Warlock: Master of the Arcane was one of those games that just got better the longer it was out. At release it felt somewhat uninspiring, but over time it saw a number of patches that enhanced and polished the game enough to generally realize the fundamentally good idea that was born decades before with Master of Magic. Developed by Ino-Co and published by Paradox, Warlock was a slow burn. But by the end I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.
If I’m honest, I was a little surprised — though not unpleasantly so — to discover there was to be a sequel.
Since the announcement in October of 2013 — an announcement which came with with delightfully cringe-worth tagline "Pure Hextacy" — I found myself increasingly interested in the development of Warlock II: The Exiled. In this iteration we find a fractured world, where you play as an exiled mage seeking to traverse between the broken shards of your world in order to get back home, and in the process defeat a powerful mage responsible for the cataclysmic destruction.
It’s an interesting take on the original game, but there was good reason to wonder if the sequel would come out of the gate having learned the lessons of the first release, or if it too would need its own time to percolate. Well, I’ve had a week with a full preview build of the game, and I think I know the answer.
You don’t, as a rule, want to lay down a lot of declarative statements in a preview, because who knows what may change between now and the April release date, but what I’ve seen so far of Warlock II is highly encouraging.
At its heart, the most basic mechanics of this hex-grid, turn-based strategy game are familiar whether you played the first Warlock or not. If you played Civilization 5, then you come to this game pre-equipped with all the basic requisites to quickly grasp most of the concepts presented. City-building, army controls, tech development, combat and city management will all be relatively familiar, though Warlock II has its unique little spins on all of them.
Fundamentally, the sequel lands close to the mark set by the fully realized first game, largely upping the ante in the ways you might expect. There are more spells, more land types, more monsters, more options and, in general, more variety. But this version feels further down the track of the same ideas expressed in the first Warlock, and as a result plays cleanly right out of the gate.
The shattered world mechanic both encourages and enhances the sense of world exploration while giving you a feeling of ownership and progress. As you acquire and control landmasses, the segmentation gives you lots of small steps to follow toward success, and so even though you may only really have 2 of the 10+ worlds controlled, it feels like progress, which is nicely motivating.
The shards do feel a little small at first, and it can be easy to feel cramped on a single land mass with more than 3 or 4 cities, but the game is also somewhat stingy about letting you build up an empire of volume rapidly, and tends to frown on mages that build a dozen cities. Apparently mages aren’t particularly great urban administrators, and besides it probably wouldn’t be all that fun as a player to manage so many cities across multiple landscapes, each on an independent world. I’d much rather be casting spells and sending dragons to fight Krakens on the open sea of my tropical world, or my minotaurs to smash some skeleton archers on the dead fields of some other hellish landscape.
Warlock II knows where its bread-and-butter play is at. For a spellcaster that means having cool spells to sling at evildoers, and this game is always encouraging you to do just that. The familiar tech trees of 4x games is here about spells and spells only. You won’t be asked to make heart-crushing choices between learning a cool fireball or being responsible and investing in some mundane technology to better manage the water systems of your empire. Presumably, as a mage, you hire someone to worry about things like plumbing; you have things to set on fire!
What I’m most pleased with in this iteration of Warlock is how dynamic it feels. There is rarely a moment where I don’t have 3 or 4 different short-term goals I’m trying to accomplish. As a result there are interesting things to do on almost every turn, and those things were far more often of the "protect against some rival mage" or "kill that weird, giant, armored turtle thing" type than the "manage some spreadsheet screen" type.
Warlock II has a delightful sense of fun to it that makes the game feel much lighter without being silly. The visuals are colorful. The different landscapes, which range from great fields of ice to a burning hell-world, add a layer of variety. The questing mechanics give you interesting things to do at a nice pace to fit in between the already interesting things you were probably doing. There are oodles of spells to play with, and equally as many different kinds of creatures to fight through on your long path across the multiverse back home.
Warlock II is shaping up to be a serious strategy game that avoids the trap of taking itself too seriously. While far from easy, it does a great job of rewarding you when you do something right and giving you good reasons to keep pushing forward — or at least start a new game — when you do things wrong. It is in almost every capacity a step forward from its previous iteration, a game I already thought was fun despite its flaws. From all indications, it will be a game worth carving out a nice chunk of time for.