It seems like just the other day I was previewing Warlock: Master of the Arcane. Oh yeah, it was. But to be fair, I have to admit I’ve been playing little else for the past couple of weeks now. Warlock: Master of the Arcane has brought a flood of feelings from my childhood bubbling up to the surface: world-dominating aggression, cheerful glee, hair-tearing frustration, etc. As far as strategy games go, there’s really been no shortage of 4X titles over the years. The important part of that phrase of course being “as far as strategy titles go.” Sure, there are far fewer 4X titles than first-person shooters for example, but the strategy genre has always been a niche genre. The main franchise that most people will instantly recognize is the Civilization series. And if you’ve played the Civ titles, you’ll immediately feel right at home in Warlock: Master of the Arcane. And if you’re old enough to have played the games Master of Magic and/or Lords of Magic, you’ll not only feel right at home, you’ll fall in love with your new residence. So we have a review to get on with, correct? Well, here we go!
Have Some UI M’Lord?
The UI and controls of Warlock: Master of the Arcane are well, splendidly done for the most part. I instantly felt right at home. Things did what I expected them to do from having played strategy games before. You can use the WASD or arrow keys to move the camera around if mousing to the edge of the screen isn’t your cup of tea. And trust me, you’ll be moving the camera around a lot. The HUD laid things out in a way that was recognizable and easy to take in. There’s a minimap to give you an idea of what is going on around you. There’s quick access to important windows like diplomacy and the spell book. Popup windows inform you of important things like discovering new Great Mages (your victims in the quest for world domination) and research being completed.
The only real complaints I have about the UI and controls are fairly minor. If you have a unit sitting on a city, it can sometimes be problematic selecting the unit instead of the city. It’s rare, granted, and you can usually have much better luck by clicking on the little floating symbols instead of the graphic for the unit itself, but it still happens occasionally. But my biggest complaint is you just can’t zoom the camera out far enough for my liking. As you get later in the game, you will find yourself dealing with a lot all at once. Especially if you’re playing a huge map with lots of Great Mage opponents, chances are you’ll be in several different wars at once. Pair that with regular expansion efforts, exploration and city management and you have a ton of stuff to manage. And this is where the aforementioned camera movement comes in, because you just can’t zoom out far enough to take much of the world in at once. I would love to zoom out to get a better overall picture of where all the action is and where I should shift armies. I spent an annoying amount of time moving the camera around the map comparing the amount of troops I had at each front, etc rather than being able to just zoom out and take it all in at once.
Beauty is a Short-Lived Tyranny
Graphically speaking, Warlock: Master of the Arcane is pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be. Graphics tend to take a back seat in most strategy games since you view the game from an elevated position. The units are tiny little colored specs moving around the map. A large number of them are cannon fodder and won’t be around long enough to really be appreciated anyway. Generally most strategy gamers are happy if you can just tell what the unit is supposed to be at a glance. Does the archer class have something resembling a bow sticking out of the image somewhere? Are the goblins/orcs green? Is the dragon reasonably dragon-y enough? Do the mountainy bits of the map look more mountainy than hilly? Well, Warlock: Master of the Arcane manages to pull all of this off well enough. The world actually looks quite nice, with a good bit of variety in the tilesets. The 2D representations of the units and the rest of the UI are aesthetically pleasing and match the game well. The units themselves are pretty small, but still seem well done from what you can see of them.
As far as the sounds of the game go, there’s a bit of voice-over work in the game. When you click on units you’ll get a bit of funny dialog such as the Goblin archers saying “Fire! Aim! Set!” or the Spearmen saying “Spears! Oh, you already know we spears.” They’re well done and amusing, but unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them. They get repetitive. Fast. Also, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate track for every situation, which leads to some odd occurrences. For example, I was at war with the Draconian Great Mage. He’s a big, well, Dragon-esque bloke who says quite fearsomely “Bow before my might!” when you first meet him. Well, he also says this when you have beaten him down to his very last city and he’s trying fervently to convince you to end the war. It got to the point where every single turn I’d get a diplomacy popup from him offering me gold to end the war, effectively surrendering, while still demanding that I bow before his awesome might.
