A brutally short description of Warlock: Master of the Arcane could be that it is a strategy game similar to Civilization, infused with a large helping of magic and fantasy. Like Majesty, Warlock: Master of the Arcane takes place in Ardania. Unlike Majesty, you play a far more active role than just placing bounties on creatures and objects hoping that one of your followers will come to collect the reward. Instead of being an invisible hand guiding the fate of your underlings, you take part in a far more visceral fashion by researching and casting powerful magic spells. You will be the wind underneath your units’ wings, rain down fire on your enemies and have control over every move that your units make.
Getting to grips
Starting a new game, the first order of business is to select a warlock to lead your nation. You are offered a choice between using an existing character with a predetermined setup or to create one of your own to meet your preferences. Next, you set your race. Humans are the default race, but you can also select a ‘red and green blob’ and a ‘green and yellow blob’ (we’re not kidding). Both blobs are without description, but starting a game with one reveals that ‘red and green’ sets the player race to goblins and beasts, and ‘gold and green’ lets you play as undead.
There is an option to set the number of worlds that are available on top of the one you start in that can be reached through portals found on the map. The term ‘world’ is a bit of an overstatement though, as most of the areas on the flipside are small and only able to support 4 to 6 cities. Being able to settle additional worlds sounds like fun but is ultimately futile: when your capital falls, you’ve lost the game. As such there is no significant benefit beyond having resource farms in an area that is easily defended from rival mages, an advantage which in turn is quickly negated by the continuous attacks of dragons and giant elemental monsters that roam the other worlds.
One thing that struck me was the complete lack of game modes. Admittedly campaigns aren’t what make 4X games great, but it does mean there is only one way to win at Warlock: Master of the Arcane: eliminate all the other great mages. Even more puzzling was the lack of multiplayer upon release: with all the magic flying around, it could have provided heaps of fun. Fortunately, a multiplayer component is being worked on and will be provided for free over the summer, but for now, we will have to do without.
Bring out the gimp
Gameplay is a straightforward and simplified version of Civilization’s, but while it is clear that it is Sid’s masterpiece where Warlock drew its inspiration from, it cannot begin to match it in quality. Initially, the fresh concept is fun to play but soon the lack of depth and polish starts to become painfully clear. There is only so much gratification found in establishing and expanding your cities, building units and slapping the opposition silly.
Longevity could potentially have been found in spell research but unfortunately it feels random and incoherent. A pentagram-shaped window gives access to a befuddling research tree where newly unlocked spells often have no apparent relationship with the one that came before. Once researched, the spell is added to your arsenal which is little more than a big scrollable list lacking any categorization.
Unfortunately it just doesn’t stop there. Except for the enter key that moves it to the next turn, the game lacks hotkeys in any form, making it somewhat awkward to play. And that is just one of many complaints about the interface. A button just above the mini map displays alerts and active units. When clicked, the alert button should focus the game on the unit in question, which it does most of the time but not always. When enemy units are in range of a defensive structure such as a city, the game notifies you of their presence. On occasion, I was notified and my tower activated to attack but the enemy was nowhere to be found. If not for the fact that the enter key forcefully ends turns, this would have rendered the game stuck and unplayable. You can imagine that, between the lack of hotkeys and non-functioning buttons, playing Warlock is often a cumbersome affair.
Stay a while and…
Voice acting ranges from mediocre to cute and features a Deckard Cain sound-alike that grabs most of the attention even if he is only present in the tutorial. If you can’t get enough of this guy doing voice work, then you’re in luck: each and every time you play the game, the tutorial will be back in full, even when you load a game that’s in progress or restart the game.
Admittedly, I tend to turn off the music pretty early on in a game unless it is particularly fetching. Warlock saved me the trouble of having to do that by offering no in game music whatsoever except from an understated, but excellent audio track playing in the game’s menu.
On the bright side, the game never once crashed on me and one of my long standing Civilization niggles is actually taken care off. When units are upgraded to a more powerful version, they don’t suddenly change from being ranged attackers to melee combat units, rendering the bulk of their upgrades completely useless and turning them into a bunch of gimps that are only good for guarding a city far behind enemy lines. Archers upgrade into more powerful archer-type units, leaving the past upgrades purchased as useful as the moment you picked them up.
Unfortunately these last two positives do not swing the game towards a positive score. At every turn, aspects about the game contributed to the sinking feeling that its developers must have had little love for their game or so much financial pressure that they released it unfinished. Playing Warlock, I felt like I was participating in a beta version of a game with tremendous great potential. The realization that it was the release version actually made me a little sad. Conceptually, Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a fantastic game but let down by extremely poor execution.
Fresh take on the Civilization franchise
Poor execution makes it cumbersome to play