Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Warlock: Master of the Arcane Review

Warlock: Master of the Arcane, developed by Ino-Co Plus and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Fight plentiful creeps for experience upgrades, varied spells, multi-level random maps, multiple victory conditions
The Not So Good: Mostly derivative, trivial economics, very basic diplomatic options, unoriginal quests, some interface limitations, no multiplayer
What say you? A fantasy version of Civilization that offers a bit more than its obvious inspiration: 6/8

I would argue that the most influential turn-based strategy computer game of all time is Civilization. The classic take-over-the-world, just-one-more-turn series has spawned a significant number of real-time (Rise of Nations) and turn-based (Call to Power) successors. Nowadays, you must inject a unique flavor into the traditional formula, or be cast aside as yet another copycat. Adapting tropes from fantasy role-playing games, Warlock: Master of the Arcane hopes to combine the additive gameplay of Civilization with magic spells and roaming monsters. Adding a bit of fantasy has been attempted before, with disappointing results. Does Warlock: Master of the Arcane triumph where others have perished?

Warlock: Master of the Arcane has pretty decent graphics, especially for the price ($20). The visuals are highlighted by the pleasing tile graphics that incorporate high-resolution textures: they are both easily identifiable and bring a varied, bright look to the map. The 3-D unit models are varied as well, covering a wide range of races, but most are too small to notice much detail from an appropriate distance. Some spell effects are better than others, ranging from rings to fire to wimpy flashes of light, and combat animations leave a lot to be desired. As for the sound, unit acknowledgements get repetitive very quickly and the tutorial voice acting recycled from Defenders of Ardania is much too over-the-top. The sound effects for combat are nothing special, and the music is a generic assortment of fantasy tropes. Still, the graphics are solid enough to produce a satisfying package.

Your task in Warlock: Master of the Arcane is to defeat all the other great mages by founding cities, raising troops, engaging neutral monsters, researching spells, and winning. Starting a new game allows you to choose the difficulty setting, which gives the AI better units and an improved economy. Personally, I found the "normal" difficulty to be too easy and the next higher setting ("challenging") to be too difficult thanks to significant bonuses handed to the AI; I'd like to see some option in the middle. Additional new game options include map size, layout type (the frequency of water and whether the map edges connect), number of enemy great mages, and use of additional worlds, which are map layers (entered through a portal) crawling with tons of monsters. However, you cannot customize the frequency of monsters on the map; I've gotten stuck with "unfair" starting positions surrounded by monsters on many occasions (numerous enough that they were able to capture all of my cities except for the capital), so it's a bit surprising this area of the game is static. Before you begin, you must also choose your great mage, either from a list of pre-scripted options or customizing the starting perks (giving additional resources or a faster gathering rate) and initial spells. Victory is earned by destroying all of the rival mages, capturing all holy grounds, casting the spell at the top of the research tree, or defeating a god. However, the game never says how close any player is to any of these goals, so the game can abruptly end without advance notification. In place of a traditional tutorial, Warlock: Master of the Arcane throws a bunch of narrated messages whenever you do anything, which are initially helpful but soon become annoying (but can be turned off). Warlock: Master of the Arcane doesn’t have any multiplayer: not on the same computer, not over a LAN, not online. There are plans to add multiplayer later this year, but not having it at launch is disappointing. The game also fails to save my resolution settings, requiring me to select them each time I load the game.

The interface of Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a tale of two extremes. First, a lot of the aspects of interacting with the game will be instantly familiar to Civilization players. I really like the available action list that displays useful icons when units can upgrade, cities can build something, research can start, enemies are near your cities, and when units can move. In addition, the game will give approximate battle results before an attack starts, so you can gauge when to go on the offensive. However, the interface is not without its problems. While the spell list can be filtered to show only healing or summoning spells, you cannot sort the list by power or cost (it just places things in the order you researched them). Warlock: Master of the Arcane also lacks a simple list of your cities or units that would display what they can recruit and where they are. The game also lacks a building tree, so you can have no idea how to construct specific buildings related to quests. You also cannot undo your move orders. While this makes it more “fair” when you accidentally encounter powerful monsters, it would be nice to have when you accidentally issue a move order you never intended. With a bit more polish, the interface of Warlock: Master of the Arcane would be a complete success.

