The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Modern 4X games like Civilization V typically alternate between two phases: building an empire by founding and developing cities, and blowing up everyone else’s empire with the armies you’ve been recruiting. The lines often blur, and some games and playthroughs emphasize one to the near-total exclusion of the other. Warlock: Master of the Arcane barely touches on the development part, choosing instead to put all of its eggs in the warfare basket. The turn-based hex-grid combat is competent, but the simplistic interactions between players and the world along with technical problems and occasionally dire AI bring Warlock down.
Warlock’s emulation of Civilization V cannot be overstated. Significant portions, from the interface to the combat model, are direct translations of its design to Warlock’s fantasy milieu. The basic loop of founding cities, specializing them to produce a particular resource or unit type, and then channeling that production into creating an unstoppable fighting force is intact. In this case, though, you’re building armies out of noble humans, flesh-hungry undead, and beastly monsters and supporting them with powerful global enchantments and summoned monsters.
City development is shallow by 4X standards. After a short learning curve (by strategy game standards) of a dozen hours or so, placing cities and deciding how to specialize them becomes automatic. Choosing which path to go down – farming, gold income, mana collection, or unit production – can be an interesting decision. Once that choice is made, the city is locked into that path thanks to extremely binding building limits and long dependency chains. Warlock is entirely devoid of mechanics like Civilization’s happiness to curb development, so building a strong infrastructure is a matter of stacking similar modifiers together to maximize output.
With the housekeeping of empire development out of the way, you’re free to dig into Warlock’s meaty combat. Between archers and mages bombarding from afar, steel-clad soldiers holding the line, and spectral wolves tearing at the enemy flanks, warfare has a lot going on. Your personal magic spells can upend the balance of a war, forming a huge earth elemental behind enemy lines, healing a tough-to-kill unit right back to full after a pitched battle, or tearing an entire army to pieces with a dramatic firestorm. Warlock’s best moments are the first twenty turns after two great empires declare open hostilities and bring world-cracking forces to bear on each other in a climactic struggle for dominance.
War being such a strong point is a good thing, since it’s the only meaningful interaction between factions. Diplomacy is practically non-existent, as the AI is perfectly happy to declare war at the drop of a hat – which makes sense, since there’s no reason to work together except to secure a border while beating down on another rival. Factions’ standings with the world’s gods have a minor impact on diplomatic relations, but the underdeveloped piety system has very few handles players can grasp at to influence their divine standings.
The AI, while hilariously unable to keep up with a competent player in development on “normal” difficulty (it doesn’t spam cities, despite the fact that infinite expansion is always the optimal strategy), is capable of defending its own cities reasonably well given relatively balanced armies. Assaulting cities is another matter; even if the AI brings enough units to eventually win, a conscious tactician should be able to enforce crippling attrition in the process.
Warlock has its fair share of bugs, like the inexplicably broken “demolish building” function, but the larger issue lies in its underdeveloped systems. Other planes of existence await brave players to exploit their unique resources, but why bother? The significant force necessary to explore those dangerous dimensions are better deployed against the opponents you’re sure to be at war with directly. Why bother caring about what the gods think of you when there’s no consequence and trivial rewards for divine favor? As fun as combat is, it’s not enough to have me engaged in Warlock beyond my professional obligations.