PC Game Review: Warlock: Master of the Arcane
By building temples and casting spells, Chris Massey faces-off against demigods in this fantasy 4X real-time strategy game.
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Warlock: Master of…Magic?
When I first discovered Warlock: Master of the Arcane, lurking on the Steam store, I first thought to myself: “Mmmm, could be a Master of Magic.” I sure miss that game. This is a common problem I have with new games. I constantly compare them to older, classic games, usually as soon as I read a blurb about them. I’m turning forty this year (how did that happen?), and for over half of my life upon this planet (closer to 80 percent), I’ve been playing games of all sorts and sizes, PC and console and more. So I’ve amassed a fair bit of history with bits of plastic, electronics and even these new-fangled disc objects; not to mention the magic of digital downloads. Anyway, when I do purchase a new game and fire it up for the first time I find myself constantly comparing the new to the old, looking for it to bring that same magic that only nostalgia coupled with great gameplay can bring. This is, of course, mostly futile and not the greatest method for one to enjoy a new piece of software. But, alas, history has a way of creeping-up on a person. Forty? Really?
Truthfully, I can barely remember much about Master of Magic, but I know I enjoyed it a lot. I imagine, were I to purchase it from GOG.com (kisses) I might enjoy it again. I may just do that in the near future. Truth is, I did play it a bunch, but I was mainly exercising my meager 4X talent on another title around the same time—Master of Orion and its first sequel. I stopped at the third iteration—blasphemous piece of software...
So, when I fired up Warlock: Master of the Arcane for the very first time I was expecting a vague memory of a classic 4X strategy game released nearly 20 years ago, but instead I witnessed…a Civilization V mod? Hex-based? Check. Beautiful? Check. Tactical combat? Check. Similar UI? Check. It’s a very pretty game, and if you’re going to copy a game might as well make it a great one. The interface in Civ V was streamlined and easy to use. The same is true of Warlock. And although there were many similarities with Civ V, truthfully, I eventually discovered that I liked the graphics in Warlock a bit better. They are brighter, and the units are much cooler to look at. I mean, it could be my general love for fantasy and sci-fi games, filled with flying ships throwing magic about trump musketmen .
Setting up a game is quite straightforward, and is as recognizable as just about any other 4X strategy game, really: choose a map size, number of opponents, number of worlds (more on this later), type of landmass, choose a leader, etc… You can opt for pre-defined leaders, with perks and such chosen for you, or you can switch it up by picking your own spells and perks with the 10 points you are given to do so. Click on start and boom! It’s game on…and I mean that. Warlock’s interface may look like other well known strategy, and has borrowed many other conventions from the latest strategy games, but it doesn’t mess around for 50 turns before getting down to business. You start with a melee unit, an archer, and one city, and usually within a turn or two you’re running into wandering monsters, neutral opponents and, on the smaller maps, even AI opponents. Diplomacy, while on tap, is mostly eschewed in favor of war. While Civ V focuses on many other facets of empire building, offering a great tactical combat system, Warlock narrows its focus to war and the support of that war.
Marching is Good, Really
Fortunately, the combat is very good. Units come in various shapes and sizes amongst the three races (“Human”, “Undead” and “Monsters”), be it melee units, ranged units, caster, healers, even air and sea units. As in most games of this type, every unit is good against this or that unit. But often the combat lasts more than a single turn, and tougher enemies can take a few turns to take down with two or more units. Units level up and unlock perks at each level, making them tougher to kill, more dangerous and faster. It all looks wonderful on the monitor with colorful units, detailed animations, and spells flying ever which-a-way. It’s good fun, but this is a 4X game, right? Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate? The focus is obviously on the latter, but that’s not to say there’s nothing under the hood to support the fun and various combat.
There and Back Again
Exploration is quick and easy. But there is one major difference from most games of this type: there’s more than one dimension. Portals located hither and thither upon the main map grant entrance to other worlds, and likewise grant access to your own world. It’s generally smart to send a scout through first, in order to get an idea of what might be hiding on the other side—it’s often much more deadly than what you’ve been fighting in your own lands. There are also lairs, and the like, to explore, usually guarded by a creature, which are similar to huts in Civilization. These give gold and mana and such when explored, which can be a nice boost and certainly make early exploration more interesting.
