Hands On – Warlock: Master Of The Arcane

By Adam Smith on January 23rd, 2012 at 5:14 pm.

People who live in blighted lavaland are not necessarily BAD people

When I was a much younger person, I rarely stopped playing Enemy Unknown and Jagged Alliance. If I did put them to one side, it was usually because I was playing Master of Magic instead. There were other games, of course, but in terms of the amount of time devoted to them, those three were probably the dominant forces for at least a few years. UFO and Jagged Alliance are both receiving new versions this year and, lo and behold, Warlock: Master of the Arcane is the best attempt to emulate Master of Magic’s best features as anything I’ve played in the sixteen years since I bought it. It’s more than a clone though, with plenty to say for itself.

Master of Magic came with one of the heftiest manuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of holding. Learning to play the game wasn’t overly complex and much of the space on those hallowed pages was devoted to describing, in great numerical detail, the bewildering amount of stuff in the game. I can’t think of a fantasy strategy game before or since that has contained so many playable races, summonable monsters, spells, unit types and buildings. Balance be damned, it cried, hurling armies of gnolls at void-walking weirdnesses while wizards enchanted, buffed, blasted and eradicated troops, monsters and landmasses.

It was glorious, containing every creature from every myth and fantasy novel I’d ever read, then having them duke it out across a randomly generated map, with dungeons, ruins, neutral villages, magical nodes and dimensional warps scattered across it. Epic clashes took place but there were also heroes to send questing on their own, gaining levels and becoming demi-gods by leading armies into siege warfare and looting the dark places in search of magical items. It was even possible to create artifacts, bestowing them upon favoured generals and transforming them into all-conquering, near-invincible tools of destruction. Master of Magic was about many things and one of those things was the creation of legends.

To Warlock then and its own take on fantastic strategy. Sometimes it’s best to start with the most obvious thing and in this case, I reckon that’s to say that Civilisation V and Master of Magic have stumbled, Brundle-like, into a machine that has combined them into a hybrid. The machine is a development studio, of course, and thankfully the hybrid isn’t falling to bits and storing its genitals in jars. I don’t think it even has genitals. Indeed, it seems that the parts selected for this new whole are the best bits of the two games it seems most inspired by.

Like Civilisation V, Warlock has beautiful hex-based maps, a distinct lack of unit stacking and a fairly approachable user interface. Yes, it’s a Paradox strategy game with an approachable user interface. Of course, I’m a hardened hex machine with many a grand historical campaign behind me, familiar with taking attrition, supply lines and derring-do into consideration before ordering a single soldier to raise his musket, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise simplicity when I see it. Warlock does not have a complex interface and its most intricate parts will probably only be revealed after a great deal of play with the finished product.

What I expect is to have an enormous amount of stuff to play with. A similar treasure trove of creatures and conjurations as Master of Magic provided. I’m hoping that the real meat of the game won’t be in the intricacy of its finely tuned statistical tracking or immense calculations, but in the sheer joy of ridiculous amounts of stuff. The preview code I have doesn’t disappoint. I was immediately confronted by rat men, armed in various ways and with pleasing textual descriptions of their background. Ever wondered why a certain troop type is armed with a cutlass and dressed in rags? Warlock wants to tell you why. It’s a world full of colour and detail, all provided in word-nuggets. Exactly the kind of word-nuggets, in fact, that would have been in a hefty great manual once upon a time.

Technology is magic in Ardania (the world of Warlock and the Majesty games), with research discovering new spells along a path of the player’s choosing. Different types of wizard have access to different branches of magic and it’s possible to dabble in several, allowing access to lower tiers in various disciplines, or to specialise and concentrate on mentally clambering toward the spell-flinging equivalent of thermonuclear warfare.

Then there is religion, which I don’t fully understand but am intrigued by and have a vague affinity with. In the game, as well as being dedicated to magic, the leaders of each magiclan can have a devotion to a god, which leads to various bonuses balanced by requirements. As far as I can make out, the system is a little like the relationship between the mighty @ symbol and his/her god in many roguelikes, with assistance coming at a price, particularly if prior behaviour has not been suitable. It’s not something I’ve spent a great deal of time experimenting with and the early build of the game has quite a bit of missing information, which has hindered my attempts to describe it at times.

What I have spent time doing is building little armies and fighting. Exploring the world is enjoyable because it looks good and there is usually something interesting waiting behind the curtains of war (I’m bored of fog). It’s the same sort of bits and bobs I’ve already talked about – monster dens, villages and towns to conquer, assorted violent creatures wandering the countryside. Combat is very different to Master of Magic and that change stems from the lack of unit stacking.

