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Warlock: Master of the Arcane Review

Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts
by Adam Biessener on May 09, 2012 at 10:57 AM
Reviewed on PC
Publisher Paradox Interactive
Developer Ino-Co Plus
Rating Everyone 10+

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.

Make a fantasy 4X empire-building game that focuses more on combat than research and development
The look and feel is an obvious ripoff of Civilization V, down to the placement of UI buttons
Turning the music off in a strategy game is not unusual for me. Muting the sound entirely thanks to awful, grating voiceovers is a new one
The lack of hotkeys is unforgivable. Even though the game is turn-based, the interface still manages to be annoying
This manages the core mission of building armies and conquering the world with them, but not much else. Then again, strategy fans can do worse for $20

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Warlock: Master of the Arcane

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