Hands-On: Warlock II – The Exiled

By Adam Smith on January 30th, 2014 at 2:00 pm.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane was a solid game that promised a great sequel. The interface and map had similarities to Civ V, some of which were slightly more than skin-deep, but the game had ideas of its own, bolstered by a sense of the ridiculous that was bizarre and humorous but avoided the lure of wackiness. The Exiled expands upon its precursor’s strongest elements and brings the turn-based exploration and conquest to a fascinating multiverse. I played for a little over an hour and didn’t want to walk away.

I was sitting in the middle of a row of writers as we prepared to play The Exiled for the first time. We wouldn’t be competing or cooperating, instead isolated in separate campaigns, but multiplayer will be ready for the game’s launch this time around.

The world that the game had randomly generated on my screen was crowded with mountains, shivering with snow and swarming with ice elementals. Its name was blunt – Frosty Wastes – and it was precisely the kind of environment that makes you want to pull the duvet up around your chin and sip a mug of hot chocolate. Certainly not the kind of place that even looks like it’d be worth conquering.

The player to my left had found himself in a verdant paradise – the kind of place that makes you remember that the word ‘verdant’ actually exists – with azure seas shimmering beneath a marmalade sun. Following the events of Master of the Arcane’s final piece of DLC, the world of Ardania was shattered and I was seeing two different shards of the broken world. Obviously, I’d ended up on a fragment that hadn’t even been a continent or island – the Frosty Wastes had originally been a flaky scab on a Frost Giant’s dangly bits.

No matter. Each world is a stepping stone to the next. Find a portal and units can be sent through to an undiscovered shard, eventually progressing across a meta-map that leads to the heart of it all – Ardania’s core. The individual fragments of our worlds were set to ‘tiny’, which should have made finding the portal relatively easy but my frigid little world didn’t care to comply.

The edge of each shard’s map is made up of a void. Flying units can enter it but will eventually disintegrate, torn apart by arcane astral forces. Frosty Wastes’ Southern edge was like a dream of Discworld, a still-liquid sparkling sea spilling over the edge like an avalanche of diamonds. Unfortunately, attractive as it was, the sea cut off my path to the South and West, and after exploring the elemental-haunted land and discovering its edges to the North and East, I realised that the portal must have been beyond the sea.

That meant I’d have to deal with the giant sea serpent that had already claimed the lives of any units that strayed too close to the shore. I built a frigate, bristling with cannons, but the serpent ate it. And then, consulting the spell research tree, I set my wizard on a path that would lead to him mastering the power of mystical flight.

While the research was under way, I spent my time squashing monster lairs, which act as spawn points, attempting to make Frosty Wastes a slightly less unpleasant place to live. I also built a second city and transformed the landscape with the addition of buildings and spellcraft. The Fertile Lands spell created fields and bubbling brooks around my cities, bringing colour to the world, and I filled hexes with production centres and defensive towers. Buildings occupy an spot on the world map, rather than being secreted in a city screen, and placement can be important, particularly when special resources provide bonuses to certain buffs.

When I eventually reached the second shard, I swapped my snowshoes for sandals. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but mountains and desert, with an angry rival wizard’s cities scattered around in the dust. I wasn’t particularly concerned about engaging with him yet. More pressing was the task of securing a city on this new desert shard. The pioneer who had stepped through the portal was a single Lord, a mighty magical hero unit, and I hoped he’d be powerful enough to claim a native settlement. Otherwise, I’d have to send settlers of my own, from one of my two Snowy Wastes’ cities.

The prospect of managing cities and armies across seven or eight shards is quite daunting. With just two, I found myself splitting resources clumsily, leaving Snowy Wastes unprotected. I’d assumed I’d sort of ‘won’ on that particular map, which didn’t have any direct rivals to defeat, and had been fully explored. But then, a message informed me that a witch’s hut had been discovered in the mountains. I sent some warriors to explore and the ghosts of some wolves ate them, which seemed like an unusual thing to happen.

That’s Warlock II. Unusual things happen and the happen often. Side quests appear, sometimes with branching plotlines. New lairs take root in areas that aren’t regularly patrolled – in my game, this led to the portal between worlds becoming infested with flying serpents, which devoured any units I tried to send through, one way or the other. I eventually destroyed them by giving a donkey knight the power of flight so that he could swat them out of the air.

That’s Warlock II. It’s the one with the flying donkey knights and (later) flying skeletal settlers, who pull their carts through the air, bobbing up and down like a lure in a pond. The desert city that I eventually captured was aligned to necromancy, which gave me entire new building and unit trees to discover. In my capital, home of the dwarf-like Skarl, I eventually built a giant quadruped robot, although I never did get wrong to making it fly.

Master of the Arcane’s greatest design flaw was the lack of a compelling end-game. Discovering a new world at the opening of each campaign involved challenge and surprise, with all kinds of odd creatures and lairs to hunt and investigate. The struggle to survive the onslaught of the many wild and weird creatures that call Ardania home was a more compelling objective than the eventual fight against rival wizards and their petty kingdoms.

Following a fairly brief hands-on, it’s impossible to say for sure that individual campaigns will have much-improved longevity in comparison to the first Warlock, but the entire structure of the game has been redesigned, seemingly with the purpose of providing a series of compelling possibilities in every single turn. The Exiled dangles so many carrots in front of the player that it would be able to satisfy Bugs Bunny, and it has enough rods, switches and sticks in its arsenal to please the Marquis de Sade. There’s a stronger sense of direction and empowerment, but the wilderness is still a dangerous place, and the addition of quests and timed events makes the whole enormous world(s) much more enticing.

