Review: Warlock: Master of the Arcane

As mentioned in my previous preview, Warlock is a 4X turn-based strategy game set in the world of the Ardania, the setting for the Majesty series of games which shows you just how much Paradox are pushing this franchise revival. After the tower defense title Defenders of Ardania, they’re now throwing their comedic fantasy world into the ring dominated by Sid Meier’s Firaxis studios. Does Warlock manage to give the famed Civilization series a run for its money?

Warlock: Master of the Arcane
Systems: PC (Reviewed)
System Specs: AMD Athlon II X4 640, 4GB DDR3 RAM, ATI Radeon HD5770, Windows 7 64-Bit
Developer: Ino-Co Plus
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date:May 8th, 2012
MSRP: $19.99

To quickly recap the story, after your character in Majesty 2: Monster Kingdom unites all the lands under his rule as Great Number One King of All-Around Awesomeness and Fluffy Muffins I and ushers in a new era of peace and prosperity, he takes nearly his entire army and all the highest lords of the land and goes North to claim more land. He is promptly never heard from again. As you would expect from a culturally diverse autocratic despot state who has lost their incredibly strong unifying leader and with no heir in sight, the whole country splits into rival factions ruled by a different Great Mage who now seeks to unite the land under his or her rule. You play as one of these great mages as you steer your nation to dominance.

Here we come to the first problem of the game: dominance. The four victory conditions are pretty bleak: You have the standard dominance victory where you destroy all your rivals. Then you have the Holy Ground victory, where your domain controls all of the special Holy Ground resource. Third, you have the option to defeat a God’s avatar if you get them so pissed off at you (which is possible to avoid). Finally, you have the option to research and cast the final spell in the game, Unity, which gives you an automatic victory.

In other words, two of those victories rely on military might alone. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to claim all the Holy Grounds without conquering the cities of your opponents, so that’s three out of four objectives which rely on killing things to complete the game. In other games, such as Civilization V, you have the option of cultural and diplomatic victories in addition to military and scientific, the latter two being the only two choices given to you by Warlock. This somewhat limits replay value as it doesn’t allow for different play styles other than glorious conqueror.

At the very least, you have a total of twelve Great Mages to play as, from your standard Albus Dumbledore-style classical wizards to Liches to Rat Kings. You can customize your own Great Mage in the built-in editor (though unfortunately, you cannot change the still portrait), and you can play as one of three races: Human, Undead, and Monsters. Each have different building trees and city graphics, and each can create completely different units. Sure, some units are analogous to others (e.g. Human Warriors are similar to Goblin Spearman), but all have different stats and perks that set them apart from each other. The best news is that, if you conquer a city that belongs to another race, you can recruit their units and build their buildings. This leads to incredibly varied armies as there are dozens upon dozens of choices for army composition. Case in point: I have giant trolls lumbering alongside fleet-footed elven archers backed up by knights on donkeys and Undead female paladins in a glorious multiethnic army of doom.

Speaking of which, there’s also a variety of building choices depending on the city’s race. For example, a Pumpkin resource for Humans and Undead isn’t anything special; you can build a pumpkin farm on it that will give you additional food over a regular farm. However, the Monsters get a special building called the Shrine to the Rotten Pumpkin. This will cause you to lose money in upkeep but will allow all units recruited in that city to gain the trait Blessings of Hill o’Ween, which allows them to regenerate health in combat (units from other cities can be upgraded with this perk for additional gold). Another resource, Donkeys, allows you to build a caravan post on it, which gives you a lot of gold per turn. Human cities have the option to build The Order of the Stubborn Knights on Donkey tiles, which gives you access to none other than knights riding on donkeys. Gotta love the whimsical nature of the Majesty franchise.