Instead of moving to a tactical grid when entering a fight, all fisticuffs, swordicuffs and clawicuffs take place on the strategic map, Civ-style. Ranged units can actually fire across a hex to hit a distant enemy, which somewhat reduces the sense of scale but could be beneficial design-wise. It’s too early to tell as I’ve not been faced by large hordes of enemies yet and therefore haven’t been required to do anything cleverer than outnumber the few.

That also means I haven’t had a chance to see how good the enemy intelligence is, for both neutrals and opponents. It’s actually one of the glaring weaknesses in Master of Magic, where enemy wizards will repeatedly send a single unit of spearman up against heavily fortified citadels instead of waiting to combine them into an army. Hopefully that’s one element that hasn’t been borrowed.

In recent years, Paradox have produced some of my favourite games and with Cartel on the way as well, they are seeming less like the grand strategy men I remember them as and more like a conduit for the past to gain new life in a higher resolution. Maybe I’ll start referring to them as Bullprose or Microfrog. Much as that is an expression of my love, every time I write about one of their games I’m aware that within an hour someone will have commented about ‘paying to be a playtester’.

Warlock, which Paradox are publishing, is being developed by Ino-Co Plus and it isn’t ready for release yet. It’s in beta and, as might be expected in a beta, there are missing and incomplete features, and unpredictable crashes. I’ve also been playing the Crusader Kings 2 beta, which is being developed in-house, and have had a much smoother and more complete experience there. In fact, Crusader Kings 2 has improved significantly since the beta began, preparing for its Valentine’s Day release. Ino-Co Plus need time to ensure every feature is complete and every detail is in place, and with Warlock currently lacking a firm release date hopefully that’s precisely what they will get.

Warlock has the potential to be incredibly special and has a huge audience-in-waiting but these last few months will be crucial. I’ll be scrutinising everything from here on in.

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59 Comments »

  1. caddyB says:

    It does look like Civ V=P

    Also even as I got burned a bit by Elemental, this is also a day1 purchase for me.

    • Khemm says:

      I’m hearing Elemental Fallen Enchantress is shaping up to be what Elemental should have been.

      As for Warlock, please don’t screw this up. I’m a fan of Majesty games – more the fan of the first one than the sequel admittedly, but still – so the idea of a Civ/Master of Magic-like games set in this universe sounds very appealing.

    • Underwhelmed says:

      The new version of Elemental (Fallen Enchantress) has a new beta version out to the pre-orderers of the original game now, and I can say that it is about 1000x better than the original. Sadly, that isn’t really saying much given how terrible the original is.

      This time around though, it does feel like it might come together. Monsters and other mobs for example are now very diverse, and all have unique special abilities to make them feel different than a bunch of reskinned giant rats. The beta still needs a lot of balancing, the spell selection still needs a lot more fleshing out, and the performance of the engine is still pretty dodgy, but this time around it feels like there might be something decent on the way.

      Everyone who (foolishly) bought the game the first year gets a free copy (and it isn’t even saddled with the terrible Impulse online store anymore either) so anyone that already stepped in it will get to give them a second chance at no cost other than the time to download it when it is done.

    • caddyB says:

      Oh yes, I’m aware of the free deal and I’ll be getting it. Haven’t tried the beta though, I don’t want to deal with unfinished products from Stardock for a few years now :P

      Happy to hear that it’s shaping up nicely though. I hope they deliver.

  2. Heliocentric says:

    If it’s ai is crap I want:
    honesty that it’s a place holder,
    not to have a bs scripted campaign,
    some seamless PBEM goodness like frozen synapse
    and finally negative impact unit stacking, one unit fights all get injured so those mountain passes matter but don’t cause massive delays.

    • Premium User Badge

      Maltose says:

      Article says there’s no unit stacking .

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Limited stacking with absolutely no benefits (you can choose who to attack when confronting a stack) and even heavy defensive penalties would be nice to get out of situations where you have too many units for the available space.
      This said if they go 1upt and make it work: more power to them.

  3. sneetch says:

    I wish people would stop mentioning Master of Magic it always makes me want the game.

    That said, I don’t see this as being all that much like MoM. I’m a little bit put off by the lack of unit stacking and the lack of tactical fights, heroes and so on; they’ve removed a lot of what made MoM special.

