enemy moves can simply be clicked away. If one thing is certain about this game, it’s that it wants you to be playing it right this very instance, with no waiting time. A sizable bonus is that it doesn’t even come at the cost of a lot of the visual appeal, as the game runs smooth with tons of lavish added effects on even more modest setups. This is a high point often missed by most developers, so it’s great to see a game offer the best of both worlds for once.
It’s a shame that Warlock: Master of the Arcane has set obvious priorities in design choices, as some come back to shoot it in the throat, rather than just its foot. With little clarity and a shallow nature, this otherwise enchanting pillar of arcade goodness is left with a sizable blemish. It’s a focus that welcomes all, but befuddles all as well. Still, beyond that lies what is one of the most refreshing and endearing strategy games with a huge scale and small focus that takes the best of many elements and combines it in a truly captivating title. It needs a ton of care, but as an introduction or just an alternative to 4X strategy, this game presents something new for everyone to enjoy.
Addendum: Usually I try not to make arbitrary comparisons, as one-liners are often not enough to explain intricate games. In this case though, I thought it might help some niches weigh off choices. Warlock takes the best element of Civilization V, namely hexes that enhance strategic gameplay. It takes the best of Civilization IV with its deities and random events. And it takes the best of Civilization Revolution, which is the much faster pace, without toning down the experience. It leans the most on the latter and is most reminiscent of fantasy title Master of Magic, but without the lighter aftertaste. Take that as you will.
|Warlock: Master of the Arcane could be described by merely altering one letter of its name. Warlock: Master of the ArcaDe would have strategy fans as well as onlookers piqued with its fresh take on world conquest. A plethora of great ideas get severely stumped by prioritizing swift advancement above all else; but still, this game has a small gem hidden inside its many foibles.|