So again I'm reviewing a little PC game that's receiving too little attention here and at the other game mags.
Any game that is put forward as the next Master of Magic, should get a closer look so here's Warlock - Master of the Arcane.
Myself, I love turn-based strategy games and my favourites in the fantasy sub-genre apart from good old MOM, are the somewhat more recent Age of Wonders games, so that's where I'm coming from.
I always start with the conclusion and then go in further detail, because that makes an easier read.
Conclusion: Warlock has a solid base for a turn-based wargame, but it really needs some serious patching, including balance changes and the promised multiplayer mode.
1. Warlock is: a turn-based fantasy wargame with some minimal 4X features and fast/short turns
2. as a MOM contender: this game is much smaller in scope and depth than MOM and uncharacteristicly magic plays only a modest role in Warlock
3. gameplay: strategy fans will recognize the 1-UPT overland combat as also seen in games like Civilization 5 and Panzer General and this combat is the main focus of Warlock
4. replay: sessions on medium maps and on "hard" mode can be finished well under 100 turns and you'll probably want to have several goes before you figure the game out, but a patch with the promised multitplayer and with a bigger AI cheater may create more replay value
5. sound: the music is generic fantasy stuff: appropriate and forgetable, but the sound effects are fine and the VOs are rather endearing
6. gfx: the graphics are consistent throughout the game and above average for the genre
Gameplay and comparisons to other turn-based strategy games
To get a good look at the game, I beat Warlock several times on the highest 3 difficulties: normal, hard and insane mode. I won the games on a large maps and medium maps. Every victory was triggered by the conquest victory condition(every other faction wiped out).
First of all, unlike MOM and AOW combat in Warlock doesn't take place on smaller tactical maps, but everything happens on the main, hex-based overland map.
At first this change seemed like a real downer, but after a couple battles I started to appreciate the fast resolution of combat that this feature offers.
The combat has much in common with Civ5 (1-UPT, hexes, unit health limiting the damage output) but the comparison doesn't do it real justice, because warfare in Warlock ends up so more fun than Civ5, probably helped by the greater mobility of the units. There's still traffic jams, but less often and it's much less of a problem in Warlock.
Warlock also encourages the player to churn out many units, unlike Civ5. Pretty soon you end up with a couple cities training new basic units in 2 or 3 turns and later more advanced units that go finish 4 or 5.
It would seem as if the game was designed around quick results and short turns and overal I reckon this has worked out well.
The biggest sacrifice in the need for speed is the empire management part. It is very basic, yet functional and I like one feature in particular: every city has a seperate build queue for units and buildings, where a new building can only be queued if the city grows in size level, but also for free (there are only maintenance costs). New units can be trained at any time aslong as you have the gold (one minor nitpick the deep queue function here is almost useless because it substracts the resources immediately, ala Starcraft).
The result is a steady progression of your empire and an encouragement to the player to get on with the best parts of the game, exploration and war, because your economy doesn't get penalized for it.
This may seems like a dumbing down of the genre, but here I see how it improves the pacing and the focus of the game. Warlock should not be seen as a full 4X, but as a wargame with some light 4X elements.
There's one general area where Warlock has sarcificed to much for the sake of speed and simpliciy and that's the magic. This is where the game really falls short and all comparisons to the venerable MOM fail.
Unlike games like MOM and AOW, there are no spells with big, world altering effects. Your offscreen mage may start out with some minor damage spells, adequate summons and decent unit buffs and ends the game with modest damaging spells, outclassed summons and decent buffs. Typically one such spell per turn, because a fixed casting time is usually the limiting factor.
The game can easily be won on hard or even insane mode without ever using magic.
When you have have several dozen units doing all the work and dishing out a combined damage in the hundreds, what's a double digit damage spell more or less?
I reckon the game would be improved if the casting times of many basic spells were halved.
Spell research is also very basic, with players picking spells from a couple random choices that are not necessarilly in order, so fireballs before minor fireballs is a possibility.
This problem is still minor compared to the greater balancing issues in Warlock.
Simply put, all the challenge in the game is concentrated in the first couple of dozen turns of playtime.
Insane difficulty mode may challenge players for a while on some unlucky starting positions, but once the player manages to hold his own and starts to expand at the expense of an opponent, everything will only become easier.
This is in part because the AI is dumb and doesn't cheat enough to compensate and it is also partly because the AI plays defensively so the odds of a run-away AI conquering other mages is small, but mostly because there are no economic brakes in the game. Compare in Civ4, a player can overexpand and nolonger be able to pay for the ever increasing maintenance costs of additional cities. Bigger is still better, but two smaller civs are always more efficient than one bigger civ.
In Warlock if you can manage the bullying, extorting and warring AIs when smaller, you can certainly hold your own, once your realm becomes a bit bigger than the competition, because cities only take a modest amount of food and horizontal expansion is a flat linear progression.
It then becomes a choice between messing around for a while or steamrolling every opponent immediately. While the diplomacy does have a soft bias against the biggest player on the map, the AI are still too divided to avoid the typical defeat in detail scenerio.
There are other victory conditions, but they drag on the game for ages when it's already in the bag, so I never got to see the Unity spell that wins the game or the godhood challenge or the collection of all the holy sites. It's just not worth it right now. Not even the more challenging alternate worlds behind the magic portals in Warlock play any role, as long as the player plays to win.
Another problem with the AI is that it cannot handle high tier units that are buffed and upgraded to near-invulnerability. Dispells do exist in the game, but the AI won't use them.
Even then the non-magical stackable armor upgrades are still problematic and there's a reason why established games like D&D won't allow the stacking of similar bonusses on a character.
It's tough to recommend this game even to fans of the genre right now, because it has all these issues. The potential is there and the basics are solid, but it's probably better to wait for the patch. That doesn't mean I didn't have fun with this game, because I did, but there's no lasting appeal until there's patches to fix the current problems.