Your magical empire relies on three main resources: gold, food, and mana. These are collected by building specific structures in your cities, and spent on units, other buildings, and spells. You can also increase the rate at which you research new spells. In addition to accumulating resources, buildings can also recruit new units and take advantage of special resource hexes contained within the city limits. I found it trivially easy to keep your economy humming right along: just build the right structures for each resource and everything will be fine. Buildings don’t cost anything to construct, which means it’s very hard to crash your economy, unless you recruit a bunch of units at one time without planning on supporting their per-turn gold and food cost. I commonly had more mana than I could spend on spells (especially since most of the high-level spells take multiple turns to cast), although I did have to keep an eye on gold since better units cost significantly more money to recruit. There is also no upkeep penalty for spamming cities near every special resource location you find; as a result, the side with the most cities will have a significant advantage.

Units in Warlock: Master of the Arcane run the usual gamut of ranged and melee options, although there are specific types of magical attacks in the game (death, life, elemental). The range of races in the game means there will be some unit variety on the battlefield, but most races still get a cheap melee, cheap ranged, and more expensive version of each. Units will automatically morph into naval transports if you have a harbor in any city (much like Rise of Nations), which is quite helpful. As units defeat enemies, they gain experience, and when units level up, you get to choose one of three upgrades, increasing attack or defense against melee or ranged action, movement speed, sight range, or a number of other attributes. A lot of experience can be racked up by fighting the monsters that roam the lands looking for something to attack. Monsters spawn from specific locations that can be captured, and they can be a very serious threat for single units. If monsters (or anybody you are at war with) comes knocking at your door, towns can defend with ranged weapons, which is usually enough to beat back a single unit, but insufficient against an organized assault. Having monsters and neutral towns on the map makes the early game of Warlock: Master of the Arcane far more interesting.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane allows you to research a large variety of spells that can be cast onto the field of battle. These are divided up into attacks against hexes, healing friendly units, faster movement (teleportation or flying), summoning monsters of your own, or improving unit attack ratings. While there are a nice number of spells to choose from, with the game’s easy economy, I ran out of options by the mid-to-late parts of a game. The more powerful spells can take more than a single turn to cast, so some planning must be made in order to use the right magic at the right time. The more powerful options, used at the right time, can alter the balance of a fight, so the inclusion of spells in Warlock: Master of the Arcane is not a trivial addition.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane also assigns you quests every once in a while. These are fairly standard, usually involving building something or attacking a monster or enemy stronghold. Successfully completing a mission awards money or mana, which can be significant in the early parts of a game. The game’s eight gods might also assign some tasks during a game, which will unlock god-specific spells and units while improving relations with other mages that have completed missions for the same deity. Diplomacy in Warlock: Master of the Arcane is very, very basic: non-aggression pacts, alliances, and declarations of war are the only options available. While you can sweeten those deals with a little gold or mana, you cannot trade any spell technologies, units, cities, or share map information. I was pretty disappointed at the limited nature of diplomacy.

With no humans to play against, Warlock: Master of the Arcane must rely on the quality of its computer opponents. The AI is average, having the basics of the game down. The computer mages will grow their cities appropriately and accept most reasonable diplomatic proposals (although usually you need to kick in some gold) and send some demands of their own. However, the computer is a bit slow in responding to attacks (even when you mass units within their line of sight) and usually (but not always) sends units piecemeal instead of massing a more effective offensive. Still, Warlock: Master of the Arcane can be a challenging game and battling creeps, using spells, and undertaking quests add some unique aspects to the classic formula.

There is no denying that Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a lot like Civilization, which is OK if it offers enough differences. So, does it? Well, the major features start with the role-playing-inspired creeps that populate the world, dangerous to single units but also farmable for unit experience. There are also more monsters in parallel worlds; enterprising great mages can enter a portal and fight the demons for even more bonuses. The spell selection is good, offering attacks, healing, summoned units, shields, and other abilities, though you run through most of your options by the middle of the game. Your units are also varied (although they really just fall into melee or ranged categories), spread among different races and offering assorted attack values at different costs. Quests are nice in theory, offering short-term goals and minor rewards for completing them, but they lack variety in the long term. Diplomatic options are disappointing, offering only basic choices. The economy is very easy to master: since buildings cost nothing to construct, you can plan ahead and construct the right resource-producing items, always having enough gold, mana, and food to support your troops. There is also no penalty for having a lot of cities, so whoever can found the most towns will have a considerable leg up in resource collection. While some aspects of the interface are done well (the available action list and battle results preview), others could have been improved (the spells and cities list). The lack of multiplayer is also lamentable, but there are plans to add it to the game later this year. The AI has its shortcomings but plays good enough to provide a challenge. Despite the overwhelming similarities between Warlock: Master of the Arcane and the Civilization series, the game is a solid turn-based strategy game that feels just different enough with the inclusion of spells and creeps. Overall, people who really like this style of turn-based gaming should take a look at Warlock: Master of the Arcane (certainly for $20), but overall the game doesn’t add up to a truly unique experience.