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Warlock 2: The Exiled Review: 4X Fantasy Fun
Creating a Fantasy version of the grand-daddy of all turn-based 4X strategy series – Civilization – is nothing new, but strangely it’s never been given the proper attention (unlike a Sci-Fi version in Alpha Centauri, which is recently being revived this year in Beyond Earth). The Fall from Heaven mod for Civilization IV (which was so popular it was included in the official Civ IV expansion Beyond the Sword) fueled many a Civ fan’s feverish dreams of that classic gameplay system mixed with fantasy creatures and spells.
Along came Warlock: Master of the Arcane, the 2012 release that created an entire stand-alone game built upon the premise of a Fantasy Civ. It showed a lot of promise, and Warlock 2: The Exiled builds upon those ideas and concepts to create an enjoyable experience that should prove a lot of fun for Civ fans looking for something a bit different.
Warlock 2 wears its Civ-inspired gameplay proudly on its menus, gameplay and UI. The primary game mode is Sandbox, where you generate a new random world (or several worlds, interconnected via portals) with size, number of players, and landmass type all user-defined. Over a dozen pre-made Great Mages are available, and can be further customized with starting spells or passive abilities such as +10% gold production. More importantly each ruler is associated with up to six different races for their starting city. Each race, from standard humans and elves to the more exotic Planestriders has a very limited tech tree and number of units that can be produced – the real joy is in looting neutral monster dens and getting powerful units as rewards, capturing neutral (and opposing Great Mages’) cities to create that race’s units and building your own cities near special resource sites that unlock new fantastical units, such as a Red Dragon Nest, Koatl Village and Dwarven Settlement.
A campaign of sorts exists with the titular Exiled. When creating a new game, selecting The Exiled mode allows you to play through the story picked up from the first game where a Great Mage ascended as the United One and sundered the world into multiple smaller shards. This translates into nearly a dozen Tiny-sized worlds separated by a maze of portals. It’s an interesting way of marrying a story-driven single player experience to strategic empire management as players conquer each shard one after the other before making their way to the final giant world of Ardania to take on the United One (along with a few pesky Great Mages). Having so many worlds can be tricky to keep track of, even with the UI offering a helpful jump to world interface and listing which units are where on each one, and I found the whole experience to take much longer than I would have cared for.
The biggest change in concept when looking at a Fantasy version of Civ is the complete lack of technological advancement – a cornerstone of the classic Civilization series. Warlock 2 replaces the global research tech tree with spells. Spells include simple direct damage like fireballs and shadow blasts, kingdom wide buffs like increased experience, and even major terraforming abilities like raising and lowering the land (creating huge lakes or mountains around someone’s carefully constructed metropolis is super mean and effective).
Runes can also be found as rewards for capturing the various monster dens, and can be applied to spells for various effects, such as adding a stun to your fireball or decreasing the mana cost of your heals. I found the spells fairly basic and a little limiting; while it was nice to be able to spend a resource in bulk (and gives good incentive to always be hoarding mana) there are only two real paths for spell advancement, and the AI typically just spams direct damage.
Of course no Fantasy game could be complete without some kind of RPG aspect, and Warlock 2 manages to succeed with random heroes that are available for hire. These heroes are typically very powerful units with additional abilities like healing, buffing, or AOE attacks, and can wield artifacts that you can find or buy. These heroes always ended up as the backbone of my army, though the squishier magic users can fall easily when overwhelmed by even stronger foes.
Each unit has multiple resistances and attack types, making it extremely important to examine each new foe you find to know what you’re up against. Damage types come in several flavors from physical to death magic to elemental, and having a well-rounded group of units was often the success to taking on enemies.
While battling the other Great Mages on the map, the world is filled with random monster dens and roaming beasts. These dens can spawn anywhere on the map and throughout the game, effectively throwing a monkey wrench into your well-conceived conquest in the South when a red dragon suddenly appears flying into your Eastern Front out of the fog of war. Units are tiered as Basic, Advanced, and Elite and each unit gains experience and can choose between one of three random level-up abilities (usually passive resistances or attack buffs, though heroes can gain new abilities). Since monster dens reward you with any combination of gold, mana, artifacts, monster units or even heroes, hunting them down is both profitable and fun, and a great way to tie in more RPG-like progression and exploration mechanics.
In most 4X turn-based strategy games there are times when you’re simply clicking that End Turn button, and many times if you’re not actively engaged in warfare against an opponent and have already expanded your empire to its limit, you might not have that much to do. Warlock 2 solves that problem rather elegantly with the bevy of neutral monsters, always giving your armies reason to explore and fight, as well as random text quests that give you several options on how to solve various crises that occur (vampires attack your city – do you let them feed and take the hit to happiness or refuse and spawn an angry vampire unit outside your town).
For this reason it might seem like games of Warlock would last much longer than a similarly sized Civ game but I found the opposite to be true. Thanks in part to the very limited tech advancement for each race and the limited amount of expansion each player can do (after 5 or 6 cities you start getting penalized with a gold deduction – time to start razing or turning existing cities into non-producing “free cities”). The power curve happens much quicker and I found Normal-sized maps took about half the time as similarity styled strategy games, something I was very pleased about and certainly plays to its strengths.
While Warlock 2 offers a lot of fun concepts that separate it from being just a Civilization mod, it definitely wears its budget constraints on its sleeve. The UI is decently functional but wholly unattractive, with too-tiny text in standard 1920 x 1080 for my taste. The options menu is a pitiful collection of volume controls, lacking simple functions like rebinding hotkeys. Tool tips gave only the barest of information, and many times I was completely lost on what some abilities did. Building a Smithy gives you the Armorer perk for example – what does that mean? Eventually I found out you had to open the Unit Overview panel and assign this perk (which on that screen explains it gives a small resistance boost to a unit) and individually assign up to five of them to various units for a marginal gold cost. None of that was explained when constructing the building and the game lacks any kind of searchable Civilopedia-style database.
For 4X strategy veterans much of the gameplay should be immediately intuitive, but the little overlay-style tutorial does a poor job of teaching you Warlock’s new concepts. Once you learn what everything does it’s smooth sailing and my enjoyment improved immensely, but it’s a big shame that newcomers may find a difficult hurdle and learning curve. I was also a bit shocked at how inept the enemy AI functions at Normal difficulty, often watching their only city and handful of troops repeatedly beaten down by random wandering monsters. Thankfully a scaling difficulty can afford them some much-needed advantages, but that’s always been a band-aid solution to a festering problem in strategy games.