Half the world was coloured the, um, turquoise of my undead armies. My war with the Anubislike dog-mage Sol looked set to bring more territory under my control. Things were going well.
Rjakh is demanding 900 mana or he’ll declare war. Well, no, I need it. Sure, history has proven it’s bad to fight a war on two fronts, but history didn’t command a two-headed poison spitting dragon. War it is.
Anna the Benign is demanding 900 mana or she’ll declare war. Really? Anna the Benign is giving ultimatums? I could be in trouble.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane isn’t without its problems, but it has what I always look for in a turn-based strategy game: the ability to generate stories. From your first forays to the final climactic (if grind-heavy) wars against fellow mages, there’s plenty of drama along the way.
You start with a city, a couple of basic units and a whole lot of uncovered land to explore. The first turns of each campaign are about sending your small scouting force out across the hex-tiles of the map to battle monsters and find resource tiles for future cities. So far, so Civilization-with-werewolves, but Warlock streamlines its empire management, sacrificing grand strategy for more immediate tactical experiences.
The real meat is in planning and upgrading your forces. Do you construct a Palace on the Minotaur caves, giving you access to a new unit, or a Labyrinth that toughens existing ones? Each unit can be upgraded to fearsome death bringers, and the investment encourages you not to needlessly waste the armies of goblins, skeletons, vampires and ratmen you’ll command.
When numbers aren’t enough, you can cast spells that directly affect your battles. These are researched, and provide bonuses, healing, direct damage, or summoned monsters each turn – provided you have the mana reserves.
It’s here Warlock’s simplicity starts to feel restrictive. The lack of a tech tree means there’s no logical progression to the spells you research, nor are they related to character choice. Most of all, the AI just isn’t savvy enough for you to need more than a handful.
Diplomacy is barebones: you can trade gold for mana (or vice versa), make an alliance or start a war, but that’s about it. There’s no personality or consistency to the behaviour of the other mages you deal with. Their bluster, disdain and booming voices seem silly when they’re offering you all their resources for peace.
Warlock is at its best when you’re exploring the unknown, raiding the numerous neutral cities that occupy the map, or fighting respawning monsters in the hunt for treasure. This is taken to the extreme with portals, which lead to other worlds filled with powerful monsters. There are great rewards in these alternate realms, but they’re never truly needed because it’s so easy to keep your empire running efficiently.
In most places, Warlock’s lack of complexity isn’t a major problem, rather a design choice that makes it easy to get to the main draw of building a terrifying force of beasties. But the AI soon become tiresome. They rarely send enough troops out to threaten your own borders and, with no multiplayer to nullify their stupidity, Warlock’s most interesting ideas go underused and its campaigns start to drag
Exploring is fun, resource exploitation is basic and extermination is tedious. It’s an X-and-a-bit off being a great 4X strategy.