My army of undead warriors, vampires and minotaurs reached the walls of the reviled city of Cheesetown, home of King Rrat, somewhere around my hundredth turn. The settlement had become synonymous with death and destruction over the previous turns, sending fleet after fleet to attack my empire's capital. The enemy's sea superiority meant that the only route for retaliation was through the massive plains of lava to the east.
What started off as a vast army became greatly reduced through battles with greater fire elementals and wandering giants that patrolled the desolate landscape. My mana reserves were low after spending so much on healing my units and casting spells on monsters, so things were not looking good. But it didn't matter, my forces had reached their goal. As my troops approached the city, all hell broke loose. It was as if we had woken up a slumbering beast; the landscape around the city became covered in rats, some big, some small, all armed to the teeth. I hate rats.
The undead don't mind rats, though. So my troops stayed strong and cut down their enemies one by one. Things started to turn in my favor, Cheesetown would be mine! But then, betrayal. My undead ally, King Lich V, declares war, his forces come from the east to sandwich my soldiers between death and obliteration. The invasion was over, I slunk back into my cave as gracefully as a two-headed magical dragon can. If you can't trust a lich, who can you trust? In Warlock - Master of the Arcane, you can't trust anybody.
Warlock - Master of the Arcane (PC)
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Ino-co Plus
Released: May 8, 2012
Warlock puts you in the shoes of an imperialistic, power hungry wizard in the irreverent fantasy world of Ardania, the same realm the Majesty series is set in. You can tell because the absurd Sean Connery impersonator who offers advice in Majesty 2 makes an unwelcome return. The goal is a simple one: Amass powerful armies, constantly fuel the war machine, and conquer all your foes. Ostensibly this is a 4X game, but the focus is very much on the final X, exterminate. Ardania is a hostile world, one where even neutral cities will attack you on sight and where roving bands of monsters can pose a legitimate threat to your empire. On the rare occasions when you are at peace with the opposing magical empires, you're still at war with every other creature.
In my very first game, expansion was halted almost instantly when I discovered that the only viable locations for new settlements were blocked by three gigantic monstrosities surrounding a neutral city. I had to throw countless armies at them, which wasted my valuable resources very early on. The random nature of monster placement means that even early on you can find yourself fighting desperate battles, which means the choices you make when selecting or customizing your wizard and his or her early spells are actually pretty important.
The predefined leaders are all interesting characters which draw from a variety of fun cliches, like dragon lords or Elminster. They all come with their own backgrounds, but their history doesn't come into play during the game, unfortunately. Each leader has default traits and spells, for instance Tendral, Son of Vendral (the aforementioned two-headed dragon) comes with bonuses to his mana and gold reserves and a fire spell. Each wizard also has the loyalty of one of three races: Humans, monsters and the undead. However, the leaders can be fully customized. If you want to play a gold loving Orc Shaman who rules over the undead with ice magic, go ahead. These initial choices are important at the beginning, but conquering the cities of the other races gives access to their units and new spells are constantly being researched.
The first order of business for any aspiring conquering wizard is expanding the capital and building an army. Initially only two units are available, simple melee and ranged troops, but they can be augmented with new armor and weapons if you construct buildings like the smithy. New units become available once you add buildings from the predefined list based on the city's racial affiliations. Monster cities get goblins and ratmen and their ilk, while undead cities get skeletons, liches, vampires, and so on. Human cities get boring old humans (obviously) like knights and gross little gnomes, who are not human at all. At first I thought they were just children.
Your soldiers aren't idiots, even if you might expect ratmen pirates and gibbering goblins to be somewhat mentally stunted. They learn from their grizzly encounters, and level up. Usually that just means their stats improve, but occasionally they will learn new abilities. In one intense battle, my powerful vampires were having a terrible time, as they ineffectually flung death magic at some immune elementals. But when it looked like their goose was cooked, they leveled up and they gained some new additions to their magical arsenal. They walked away from that battle with smug self satisfaction. Probably. They are vampires.
Dotted about the landscape are various resources, which can be built upon to provide passive bonuses or new units. Some resources can provide one or the other, so there are lots of routes you can take with your cities. For instance, if you have a minotaur resource in your influence, you can construct either a palace or a labyrinth. The palace will allow the recruitment of the smelly, hairy bull-men, while the labyrinth makes your troops stronger. See, puzzle solving really does make you tough!
City management is a complete doddle, something I'm exceedingly glad about. When the focus is on conflict, the last thing I want to do is fiddle about with sliders and pour over building lists. There are three key resources that cities produce: Food, mana, and gold. Hovering over the UI clearly shows how much you are making, how much you are spending and from where. So it's easy to fix any deficits. You can keep churning out units as long as you have the funds, but buildings can only be constructed when the city increases in size. There's an annoying bug that stops you from being able to destroy buildings, so I hope that gets sorted soon. It's the only bug I encountered, but it's a rather problematic one.
While the words "Warlock" and "Arcane" might lead you to believe that this is a game where magic is king, it's actually the "War" secretly nestled in there that shows the true nature of the beast. Yes, magic is still important, it's a resource and a weapon, plus it's integral to the game's concept. But honestly, you're not a particularly powerful wizard. Despite a spell book brimming with destructive magic, casting even one spell renders your leader helpless until the next turn. Some spells can't even be cast until you wait for a turn. It makes these power hungry wizards seem like impotent magicians at a kid's birthday party. Magic feels more like a backup. If your army is struggling, cast a heal or set an enemy on fire, then go back to not being able to even pull a rabbit out of a hat.