    Oh well, regardless, if this is good then I’ll bite.

    • pertusaria says:

      I wish people would stop mentioning Master of Magic it always makes me want the game.

      You could always get it on GOG for 6 bucks, unless I’m missing your point and/or you’re broke.

    • MCM says:

      Tactical fights were vital to MoM, MoO, and the reason that neither “1UPT” and “SoD” are acceptable gameplay mechanics.

      ATTENTION DEVELOPERS: Abstracting combat such that a city is the same size as a boat is the same size as an army is the same size as a dragon IS STUPID PLEASE DO NOT DO IT ANY MORE.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      @MCM I don’t know what you’re talking about. Plenty of hex-based wargames abstract scale in various degrees and work great. You can always imagine that the boat represents a fleet if you’re so disturbed by the scale difference.

    • Schiraman says:

      Well, it’s nice that games like this are being made again – but I have to agree that the lack of tactical battles guts the concept completely for me. It seems a strange feature to cut out if you’re trying to make some kind of ‘spiritual successor’, since it was basically the heart of MoM.

    • omgitsgene says:

      The best “remake” of Master of Magic is a little game called Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. It’s 4x with up to 8 units stacking together, tactical map combat, spells that affect both the strategic map and the tactical map, and even the same colors of magic along with the ability to create artifacts for your heroes. It’s solid and I’ve been playing it for years and there’s even a community active for it that have provided large patches for it. Twice. Oh, and did I mention it’s available on Steam for those of you not horrified by our glorious DRM overlords?

  4. TormDK says:

    Looks promising, 2012 is shaping up to be a good year for us “End Turn” loving strategy players.

  5. Zenicetus says:

    Are the tech (er… I mean magic) research trees the same for all factions, or do factions have unique research trees?

    I don’t remember enough about how MoM worked back in the day, but part of the appeal of GalCiv2 for me was the unique tech trees for each race. It’s a flaw in the Civ series, I think… the way each faction has to use the same very linear tech tree, so in the end there isn’t really that much variety in the way each faction expands and fights.

    • MCM says:

      MoM had unique spell research depending on your tome selection (more spell books in one school = more spells to research).

      Regular buildings and units were all totally separate and on a city-by-city basis. If your city had a Stable, it could build Cavalry. If your 2nd city didn’t have a stable, it couldn’t. Etc for every city. But cities were also race-specific, so if it was a, idk, Troll city, it couldn’t build stables at all. Races also had discontent if your capital city (ie, where your wizard’s Fortress was) was of a different race than the city in question.

      This sort of meant that building new cities was a complete waste of time since the city would take forever to catch up to the earlier cities. Although the AI was utter garbage so almost everything in the game was a complete waste of time.

      Also GalCiv2 was awful until about 2 years after release and is just another example of Stardock being the most overhyped developer ever. Anyone who didn’t see Elemental’s collapse coming a mile away hadn’t been paying attention.

  6. Soon says:

    I haven’t played Civ 5, which looks like the closest resemblance for the combat…
    Combat on the World map seems strange, how does it work? Is combat initiated then over when the enemy units are dead, or is it more free-form allowing you to bring in new units or withdraw units whenever, just by moving them on the map? The latter suggests ranged combat would be overpowered, unless it’s very short range… which just adds to the positioning limitations. Did it work well?

  7. mjig says:

    How have I not heard of this before now? Jumps right near the top of my list.

  8. enobayram says:

    I don’t want games that resemble the Master of Magic. Nor do I want games that are inspired, or that took good aspects of it. I just want Master of Magic! Only with a better AI, and multi-player enabled. That’s all I want, and I won’t ever play anything else… (The last sentence is a huge lie)

    • Haytrid says:

      My version of Master Of Magic has multiplayer, the ability to fight 6 wizards instead of 4, exporting your wizard for use in later maps, a map editor available out of game or dynamically in-game while playing, and a campaign editor to link multiple created maps to make more of a storyline type adventure. Of course I paid a guy to develop that for me by just intercepting calls between the executable and data files and not modifying the executable directly and I know at one point in time he did release it to the public, doesn’t anyone else remember or have this modded version? I’ve since tried to contact him to resume development but the e-mail he provided me no longer exists.

  9. ourfriendinertia says:

    I can’t believe nobody has mentioned Age of Wonders — it’s basically Master of Magic, but a bit more updated, graphics-wise. (It’s 2D, not 3D.) Recommend it highly; many hours were wasted upgrading my wizard and other heroes with skills and spells and forging magic items.