What About the People?
City management is fairly simple. You build a city on a hex and get presented with the option to continue to build upon the six surrounding hexes. As your city grows, so does your available land for building. You can build a single building for every population point you have. It can be a tough choice when deciding what to build, as population growth takes a good amount of turns for any significant increase. Making the wrong choice can certainly sting in the short-run, waiting for your population to grow just one more point. There are also special resources scattered about the terrain that can boost output. For instance, a pumpkin farm can be built upon a pumpkin resource, boosting food and even producing mana as well.
This leads me to the resources in Warlock. From each city you gather four resources: gold, food, mana and research. Gold is used to purchase units and buildings, and for maintaining the upkeep of units and the like. Food is used to grow your city and feed your troops. Any surplus food happens to be converted to gold, at the end of your turn. Mana is used for casting spells as well as spell upkeep (for some spells), and research is used for researching new spells. All of this feeds into the combat as more of a side project than a bigger part of the game, as in other 4X games. It’s enjoyable enough, but on its own would not sustain an entire game.
Unfortunately, it takes a game or two of fumbling about, flopping down various buildings, to get a handle on the relatively simple building progression. Some sort of in-game tech tree would have been nice to see here. Fortunately, these have been released in the Paradox Interactive forums in various formats, and are very useful early on for planning a city.
Spells come in all shapes and sizes, from lesser fireballs you can fling at single units to massive fiery conflagrations you can toss down onto an area. From spells that boost food production in a city to spells that boost unit defenses. It’s all a lot of fun. But first you have to research the requisite spells with your research points and then you need enough mana to cast and, sometimes, even to maintain a spell. In some situations the right spells can be the difference between winning and losing; but not just a single battle, even the game.
How to be a Winner
Speaking of which, there are four ways to win the game: defeat all of the other mages, seize all of the “Holy Grounds”, cast the “Unity” spell or defeat a god’s avatar. The first three are fairly standard, as victory objectives go—kill everyone, own everything or do a ton of research. But the latter is an interesting twist on the genre. Players have relations with the various gods in the universe and this is affected by doing quests for them, or refusing the quests as the case may be. Increasing relations can also be done by building temples and other pleasing gestures. But if a god hates your mage enough, he’ll appear on the map for battle, and you’ll have the opportunity to beat him down for the win.
Unfortunately, I’ve read that some of the victory conditions might be missing or work only for the AI. But I’ve not seen any official information on this, and was able to attain the first victory on my own. There have been a few patches since release. Multiplayer is in testing (beta) and was released in patch 1.2. Two bundles of DLC have also been released. So the support is certainly present.
2.5X Strategy Game?
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a great addition to the genre. It’s pretty, streamlined, and downright fun, often casting the “just-one-more-turn” spell upon the player like similar 4X games have in the past. It does not, however, have the depth of many of the great 4X games, and will likely wear out its welcome quicker than most games of the type. Still, for 20 bucks, you really can’t go wrong if you’re a 4X and fantasy wargamer. As mentioned previously, the focus is squarely on combat: slaying your enemies, conquering cities and taking down your mage opposition about the map. Building and growing cities, researching new spells and exploring the lands is all well and good, but the game is won or lost at the end of a sword…or an arrow…or, better yet, a fireball…
Review written by: Chris Massey, Staff Writer
About Chris Massey
Chris Massey is a husband, father, gamer, reader, writer, armchair general, lover, hater, once the Master of Orion but stepped down, mailman and even picks up that old acoustic from time to time. He has never really learned to focus on a single genre of game as he loves them all, and manages to focus on each in turn. He usually does this with his current MMO of choice serving as backdrop, bouncing from fantasy to sci-fi to action to adventure—no matter the platform. The Wargamer has let him litter about for years; he's not sure why. Every now and then they call him into the kitchen, give him a bowl of milk and scratch him behind the ears. "Purring is fun," they tell him, "now get to work." And he litters about a little while longer...
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