The 4X sub-genre of strategy games scares away all but hardcore strategy fans and the infinitely patient. Basic things, like combat and resource management, may be familiar to RTS fans, and the turn-based nature won't bother RPG fans. However, the level of micromanagement and diplomacy can be overwhelming for newcomers who aren't familiar with the likes of Civilization and Master of Orion. Paradox saw how difficult it would be for new players to jump into a popular 4X strategy game and offered help with Warlock: Master of the Arcane, a strategy game that seems designed to ease players into the genre.
Interestingly, the game gives the player no real backstory. From the online instruction book and the description on Steam, you know that the lands of Ardania (from the Majesty game series) have been chaotic since the last king died over 70 years ago. The gods feel that the time is right to appoint one of the High Mages as the next ruler. With seven mages vying for the role, your job is to have that mage obliterate everyone else and take the throne.
Before you begin, there are a few things to sort out. You select a mage, with your choice influencing things such as your starting race and starting benefits. Next, you'll choose the size of the randomly generated map and whether the map allows for horizontal warping. Finally, you can choose the number of opponents you'll face and the difficulty level.
Warlock follows some conventions from older strategy games. You play on a hex-based map with defined borders on the top and bottom (and on the sides, if you choose not to have the map wrap). You start with a capital city and a few buildings (so you can create units), and you can expand your territory by taking over other cities or building satellite cities. Taking over certain structures also allows you to recruit different units of different races, making it possible to having a completely mixed-up army capable of doling out different attack types while leveling up. Combat is turn-based, with each unit group possessing points for movement and attacks while the economy is divided into a few categories (food, gold, mana, research). As expected, the game gives you a list of necessary actions per turn, though you can ignore that if you wish.
There are a few things that differentiate Warlock from others in the genre. The first is the presence of dimensional gates. Located throughout the map are dimensional gates that periodically spawn monsters. While you can camp out and try to kill as many beasts as you can, you can also use the gate to travel to another dimension to fight stronger monsters and get better items to strengthen your army. The second difference comes from the direct use of magic. While you will have a few magic spells at your disposal from the beginning, you can research more spells to augment your forces, add more members to your army or directly attack foes. For example, you can use one spell to help heal your army in one turn, rain fireballs on ogres with another spell, and conjure an army of skeletons with another spell.
The big difference is the focus on combat. The aforementioned dimensional gates are a good example, as the only thing you can do is fight with no chance of territorial expansion. Even on the lowest difficulty levels, most mages won't hesitate to attack your kingdom while neutral kingdoms and stray monsters will do the same with higher frequency. Thankfully, your capital city and satellite kingdoms can defend themselves from attack, and you can build defensive structures. The emphasis on battle is also promoted via timed quests that pop up throughout your match. Some ask you to build specific structures, but most ask that you take over territory or defeat a specific army or set of monsters in a given number of turns. Finally, there's only one unit at your disposal that isn't dedicated to combat; it's a rarity in these types of strategy games but a good indicator that you'll be fighting most of the time.
The game gives you four ways to win a match, each one vastly different from the other. You can take over the capital cities of your foes, forcing them to withdraw from the game and turning their satellite cities into neutrally aligned territories. You can focus on spell research until you reach the ultimate spell and become the land's most powerful mage. You can claim victory by occupying over half of the holy lands on the map, and you can also be victorious when you defeat a god's avatar. Naturally, the aggressive nature of most AI characters means that victory through combat is inevitable, but it is possible to win via alternative methods. The only problem is that it takes a lot more time, adding many more hours to an already lengthy match, but the different endings make it worthwhile.
The emphasis on combat, while exciting, means that every other mechanic has been simplified. Even though there are a few types of currency when it comes to economics, you only have to worry about building the appropriate structure to raise funds instead of worrying about how your population feels. The drawback is that building destruction doesn't return your resources, so the option is only useful if you want to replace a structure with something different. Politics has also been simplified, but it feels like the simplification hurt the game. Your opponents may ask for temporary truces or try to trade goods once in a while, but that's all you can do to stave off an eventual conflict. Those expecting any sort of depth in this department won't get it.
There are a few other things that hold back Warlock from being great. There's plenty of information to take in, but the game does a poor job of giving you a comprehensive overview. Your invisible adviser points out a few things that'll be of some use, but he'll also omit a large amount, forcing you to fend for yourself most of the time in the hopes that you'll magically understand everything over time. There's a tech tree for spells to research and structures to build, but references are nowhere to be found. There's also no built-in instruction manual, and the lack of these basic things means you'll spend your first moments with the game actually moving away and seeking online instruction to understand what you're supposed to do.
The game can be played entirely with the mouse, but keyboard actions are restricted to the arrow or WASD keys for camera movement. Anyone looking to use the rest of the keyboard for hotkeys will be out of luck, as there are no hotkeys — nor is there an option to map anything to unused keyboard keys. There's also no way to take back moves, something you'll wish for when you inevitably make numerous mistakes thanks to the game's over-reliance on the left mouse button.
One complaint that people had against Warlock was the lack of multiplayer, something that has now changed thanks to a few patches. Considering the nature of the game, the online performance is pretty good, as nothing stresses out anyone's network connection or penalizes them for having slow speeds. At times during the review period, it was difficult to get a match started, and there were a few times when multiplayer saved games failed to load, rendering that match pointless. The matches were fun enough that a few fixes would make the mode worthwhile and open up the game to those who've grown tired of playing against the AI.
Graphics aren't usually a big deal in these types of games, but the terrain looks nice and has some good detail. Friendly and enemy units look distinct, and the animations are done well, especially with the larger creatures on the field. The only problems arise when units land on tiles with lots of structures on them, as it becomes difficult to see the smaller units since they blend in so well. One interesting thing to note, however, is the rather high minimum system requirements. According to the Steam page, the game requires a minimum of a GeForce GT240 card to run, but this review came from a rig sporting a GeForce 9500GT with most of the graphical settings set to high. While mileage may vary depending on your setup, a PC with low specs could run this title just fine.
Like the graphics, the sound is very hit-and-miss. Music is limited to the title screen and main menus, so you won't hear the score most of the time. It isn't memorable but neither is it offensive. Most of the voices are fine, especially since each unit sports a distinct voice and their lines are rather short. The only irksome voice you'll hear would be that of your unseen assistant, who sounds like a bad Sean Connery impersonator. Compared to the other voices in the game, this one feels out of place.
Despite not explicitly saying so, Warlock: Master of the Arcane serves as a decent entry game for those who want to dabble in 4X strategy. Thanks to the lack of a decent tutorial and in-game instructions, the game still has a steep learning curve, and the lack of attention paid to the diplomatic aspects of the genre will leave some players overwhelmed once they move on to something with more substance. However, the focus on faster combat above all else is enough to get people interested in the first place, and the presence of multiplayer is a nice touch even though there are a few big bugs to work out before it gets out of beta and goes final. While it may not phase out genre veterans, newcomers and experienced players will be fine with this game.
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