Unlike in Civilization, where the tiles around the city affect its production, the terrain around your cities in Warlock do not effect your production rates at all. You see, citizens in Civ work the tiles around the city, and building improvements on said tiles improves the efficiency of the citizen. In Warlock, citizens are useful for only one thing: each citizen is basically an additional building slot. So a city with population of eight can have eight buildings and it doesn’t matter where these buildings are: a farm in a lush fertile valley is equal to a farm on a volcano or an inhospitable desert. The only exceptions are harbours and similar buildings, which need to be on the coast; and the aforementioned special buildings that require special resources like gold mines, holy grounds, or magic fields. While this brings a certain level of freedom to the player, it unbalances the game because there’s really no consequence for plopping down a city wherever you feel like it. Is there a gold mine inside this inhospitable location full of volcanoes and lava fields? Who cares? Just put a city in there and get that gold. Is there some empty space somewhere? Put a city there. Who cares if it’s in the middle of a desert? This leads to a strategy where spamming settlers is a viable option, unlike in other 4X games where you have to carefully consider where to place your settlements lest they become a drain on your resources. In Warlock, every city can crank out gold or food or what have you.

Moving onto the sound, I’m sad to say my favourite composer, Andreas Waldetoft, is not working on this title despite being the composer for Majesty 2. However, the music is good and fits the setting well, and I’ve been humming the theme tune without realizing it lately. The voice acting, on the other hand, is horrible. Not all of it is horrible, but it ranges from OK to I-wish-I-can-mute-this-unit bad. The most annoying voices are that of Elven and Goblin archers, who speak in incredibly high-pitched voices that somehow made it past testing.

The graphics are also a mixed bag. The 3D models and effects are pleasant and have pleasing animations very similar to Civilization V, though they’re a bit inferior. In fact, a person who’s not paying attention might confuse the two games’ screenshots. The UI and presentation are schizophrenic: some of the menus, like the new game creation one, look fantastic with golden geared machines everywhere, but the rest of the game looks amateurish. The whole game uses unaliased Arial font for the text, the unit descriptions are oddly written, and the diplomacy window looks very spartan with non-animated leader portraits and very few options to actually engage in diplomacy. There are no lists or advisors of any kind, unless you count the Sean Connery sound alike presenting the bare-bones tutorial, which makes managing your empire increasingly tedious.

One huge problem pervades all: there’s no tech tree for the great magic system in the game. Instead of technologies like other games, you research new and more powerful spells as time goes on until you reach Unity. Most of the spells are very useful; I especially stick to the healing and summon spells, and teleport is amazingly useful. The problem is that the tech tree isn’t documented anywhere: not in the game, the game’s web site, or anywhere in the game’s manual. This leaves off undocumented things like how any improvement on a tile counts as a road, shortening movement time. I completely discovered this by accident because the game refused to tell me.

The enemy Great Mage AI is also incredibly dumb and will declare war on you for no other reason than because they’re assholes. Though they shouldn’t be too threatening since they march all their units in a straight line to be killed by your units, and movement ranges are so small that it’s very difficult to maneuver your army in anything other than a straight line. Sometimes, I would click on a location past the front line and my unit would actually march in the opposite direction because they need to go around a mountain range, ride a boat, and then get off on the other side of the landmass to move to the location.

This is exasperated by one of the worst control systems in any strategy game. How can anyone mess up the controls for a turn-based strategy game? The answer is simple: design it like it was made for that shitty one-button mouse that Macintosh computers use. Most games have a “left-click select, right-click moves” system, but not WarlockWarlock does everything with the left mouse button, including selecting and canceling. Sure, you can cancel with the right mouse button, but if you happen to click on another town or unit whilst trying to cancel your current unit, you’ll open up a new window with information about that other unit. Unfortunately, the game is still running in the background, so if you accidentally slip and miss the close window button, you might order your frail clerics to go into melee range with a giant Fire Elemental. In addition, unlike Civilization and other games which automatically deselect units when they run out of movement points, units in Warlock stay selected so you can give them additional orders for following turns. This is tedious when you have many units and accidentally give some of them orders to march against a monster’s lair, when in reality, you simply were trying to select another unit. Then, many turns later, you wonder where your Halberdiers went.

