Warlock: Master of the Arcane Review
Developer: Ino-Co Plus
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Dual Core CPU, 2 GB RAM, DirectX 9.0c, GeForce GT240 512 MB video card (or comparable), 4 GB HD space, Windows Vista or more recent operating system
After the Great King sought the Crown of Ardania in Majesty 2: Monster Kingdom, Ardania fell upon hard times. The King disappeared, and nearly a century of civil war left only the Council of Great Mages in a position to maintain order. Eventually, the gods decided that the Council should determine the next worthy ruler. Sadly, the Great Mages could hardly cooperate, let alone agree amongst themselves on a course of action. Defying the will of even the gods, the Great Mages decided to determine Ardania's ruler through a test of might. Only by exploring and conquering Ardania can one mage rule and be dubbed Warlock, Master of the Arcane.
Long (long!) ago, there was a game called Master of Magic that brought Civilization-style 4X strategy games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) into a world of fantasy and magic the same way Master of Orion brought the genre firmly into space. Fans have been craving a successor for nearly 20 years. While we held out a lot of hope for Elemental: War of Magic, we're still waiting for the fully operational and updated version of that game. Warlock: Master of the Arcane is the first game that evoked Master of Magic for me (right down to the other-worldly portals). For those of you who weren't deeply engaged with PC strategy in 1994, Warlock feels a lot like Civlization V, dragged into the world of the Majesty games, complete with spells, fantasy units and warring mages.
It's a great premise, and a splendidly entertaining game of uneven quality. Warlock is also exactly the game I needed to fill a particular void in my soul, and for $20, it's easy for me to recommend. Your mileage might differ, but Warlock is a great 4X alternative, especially when you've been stuck in a Civilization V rut for a long time. I've gotten to play Warlock a lot, but much of that play was with a pre-release version, so I needed enough time with the release candidate to make sure the serious problems were fixed. Nearly all were, and while Warlock has some balance issues, bugs that concerned me were squashed without mercy.
Warlock features an appropriately epic battle between mages. Expanding from an initial capital, you research powerful magic, recruit armies, build new cities (or conquer existing ones), and ultimately unite the magical multiverse under your own (possibly) benevolent rule. There are three available civilization types (human, undead and monster), that each play remarkably differently. Multiple gods offer different blessings and banes as you honor (or offend) them. A variety of initial perks and a deep library of spells allow for many strategic paths. The undead easily brush arrows aside, and are great for early city assaults but consume enormous amounts of mana. Beasts are fast and hungry, wolfing down food supplies. Humans are balanced, with a wide variety of units and dependent on a ready supply of coin. Each civilization has its own set of buildings that provide different perks and recruitable units.
Despite the similarity to other games (like Civilization), the interface could be opaque at times, and it took me until midway through my second game to fully know what I was doing (except for teleport spells – I never fully got the hang of those). Once I did, I got to enjoy building my cities and pushing out the boundaries of my rule until I'd conquered everything.
Portals to other worlds add to the strategic options. Other worlds are populated with the most powerful and frightening monsters that, when tamed, can produce wealth and offer resources alien to Ardania. This leads to my main criticism of Warlock: The game relies heavily on super-units. It's possible to draft a massive army and march across the continent, and the AI will mount an acceptable defense. Computer opponents will even lead similar assaults, but to really rule the world (or explore other planes), you need super-units. Powerful single units, souped-up with spells and tons of training enhancements, can single-handedly eliminate another civilization.
That's not a problem, but the AI doesn't always deal well with special abilities. As an example, some units are immune to certain types of damage. I had a flying ghost unit, completely immune to physical attacks, that faced off against an entire enemy navy. Despite the inability of those ships to hurt my ghosts, nearly every hex on the screen was filled with angry ships firing cannons. The AI is good at mustering an elaborate assault, but doesn't recognize when attacks are completely pointless.
The reliance on super-units isn't a problem, and it's deeply satisfying to have a pair of overpowered trolls smashing their way through another Great Mage's civilization. There's not much to Warlock's diplomacy, but as a game of exploration, construction and conquest, it's tremendous.
The biggest problem with Warlock is the endgame. On any difficulty, the final outcome is obvious long before the game is over. Pre-release, there was a game-winning spell that could be researched and cast to cut things short, but that was gone in the release candidate. It was reinstated shortly after through a patch, but other spells can interrupt the casting, so it's an impractical solution. The only real path to victory requires conquering every other mage's capital. There are other ways, but they generally take longer and require even more battle than just taking the capitals.
I found the various difficulty levels all enjoyable, but the toughest level was the only one that presented a real challenge to victory. It did so mostly by amping up the number of neutral cities, and monsters that went marauding around the countryside. The difficulty made war with other mages interesting, but also made the other planes inaccessible. By the time I'd manufactured super-units powerful enough to invade through the portals, the other planes were filled with so many monsters that colonization was impossible. At the same time, it made Ardania enough of a battle to keep things interesting.
If the above sounds negative, that's because I want people playing Warlock to be aware of and accept its flaws. At $20, those flaws seem smaller than they might otherwise. Warlock has problems with balance, and could use an alternate endgame. But it's also a terrific chance to romp around a fantasy world and get lost in the story of your own, customized mage's rise to power, as you become "Master of the Arcane."