    • Archonsod says:

      The sequels were 3D. And better in every way to boot.

    • Eclipse says:

      nor AoW 2 nor SM are 3D. All the games in the series are 2D (luckily I’d say, as they still look gorgeous).
      Andd yeah, Shadow Magic was probably the best one

  10. Timmeister says:

    Having got the beta also, I have to say that even though a little worryingly unfinished, the potential is there for the game to be great.

    • pakoito says:

      You cannot talk about the game, not even here, because we’re under NDA. Just sayin’

    • Timmeister says:

      Embargo ended 2nd of january.

    • pakoito says:

      For the press, not us. I’m still under Magicka’s one and it has been more than a year.

    • Timmeister says:

      I am press

      Edit: In paradox’s eyes anyway.

    • pakoito says:

      Well I’m not. But I just want to say that the game is exactly like Fall From Heaven 2, except one unit per tile. Any other comparisons are wrong or incomplete.

      • Ragnar says:

        I had no idea FfH existed. Definitely putting that on my to play list. Thank you.

    • Dreamhacker says:

      Sounds like an instant buy then :)

  11. MythArcana says:

    There is always Dominions 3 for multiplayer games, but the AI can’t cope with the scope of options and is considered by most to be quite bad. I need this single player niche void filled with something solid and Elemental failed hard as mentioned above…leaving us with Civ mods and other half assed attempts to satisfy the hardcore gamer fan of this genre.

    And of course, the art style leans in a cartoon shader direction…*sigh*

    BUT…if this somehow avoids the s73@/\/\ pitfalls and actually manages to have great depth and scope like a proper game of its sort, then we have game. I want menus, stats, and tons of control – not just cartoons slugging each other with clubs with particle effects. We shall see…

    • Archonsod says:

      Well, if you bought Elemental before or shortly after release the Fallen Enchantress Beta is now up and running. And thus far it’s everything Elemental should have been.

    • Wilson says:

      Yeah, Fallen Enchantress is also one to watch if you’re into this sort of thing. The beta is already a game I enjoy playing (in comparison to the original, which I’ve hardly played even after several patches). If they polish it up nicely, it will indeed be everything Elemental should have been.

    • siepu says:

      Just registered to also reccomend Dominions (as soon as I read about the manual I had to say write this – it’s manual is just brillant), the game is great and AI isn’t worse than in MoM :P Also it’s quite easy to either find some people who are also new to the game or just join a huge game and watch what other people are doing.
      For me this game is an absolutely unique experience and I can’t reccomend it enough.

      Also new Elemental actually is not only playable, but also fun, check it out.

  12. Maldomel says:

    “Of course, I’m a hardened hex machine”

    Oh, how i’d like to be one too.

  13. InternetBatman says:

    I’m surprised there haven’t been a raft of games published from the Civ V engine. It’s probably pretty cheap to fool around with, put some new art, mechanics, and fiddle around with the AI, but you could provide a completely different atmosphere and probably make your profits back.

    I know this game isn’t from the Civ V engine, but it looks like it.

  14. Eclipse says:

    Let’s hope it’s at least as good as Master of Magic. It’s such a shame than in all those years no title got really that far. Maybe only Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic somehow

  15. killias2 says:

    As a few mentioned above, I -highly- recommend Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. The interface and scale feel a bit more like HOMM, but it’s much more like MoM overall.

    I’d also like to say that Elemental’s reboot/sequel Fallen Enchantress is apparently impressing a lot of the beta testers. I think MoM-fans should really look out for his, as it will probably be more faithful to MoM than the Civ 5-like Warlock.

    There’s also Eador’s reboot “Masters of the Broken World,” which feels like a cross between one of these games and HOMM, but with a few different decisions made here and there. Overall, it looks neat too, and I hope it impresses.

    • Commisar says:

      yep, and all of the Age of Wonder games are on GoG.com :)

    • abremms says:

      with regard to Fallen Enchantress, I am currently in on the beta and it is impressive to say the least. I mean, War of Magic didn’t set the bar very high, but FE clears it by a good margin. FE is FUN, something WoM never managed to be even after a year of patches.Its still a bit rough around the edges. The AI isn’t as good as it could be, and performance trends downward as the game progresses, and there are some serious balance issues that need to be addressed, but if they released it today it would still be better than WoM.

