Warlock: Master of the Arcane review
Mysterious, understood by few, secret. From the Latin word ‘Arceo’: to ward off, protect, enclose.
To master the arcane is to master a secretive art, to push your boundaries. It is, in fact, one of the ways in which games distinguish themselves from other media – they can force players to learn new and challenging things in order to progress and succeed. The era of the home computer wars was a treasure trove of games which were happy to have players learn. Games like Captain Blood, in which the player needed to learn a befuddling glyphic form of communication in order to deal with the aliens encountered in their intergalactic travels, forced the player to truly master the arcane – in this case, an arcane language – in order to progress. However, as time has gone on this willingness of developers to subject potential players to arcane trials has diminished – something to do with increasing costs of development, the broader user-base, the risk of alienating potential customers and so on.
So, does Warlock: Master of the Arcane live up to its name in any way more meaningful than simply including magic spells? Does it seek to impart lessons upon the player; to throw unusual obstacles and challenges at them? Well, assuming you’ve ever played a 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. Yes, it’s a pretty awful name. Think Civilization, Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations), and read or seen something involving Orcs – or even Orks – before. Done that? Then you’re pretty much set.
Here’s what you could have won…
You see, Warlock’s name belies the fact that this is about as mundane a 4X game as you could hope for. You explore the map, expand your influence with new cities, exploit natural resources to build bigger and better armies, and exterminate your enemies. If you’ve ever played a game of Civilization you won’t find much to surprise you here. The first difference you’ll notice will in fact be one of omission: there are no lengthy research trees here, no directing of your culture through scientific or political wrangling. No, the units you can build, and their potential effectiveness, change only with your access to special resources: start with a city near a useful set of tiles and you’re set for the game.
Which isn’t to say there’s no research at all. As a Warlock, you wield more direct control over events than your counterparts in most other 4X games, having the ability to cast spells at will; spells that you must research in order to use. However, this is no linear research tree: the spells you may choose to research are selected from a randomised pool of 5, with each researched spell being replaced by a new, randomly-selected spell, meaning you can never plan on having access to specific spells within a set timeframe.
These spells can be fun to wield. Hurling thunderbolts at giant monsters; cursing skeletal hordes; endowing your troops with the ability to fly: your ability to directly influence the fate of your troops is empowering and gives you a reason to avoid channelling all of your resources into producing food and gold: storing mana and accruing research points can mean you have a devastating fireball up your sleeve just when you need it.
It’s all a bit…
You will come to appreciate the slight differences that Warlock gives its different races: different races that you end up commanding, with each conquered city remaining true to its founders, pumping out troops and buildings according to their original race. You may also enjoy the way the game allows you to explore demonic lands through portals; or the addition of rewards for completing tasks and pleasing gods.; or the fact that the world is filled with dangerous monsters loyal to no civilisation; monsters which can help weaken your enemies with careful baiting… or devastate your own troops should your attempts to herd them be poorly judged.
But, for all these pleasant quirks, Warlock: Master of the Arcane can’t escape from the entropic force of its mundanity. This is a straightforward game of building armies and crushing your enemies (with the help of the occasional spell), inexorably spreading your influence across the land. Every step you take, every move towards global domination, feels like one you’ve taken thousands of times before through countless games and series. Worse, these similarities drive you to compare Warlock to the games that have preceded it – an act that quickly sees the game diminish in the face of its competition.
It loses out in terms of polish: a mini-map that has a tendency of breaking and displaying nothing but black; the fairly basic presentation; the mind-numbingly repetitive sound bites that come from your troops. It loses out in terms of content: the simplistic diplomacy; the relatively limited set of troops you have to command. But most of all it loses out in terms of driving force: with no storyline to follow, and no path of development – scientific or cultural – to guide your civilisation down, your progress is measured only in blood. Which, it turns out, isn’t the most compelling of reasons to carry on – not least when even the post-conquest screen is lacklustre, presenting you with a dull, static cut-scene proclaiming your victory, then dumping you to the credits without so much as a by-your-leave.
It works. But…
There have been worse games, certainly, and Warlock inarguably works – it is a functional example of the 4X genre placed into a fantasy setting. The question is: to what purpose? It’s hard to think of any reason to recommend Warlock over the myriad brilliant 4X games already available, beyond its mild fantasy trappings. I wouldn’t expressly ward anyone away from the game, but I can’t think of any situation where I’d strongly recommend it, either.
Arcane? Regrettably not.