To make matters worse, there's no magic tree or list. Once a spell has been researched, you're presented with a series of new spells, arranged in a circle. I frequently found myself selecting spells I knew I didn't need in hopes that it would unlock better ones, but I simply had no idea. I was just hoping for the best. There's a serious lack of documentation, and I'm still not sure if there's any logic behind the magical research.
Commanding your bloodthirsty horde, on the other hand, is a delight. Taking a leaf out of Civilization V's book (something the game does generally in terms of presentation), the map is arranged in hexes and stacking is not allowed. So a massive force is slow to move, but it also acts like a giant wall closing in on its foe. Getting your army where it needs to be is pretty easy, there's no faffing about loading troops onto boats, for instance, as all units come with their own combat ready ships when they hit water. There's a vast array of soldiers willing to lay their life down for their aggressive master -- from the mundane, like swordsmen and archers, to the bizarre, like donkey knights or flying ghost ships. Ino-co Plus certainly appears to have had a lot of fun coming up with the units, as is evidenced in their descriptions, which are appropriately silly. The donkey knights, for example, originate from a knight who fled a battle on the back of a stolen donkey. After his enemies caught up to him, the only living souls that were left alive were he and his trusty steed. Thus began an order of knights on donkeyback.
Unit placement is obviously important, with the tough guys at the front, and the squishy ranged units protected behind them. Some powerful foes can attack from three hexes away, though, so every unit is somewhat vulnerable. While foes are aggressive and the AI is suitably reactive, significantly better than in the Civilization series, they do a terrible job of protecting their cities. They are great on the offense, but their defense is a joke. Cities themselves could really do with beefing up, something I really hope to see in a patch, because right now it's just too easy to conquer a settlement with weaker units.
The hostility of the opposing leaders and the neutral forces gives the game a constant forward momentum. In a lot of other 4X and grand strategy games, after taking a few cities you might sue for peace and disband your troops to save money, in Warlock, that's just asking for trouble. Sure, you might find yourself in a spot of financial bother, and maybe you made a shitty investment; you're a normal wizard, not a financial wizard. But I found it helpful to have a decently sized marauding army at all times. There's always another battle just around the corner. Especially when you take into account the existence of other worlds.
Up to five extra realms can be added to a campaign, accessed via magical portals. These worlds make Ardania look like a land of peace and sunshine. Entering one of these new dimensions will require a powerful force if you hope to stand a chance of survival. While it's a lot of fun getting into these extra tough battles, there isn't really much point in it. The extra worlds can be ignored entirely without any negative repercussions. They aren't unwelcome additions, but they fail to really add anything.
A lot of the warfare is caused by the fickle nature of your opposition, and diplomacy. I don't know what emissaries I was sending to chat to the other wizards, but they weren't very good. It all boils down to making demands, declaring war or making a fragile alliance. Trade is pretty much non existent and any pacts that are made just ensure short term peace. An alliance means that you're not going to war today, but anything can happen tomorrow. It's not a big problem, as the game is about conflict, not friendship or politics. However, it would have been nice to have the option to build strong alliances and to conquer the world together -- before turning on each other.
On top of trading words with enemies, you can pay lip service to a bunch of gods. Devoting yourself to a deity nets you some powerful spells and building their temples on holy sites lets you purchase incredibly strong units, like liches. Unfortunately, there's not much personality behind them and gaining their respect is annoying and arbitrary. Every now and then quests appear, and usually they just require you to attack a city or build something like a harbor, but occasionally you'll be tasked with constructing a temple or defeating a foe for a god. The problem is that if you fail the task, you piss off the god. That wouldn't be so much of an issue if it wasn't for how random these quests can be. Holy sites are not particularly abundant and it's not uncommon to be told to build a second temple only a few turns later, which is usually impossible, even with the 20 turn time limit.
Upsetting these petulant powers isn't always a bad thing, though. If a deity hates you, then it will send an avatar to topple your empire, while defeating said avatar will inexplicably lead to you winning the game. There are four victory types, but they are all pretty uninspired. I just stuck to killing everyone.
While wanton destruction is something I'm very much in favor of, when that's all there is things start to get a bit boring. The excitement of crafting a mighty empire ceases once you start to unlock the strongest units (which doesn't really take very long) and from then it just becomes a series of repetitive battles. Campaigns might start differently, but once you've put in around a hundred turns it generally plays out in the same way. But there's always the chance an AI opponent does something terribly sneaky, or you find yourself beset on all sides by enemies right from the get go. Enough interesting things happened to hold my attention for another click of the Next Turn button. And another.
Warlock is full of surprises. It looks like Civilization V (albeit set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world complete with towering volcanoes and wastelands filled with demons), the premise sounds like Masters of Magic and it plays like neither of them. 4X fans looking for a deep fantasy game will probably not find what they are looking for, but should still find a lot to keep them occupied. For those who are unfamiliar with the genre, but are looking for a place to dip their toes in, then Warlock is a great place to start.
For all of its flaws, it's still a remarkably fun game with plenty of character. When you're commanding armies of dragons and giants to annihilate cities protected by ghost ships or rat snipers, it's easier to overlook the game's shortcomings. I know that I'll certainly be playing a few more campaigns, and once the multiplayer gets added I'll play even more.