Warlock: Master of the Arcane
Remember Majesty 2, with all its silliness about units only doing things after you offer money? Remember thinking to yourself “Gee, I wish this was less of an RTS and more of a Civilization clone?” Of course you don’t, because there are probably three westerners who have played Majesty 2. I bet quite a bit more of you know Civilization V, and Warlock: Master of the Arcane is Civilization with Magic. Or, if we want to get Stardock-y, Elementar: War of Magic That Works.
The King of Ardania is gone, his kingdom is shattered and Mages vie over the land and its riches. Congratulations, you are one of these grand mages, ready to stake your claim to whatever you can get your sorcerous hand on! The game has little in the way of a story and scoffs at the idea of a “campaign”, much like Sins of a Solar Empire does. I don’t know exactly what fate has befallen the King and who cares? We have cities to conquer, monsters to slay and treacherous former allies to crush!
Your path to glory starts with your capital – you can’t move it and, once it’s lost, you’re dead. Should have spent more time exercising, that wrinkly wizard. Now you’re doomed to be crushed by your ivory tower, much like a hoarder is squashed by his 20 year stack of Watchtower issues. Anyway, you build units and houses and gradually expand your empire. You can only build buildings once the city level ups – and it’s pretty straightforward from there on. With the exception of special buildings, most structures are not iffy about placement – some special buildings give a choice, like, when you find an elven dwelling, between building an elven village (to get elven archers) or an elven casino (to get money – though I’d prefer a bordello). And since your magical dictatorship cares not about the feelings of its citizens, the only stats you need to juggle are food, money and magic. The current situation of each is explained in the top bar (kingdom wide, with mouseover providing details about who is producing and what is consuming) and in the city window (only for the city selected). It’s pretty easy once you adjust for the race you’re playing.
Skullville - real subtle there, chief.
Warlock has three races – well, four with a DLC and I played a fully DLC’ed game. The humans are your run of the mill humans, with swordsmen and whatnot. They are clearly favoured by the Gods (more like developers) since they can build temples to any God whatsoever (more on that later on). The monsters are your collection of gnomes, goblins, werewolves and other miscreants – yet they all had citizenship under the old kingdom. After much time spent playing I’ve yet to see any grand differences from humans – maybe monsters get crappier starting units? The undead, on the other hand are exceptional, because their units use mana (instead of food) for upkeep and, more importantly, THEY HAVE FLYING SHIPS OH GOD THIS IS BEYOND AWESOME. This is somewhat diminished by the fact that the fourth – DLC – race, the Arethi Elves, are also crafty enough (read: lazy game devs) to have flying ships of their own. The Elves boast the hardest hitting units of them all, though they are crazy expensive both in price and upkeep. And while stylistically they’re BDSM elves just like in, say, Warhammer Fantasy, they actually belong to the side of Good. Huh.
In any case (and with any race), you will have to get to ass kicking and fast, since the world is always out to get you. One thing you’ll notice, right away, is that it’s better to have a small army of crack troopers, decked up to their ears in magical gear, than a large army of redshirts. That’s because when units level up and gain equipment from your empire, they become insanely powerful. Most units can be upgraded into better units and, in some cases (“almost all” if you’re playing human), into temple units, which are kickass. So you had, say, a unit of Veterans, high level (and all the associated skills), the best gear money can buy. So you shell out some gold and now you have Paladins of Dauros, same level, same skills and gear with the added benefits that come with being a paladin of Dauros. With a good enough build you can leave it on defense and see wave after wave of enemies crash at them with little ill effect. Humans clearly win here since they have the most units that can be upgraded in such a manner.
Sea serpent, the main foe of shoreline fortifications.
And yet, even such heroic units can be totally swept aside when faced with a Hero! These aren’t anything especially heroic, represented by single models of already existing units. But they can use items (and, with a DLC, you can build items yourself!) and they get absurdly powerful later on. Especially if you get an Ogre hero, since he can attack three hexes in front of it – now you understand what I said about redshirt armies? Ogres pulverize them with nary a glance. And that is why you have flying ships, the Elven/Undead choice of Siege unit. On the downside they are prohibitively expensive to maintain. Unlike a regular ass ranged unit, flying ships can’t be attacked in melee and cross any kind of terrain with ease, which makes them a favorite for exploration and killing sea critters.
Why would you send flying ships against sea critters? Because Warlock hates you and regular monster lairs will spawn on the map. This can be mighty annoying on the ground and even dangerous to new cities, but in the sea it basically fucks up any dreams of amphibious invasions that you ever had. Ships, like regular units, level up by killing stuff and at sea there’re only two kinds of stuff to kill. Krakens, who can one-shot almost every shit and sea snakes, which are like krakens, but ranged. The latter can even harass coastal cities. And they don’t stop spawning unless you get someone into the hex that contains their lair.