And don’t get me started on monsters. Many 4X gamers are familiar with the concept of Barbarians, neutral units that harass you in the early game but are quite easy to defeat and wipe from the map before long. Keeping with the theme from the Majesty games, Warlock features neutral cities that you can’t interact with other than by conquest and barbarians in the form of Monsters. Not keeping with the theme of other 4X games, these monsters are really powerful. The first few monsters you meet are easy to kill, such as wolves and rats. Perhaps some Imps will give you a bit of challenge, but then you see the almighty Fire Elemental, who can wipe out most of your early units in one hit from two hexes away. Even your very late-game hero units will have trouble taking him on alone, and he’s usually escorted by half a dozen other smaller monsters. You spend so much time getting these damn things off your borders that it took me 250 turns—nearly half a game—to meet the final great mage rival. Some monsters, like werewolves, actually regenerate health, so without gangraping them with an entire army and strategic use of your spells, you’ll never have a chance.

Finally, to top off the Majesty references, we have a quest system. From time to time, you’ll get quests from either your advisor, who gives you penalty free quests; or one of the gods in the game, though refusing/failing their quests will earn negative points with them. Most of the time, it works well and you get cool rewards for building harbors or other buildings that you were going to build anyway. But sometimes it asks you to do silly stuff, like build a harbour in a city you just built a harbour in. Other times, it asks you to do some incredibly annoying things: it may spawn a very powerful monster (e.g. black werewolves) right in the middle of your domain and ask you to kill them in twenty turns, and since you’re going to be at war with someone often, most of your units are going to be far away when this happens. Combine that with how they move like molasses, and you get some idea on how annoying this is.

But it’s not as annoying compared to how utterly impossible some tasks are: I once got a request to build a temple to one of the gods in the game within twenty turns, with the penalty being that god’s ire. The problem was, I was playing as a human race Great Mage, and the temple needed a Monster race city to build (he was a monster god, you see). Not only that, but this temple could be built only in a Monster city with the very rare Holy Ground resource on it, which, as I mentioned before, is jealously guarded because holding all the Holy Grounds is a game ending victory. At this point in the game, I had yet to see a single monster city. But that’s not all: Let’s assume that I’m telepathic enough to see the whole map and there are no enemies between me and the required city. I first have to move my lumbering siege units to that distant target one hex per turn. Once I’m there, cities in Warlock have huge HP numbers, usually over 400 HP each, and the most advanced Siege units can do about 30HP per attack.

What the game has given me is a mathematically impossible task to preform and penalizes me for not being being Jesus Christ himself. I have literally never seen this happen in any game before.

I ranted a lot about the flaws in the game, but in reality, it’s because I feel this game was so close to recreating the addicting thrills of Civilization and the magic mayhem of the oft-mentioned Master of Magic but falls short in several areas including UI, AI, voice acting, and balance. That being said, at $19.99, it’s not too expensive and is a decent first try at cracking the 4X turn-based market. While all I wanted to do was play Civilization instead of Warlock in the end, I’d be very open to seeing a sequel with a bigger budget and now more experienced devs in charge.

* Decent music
* Decent graphics
* Large unit and race variety
* Humorous and non-serious atmosphere
* Fun magic system
* Interesting Other World game mechanic
* Low price point

* Bad voice acting
* Amateurish production values
* Poor AI
* Poor diplomatic options
* Lack of basic organizational aids
* Overpowered monsters
* Lack of documentation


Disclosure: The reviewer was provided a copy of the game free of charge by Paradox Interactive via the Steam digital delivery platform. The reviewer played two games on normal difficulty setting with default settings (four other mages, normal sized continent-style world, three other worlds), totaling nearly sixteen hours of gameplay.

Mohamed Al Saadoon

About Mohamed Al Saadoon