      Add to that, anyone who bought WoM in 2010 get FE for free, so there’s something. delayed value is better than nothing. Derek Paxton’s influence is obvious. Its not FFH2, but it still kinda feels like it for some reason i haven’t been able to put my finger on. it has that undeniable “one more turn” quality that WoM missed.

      Its not perfect, and it could disappoint yet, but since they haven’t put a release date on it and are commuted to keep working on it until its finished, I have high hopes.

  16. Commisar says:

    hmm, this game came out of nowhere and is looking pretty good.

  17. Kaira- says:

    So, Fallen Enchantress is from what I’ve heard shaping up very nicely, and now you reminded me of Warlock’s existence. My poor, poor wallet.

    By the way, any chance we’d get a hands on with Fallen Enchantress?

  18. buzzmong says:

    I was reading about this in the latest PCG.

    Surely that is indeed, the Civ 5 engine? Certain things are identical.

  19. Zeewolf says:

    I’m looking forward to this.

    Also, the intro convinced me that I’d very much like to read a retrospective on Master of Magic. :)

  20. Nevard says:

    For a moment I thought this was going to be a conversion to full game of the old “Warlock” arena game maps from Warcraft III in the same vein that DoTA is the new in thing to do at the moment.
    What I got did not upset me but it wasn’t wizards pushing other wizards into lava

  21. Ysellian says:

    Looks good! I hope this doesn’t disappoint like Elemental did.

  22. Vandalbarg says:

    So long as I can role play as the the Skaven it’ll be a first day purchase.

    God, but I love how Paradox are funding so many great sounding games. Here’s hoping they don’t all tank and ruin them.

  23. RegisteredUser says:

    Better not pull an Elemental with this game as well.

    Please release a _FINISHED_ product that is playable A-Z at 1.0 without major crashes, blatantly visible bugs and broken save/load mechanism. And maybe even functional core gameplay/campaign logic.

    No, seriously. Look at what it did to Frogboy.

    Other than that: Major nerdboner possible?

  24. Snargelfargen says:

    I’m really confused here. Paradox are making another turn based grand strategy game? Why are they competing with themselves? I don’t get it.

    I have been wanting to lpay a game like this for a while. Should I wait for Warlock? Get the new and improved Elemental? Age of Wonders from GoG? Is there something else that is better and available now?

    This is the feeling I get when I try and buy shampoo at the pharmacy and find an entire aisle of different products. Utter bafflement.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      If you want to compare the vast competition and brand variety of shampoos to the ultrascarcity of sophisticated turn based strategy available in recent years you should SERIOUSLY rethink / have a look at the original situation again.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      Haha, you have a point. I’m just astounded (in a good way) that Paradox has got another one in the works and already in beta testing.

  25. wodin says:

    No tactical battles=No interest

    • RegisteredUser says:

      I am slightly inclined to agree, but could see it work if the map combat is sophisticated enough in its own right and there is a deep and entertaining research tech tree and city upgrade tree as well.

      In short: I need SOMETHING to keep leveling up/growing/improving/strategizeable.

  26. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I quite like Civ V’s take on things, so starting with that as a kind of base is good news to me. I hope that the units are more functionally interesting than in Civ V, though. The simple Melee-Ranged system in Civ is fine, mind, but if they’re going to offer crazy fantasy monsters and wizards and whatnot they need to make sure they handle appropriately crazily in battle.

    Also, I hope that the spells are very clear in terms of what they accomplish. I played Age of Wonders and I was always a little confused as to what some of the spells actually did. I don’t mind some spells that aren’t 100% practical or direct, but in a strategy game it’s critical that I at least know how they function so I can build my own strategy around it.

    A good example is Heroes of Might and Magic V, which I’ve been replaying quite a bit lately. It has a deeply weird semi-randomized skill system that I’ve never taken the time to fully understand, but building a character is a simple matter of continually picking whatever upgrade you are offered that continues to specialize that hero in whatever manner you desire. You never feel that you are fully in control or that you can exactly predict how the hero will turn out, but you never feel that you are being cheated out of a character who does what you want. It’s kind of fun and exciting, actually, but it only works because the skills are all clearly explained; had vagueness crept in it would have ruined the process.

  27. Premium User Badge

    Stormwaltz says:

    “I can’t think of a fantasy strategy game before or since that has contained so many playable races, summonable monsters, spells, unit types and buildings.”

    Oh ho ho! Someone clearly hasn’t played Dominions 3. Get on that ASAP, mister.

    http://www.shrapnelgames.com/Illwinter/DOM3/DOM3_page.html