Assaulting pocked dimensions, kind of stupid.
As such, critters are the main trouble you have on normal difficulty. Why? Because AI players are stupid in extremis (and multiplayer is not yet fully implemented). Not once have I seen competent military tactics or anything akin to a preplanned invasion. And I’ve seen my share of war, since the AI declares it the instant it decides it doesn’t like you. No matter how strong your military is or that you haven’t even seen their country on the map yet (some maps can be big while exploration is hampered by sea snakes and other stuff), when the Super Magic Arcane Friendship Bar drops low enough, you’re going to war. Find their capital, teleport some awesome Temple units, kill them, then conquer the newly neutral cities of his former kingdom. The main difference will be that neutral cities can’t cast spells and those are probably the most annoying thing about other mages, especially if it’s a spell disruption curse.
Since, you know, spells have to be prepared, sometimes for two turns. And while most of them are redundant and spell research is badly implemented (you want to know how what the research tree looks like? Too bad), some are really helpful. Like resurrection, which lets you bring back probably every unit that you have lost since the beginning of the game (one at a time). Extremely useful, since they come back with their levels and gear intact. And metateleportation lets you get your units wherever you want on the map, even if it’s an another plane of existence.
The enemy will waste all of his mana to summon ghost wolves. Why would you do that, you can't even cuddle them!
That’s because Warlock maps have the possibility to contain realms, pocket dimensions reachable through portals. They have some nice resources and unique places for buildings (I’ve yet to find a naturally occurring Gold Dragon nest in Ardania), but they also have a shit ton of critter lairs. And they keep spawning them, up to the point that if you discover a gate late in the game, almost every hex will be filled with dragons, elementals and other assorted nasties. This makes assaulting the places very difficult at any part of the game (because early on your units can’t match some of the locals), especially with dragons (flying) and elementals (ranged, immune to most magic). Then again, that’s why you have heroes and temple units – it’s fun to set, say, Blademasters on defense and see dragons almost kill themselves on the attack. The problem with the planes is that you can’t relocate your capital there (or anywhere, for that matter), so it makes extraplanar holdings not as important. Imagine the fun you would have if you had to assault a vestigial empire in its own pocket dimension, only reachable through a singular and probably well defended gate.
And all this fun is rendered in a fairly competent engine, which, while not flashy, works pretty damn competently. The sound part, on the other hand… Like many a game not made in the US or the UK (or even Japan), it has horrible, absolutely terrible voice acting. While you may stomach the unit lines for Flying Galleus or Court Werevolves (with tophats), most monster units will make your ears bleed with the sound and stupidity of their lines (“Spears! Oh, you know we spears, right?” say the goblin spearmen). Humans are a bit better since they have better voices. All in all, this is a major problem with all smaller game developers, yet one I can’t forgive after playing Mideast Crisis 2. I’m sure someone will point out that Isotx is not that small a developer, but MC2 is still a free mod with better voice acting than any (and I do mean any) Russian made RTS ever managed.
Additional Notes - DLC
The DLCs are a mixed bunch, with the Return of The Elves being the most important, since it adds another race to the existing three. Arethi Elves mix cool units with awesome, if not entirely original aesthetics AND FLYING SHIPS. Power of Serpent gives you koatl, aztec lizardmen (are there any other kind?), three types of them, backed by a giant turtle. To get them and their special training you have to find and settle a koatl village (just like any other special location). Powerful Lords lets you take perks that grant you one of two heroes - High Blademaster or the Imp advisor - from the get go, so it might be useful for bolstering one’s military early on. Master of the Artifacts lets you, well, make artifacts and give them to your lords. Return of the Elves is the best of the four, though since they cost a paltry trickle each, it’s not really worth worrying about your spending.
While the game is far from a polished diamond, Warlock: Master of the Arcane can still devour hours upon hours of your time. Sure, it’s less complex that Elemental: War of Magic, but Warlock also lacks its many bugs and is easily accessible to boot. So, keep that in mind before trying it: you might not like it initially, but once you get into it – for, say, an hour – you just see your free time wither and pass away.
- Easy to learn: It’s almost “Baby’s First 4X”, the mechanics are so easy
- Great unit variety: The four races have an interesting mix of units
- Fun: The lore is full of humor
- Competent graphics engine: It would probably run quite well on a notebook, too.
- Storyless: Nary a campaign nor a scenario in sight
- Horrible voice acting: Oh God, the voice acting...
- Stupid AI: Duller than a regular YouTube commenter