On my last day of PAX East this year, I took a look at a retro-inspired FPS called Project Warlock. Developed by Buckshot Software, the game is the vision of 19-year-old Jakub Cislo and his desire to recreate the games of his youth. With his small team, they’ve managed to capture the feel of id Software’s legendary Wolfenstein 3D.
Does that kind of game still fly in 2018? The short answer is a resounding yes. If you grew up with retro shooters and have been yearning for them to come back, you’d be absolutely remiss to pass up Project Warlock.
Project Warlock (PC)
Developer: Buckshot Software
Publisher: gaming company
Release Date: October 18, 2018 (GOG), December 6, 2018 (Steam)
To quote John Carmack, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Project Warlock lives by that philosophy and immediately kicks you into some action. There is a semblance of plot about the main character, a Warlock, trying to stop demons invading from hell, but like all the classic shooters of the ‘90s, that takes a backseat to the gameplay.
While you could try to piece together bits of lore from your surroundings, the main thing you’ll be doing in Project Warlock is shooting demons and blowing them to bits. It’s very refreshing to have such a minimalist approach to game design, especially since it lets the actual gameplay do the talking instead of NPCs. No need to worry about the plight of humanity when you have keys to find and doors to open.
Project Warlock is divided up into episodes much like id Software’s older work, but the way you progress through them is pre-determined. You won’t have a choice in what levels you go to next, but you also won’t need to play through the entirety of an episode before it’s over. After however many levels are in your bracket (two, three, or four), you’ll get kicked back to your workshop to focus on weapon/magic upgrades and stat points.
Project Warlock features an incredibly light experience and upgrade system. By killing enemies and collecting gold in levels, you’ll earn XP that you can put towards stat boosts. Along with that, exploring each level and discovering secrets will often lead you to upgrade tokens, which you can spend on your weapons or spells. That system is where Project Warlock begins to differentiate itself from the past.
You could completely ignore all of this and play the game exactly like Wolfenstein 3D, but with those upgrade tokens, you can learn powerful spells that live up to the game’s title, or transform your weapons into different types. My personal favorite upgrade was taking the double-barrel shotgun and turning it into a flak cannon, which brought up some Unreal Tournament memories for me.
In my playthrough, I focused entirely on my arsenal instead of spells, but the fact that the game even allows you the option makes for some diverse combat scenarios. The only blemish on the system is that for weapon upgrades, you have no chance to test the changes before you buy them. I was really enticed by the prospect of a nailgun, for instance, but then I learned its shots ricochet off of walls and they end up hitting you in tight corridors. It basically ruined my SMGs and I was stuck with them.
The spells are more straightforward, having only a single option, but I never felt like I was missing out on skipping them. I suppose that could be seen as a flaw, but their descriptions did sound handy. One spell, for instance, doubled the damage on everything in the game world, which could prove useful during some of the boss encounters.
However you go about killing your enemies, there are roughly 60 levels for you to explore through. Each episode has a specific theme to it, so you’ll constantly be exploring new areas that flow together naturally. The level design is all flat with no hills or heightened terrain, which sounds like a real disaster when written out. Somehow, Buckshot Software has taken that limitation and used it to create some truly incredible labyrinths.
The main thing that stops Project Warlock from feeling like the same thing over and over is that there are distinguishing features to each level. Looking at its inspiration, Wolfenstein 3D can become a slog since every level looks the same with almost no variation between them. In Project Warlock, there are not only differing themes but specific structures and set dressing to help steer you towards the goal.
In a very nice move, picking up a key in one room will spawn enemies behind you that silently guide you towards your next objective. Without even thinking about it, the game is ushering you towards the next shootout and room to continue plugging away at the levels. It doesn’t hurt that none of the levels are all that long, either, so getting lost is a rarity.
It can still happen, however, and I do wish Project Warlock had a map screen. There is a mini-map in the upper left-hand corner, but sometimes you’ll get a little confused and be scratching your head to figure out where to go next. Just being able to pull up a big map would basically solve that, since it would likely show you places you haven’t yet explored.
Still, that minor grievance doesn’t ruin the game. The only thing that threatens to do it is the few levels that start you right next to enemies. You’ll spawn in and immediately be getting attacked, which is disorienting and unfair. There are no quicksaves in Project Warlock, either: this shooter works on the very old-school life system. Run out of lives and it is game over.
I would hesitate to call Project Warlock hard, though. Some of its shootouts can be challenging, but the stat upgrade system can make you pretty unstoppable if you invest in the right areas. I kept putting points into health and ammo capacity and I eventually became a walking tank. I’m curious to try a run without utilizing this feature, but know that I only died a total of three times during my playthrough.
Those deaths can be grueling since you’ll restart the level you are on, but levels typically take about five minutes to complete. At the end of the game, I clocked around five hours and felt really content. A few of the levels in the last episode do get long in the tooth, but the game is over before you know it and keeps you greatly entertained throughout.
A lot of that entertainment has to do with the presentation. The sprite work is just incredible and the art style evokes a very cartoony vibe. Things look demonic, sure, but they also look like a comic book and it’s all beautiful. I’m more taken aback by the attention to detail. Things like windows will have different textures based on how much you shoot them and even the posts in some areas will completely disappear if you shoot them enough.
Bigger enemies will lose limbs once you deal enough damage and that ends up altering their attacks. Each episode has its own specific enemies, too, so you’re constantly encountering new foes and learning their patterns. I wouldn’t call the AI complex (they basically just run at you), but Project Warlock features a wide cast of baddies to blast apart that follow the template Doom set all those years ago.
The real icing on the cake is the superb soundtrack. Borrowing inspiration from id Software once again, this soundtrack has a range of themes from metal, to melodic rock, to church-organ-style ambiance. Each level has its own theme, too, so the soundtrack is made up of around 65 distinct songs. It almost makes up for a few of the flaws in the gameplay, because I had a total blast listening to the music while shooting enemies to bits.
The looping on the tracks isn’t perfect, so you will hear a few rough hiccups as songs restart themselves. Still, you have to admire the dedication to creating an eight-minute rock song for a level that takes maybe three minutes to rush through. That’s the kind of style I can get behind.
As for anything else “wrong” with Project Warlock, a lot of it will just come down to nitpicks. While the game is derivative of older work, it pulls off the trick with a lot of style and grace. The level design can be a bit limited, but I’m surprised at how many different ways switches were utilized that I’d never seen before. Enemies stick to the mold of Doom but remain fair and balanced with no cheap hit scanning foes.
Project Warlock is just a damned blast. You could say this is the best version of Wolfenstein 3D ever made. Hell, it even tops the original Doom in some categories. It certainly won’t win awards for originality, but this is a true work of passion that pays off in the end.
If your trigger finger is itching, buy Project Warlock to scratch that itch. You won’t be disappointed.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]