Today Was Good. Today Was Fun. Tomorrow is Another One.
Looks, sound, and good UI are all well and good, but how does it play, you ask? Well, I’m glad you did. As I mentioned above, if you’re familiar with the Civilization series, you’ll be right at home here. Warlock: Master of the Arcane takes many cues from that franchise. And really, if you’re going to follow an example, you can do a lot worse than following the path blazed by the bestselling strategy franchise ever, right? The fantasy setting brings a good bit of depth and fun to the equation in my opinion. I definitely prefer slinging spells around and battling ratmen and dragons instead of researching bronze-age technology and battling the Ottoman Empire.
To keep you moving along, Warlock: Master of the Arcane throws a lot of quests at you. It can be anything from wiping out a roaming neutral band of monsters to founding a city or conquering a specific city on the other side of the map. You’ll also get a lot of quests to build specific buildings. You’re never told what city you have to build it in, so this is generally a quick and easy way to make some free gold. There was only one quest I truly had issues with. Eventually you start getting quests to build a temple to one of the gods in the game. Unfortunately you’re given zero instructions on how to go about doing this. I have to assume there are some requirements as far as certain buildings that need to be built first. I assume that because where little check marks on some of the buildings in my list when I had the quest indicating I had already built them. But even when I had all of them checked, I was never given the option to build the temple. I’ve failed the quest every single time it has been offered to me and I'm at a complete loss as to what I’m missing.
Other than that, the only other complaint I had as far as gameplay goes is that units can’t seem to pass through a hex occupied by another unit. Well, let me be a bit more specific about that: YOUR units can’t pass through a hex occupied by other units of YOURS. It works perfectly fine for the computer AI for some reason. And don’t get me wrong, I’m as against unit stacking as the next true strategy gamer. I don’t want to stack them. I don’t believe they should be able to END their movement on the same hex as another unit. However, I see no reason they can’t simply give a ‘Pardon me, coming through’ to the unit on the hex and pass on to the next one. Nothing is more annoying than inadvertently bottlenecking your own army because you didn’t realize the hex to either side of your point unit was impassable terrain and now none of the units behind him can move forward.
The AI is surprisingly well done for this type of game. You’ll find the computer opponents doing things you’d expect to see from actual player opponents. For example, in a lot of games like this, when you go to war with the computer you have a fairly well establish “front”. The AI will just continue throwing forces at that front trying to beat you back. I found in Warlock: Master of the Arcane that the computer would quite often send forces around behind my main army and strike from behind. Or even worse, send armies off to strike at undefended cities of mine to try to draw my forces away. The AI also seemed fairly competent when it came to spell use, which was annoying, let me stress.
At first glance, it would appear that there are a lot of depth and options here. You have twelve different Great Mages to choose from and there are tons of different spells and starting traits to select from if you’d like to customize them. But really, to be frankly honest, none of that matters. If you’re playing a decently long game, you’ll learn ALL of the spells long before you’ve eliminated half of your opponents. The starting traits only amount to small head starts. As you eliminate opponent Great Mages and take over their cities, you’ll gain access to those races and troop types. So really, by the end of the game, you’ll have access to pretty much everything you spent so many agonizing minutes picking and choosing from when you created the game.
The End of the War…
In conclusion, Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a quite fun return to the fantasy themed 4X game space that hasn’t really been touched for some time now. It doesn’t bring a lot of revolution or evolution to the table, but it does what it does very well. If you’re a strategy gamer, you’ll feel very at home here. For only $20, you can hardly beat the amount of fun you’ll get at that price point. Sure, there’s no multiplayer at launch, which is a major letdown, but the devs state that it will be added as a free update down the road. So just look at the present state as practice grounds for once MP is added.