I’d been playing for less than half an hour when an Armageddon spell tore one of my cities apart, leaving a range of bubbling volcanoes where once there had been farmland. The individual shards that make up the world are at the core of the sequel’s advances, no doubt, but it’s the changes to the structures behind that have received the most thoughtful revamp. Research and construction trees allow players to set a path for themselves but remain flexible enough to allow deviation when plans change. And they will, because the worlds are in flux. You never know when a giant turtle is going to turn up on your doorstep and you never know when you’re going to need a flying zombie warbear. Best to keep one on call. Just in case.

Strategy games of this type rarely capture – or at least maintain – the powerful draw of unknown horizons. The portal method of travel and the brilliant variety of worlds should help The Exiled to keep some of its mysteries and wonders for longer than most. Initially, I was astounded by the apparent and blatant similarities to the underappreciated Eador: Masters of the Broken World, but even an hour with The Exiled shows it to be something else entirely. It has the fractured world in common but otherwise it’s a far more traditional civ-builder, with a convincingly dyamic world, and a great deal of choice in terms of character and city development.

If it shapes up as well as this hands-on suggests, it might be almost exactly the sequel I hoped for. Fixing what didn’t work and increasing the scope of the elements that did. And with multiplayer from day one.

Warlock II: The Exiled is due this Spring.

, , , , , , .

37 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. InternetBatman says:

    I’m glad they fixed research, but I hope they have more viable win conditions this time. The game took me something like 35 hours to win on easy, and I was just trying to get a feel for the systems.

  2. Premium User Badge

    LTK says:

    Warlock was the first turn-based strategy game I got engrossed in since I played Civilization III as a kid. I bought the DLCs a long time after but it takes a lot of work to explore the new systems so I haven’t actually played more than a few hours with it, but maybe Warlock 2 will succeed in capturing me. I hope so.

  3. Grygus says:

    To be fair, Adam: the game’s map isn’t derivative of Civ V; it looks like (and was built on) the engine made for Fantasy Wars, which predates Sid Meier’s latest 4X by at least a couple of years. I enjoyed the article and am looking forward to the game. Thanks.

  4. Laurentius says:

    Looks promising indeed, another game added to keep an eye on list, good.

  5. RanDomino says:

    “the world of Ardania was shattered and I was seeing two different shards of the broken world. Obviously, I’d ended up on a fragment that hadn’t even been a continent or island – the Frosty Wastes had originally been a flaky scab on a Frost Giant’s dangly bits.

    No matter. Each world is a stepping stone to the next. Find a portal and units can be sent through to an undiscovered shard, eventually progressing across a meta-map that leads to the heart of it all – Ardania’s core. The individual fragments of our worlds were set to ‘tiny’, which should have made finding the portal relatively easy but my frigid little world didn’t care to comply.

    The edge of each shard’s map is made up of a void.”

    NevEr heArD that One befoRe…

    • Adam Smith says:

      Not sure if you’ve finished reading yet but I do bring that up! And did when speaking to the producer of the game as well. It’s distractingly similar in set up and even some of the visual design of the void, but Eador is a totally different barrel of haddock to play.

  6. TwwIX says:

    Did they improve diplomacy at all or is it as lackluster and barebones as it was in the original?

    • Adam Smith says:

      Barely reached the point when diplomacy becomes available unfortunately. Hopefully we’ll have some sort of access before launch for a longer hands-on. From what I can see, it looks much the same as last time round though.

    • RanDomino says:

      To be honest I thought diplomancy was fine in the original, if more straightforward and uninteresting than it could have been and often nonsensical when it came to the AI allying, breaking alliances, and randomly declaring war even though you’re at f*king +90. Still, if you wanted to improve relations with another civ it was at least possible, via flinging money and spells at them, trying to align with them religiously, and declaring war on their enemies.

      • The Random One says:

        I don’t usually draw attention to typos, since I think getting your idea across is more important than matching how a bunch of old men think you should write them, but I find the concept of “diplomancy” excellent.

        Summon Ambassador
        Consecrate Consulate
        Hex: Embargo Trade

    • Premium User Badge

      LTK says:

      I believe the original game received a patch that improved diplomacy so that allied mages will request that you join them in the war against their enemies and things like that. It was never really a viable option to maintain long-term peaceful relationships between megalomaniac, power-hungry great mages, though.

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      That’s my primary concern with Warlock II — diplomacy was so stupidly simplistic in Warlock 1, they could have taken it out of the game entirely and I doubt many players would have noticed.

      My biggest complaint about Warlock was that turning down gift requests from other mages always resulted in a declaration of war. As petty as it sounds, that one little issue soured the rest of the game for me.

      • Baines says:

        I honestly don’t remember diplomacy being in the first game.

        My biggest complaint would have been one of the following: bugs and memory leaks, bad AI, or portals/sub-realms being pretty much worthless. I’m not sure which I’d call the biggest. Supposedly most of the bugs got fixed, the AI was liveable even if it was stupid, and the sub-realms being skippable wastes of time was mostly just lost potential rather than a game affecting issue.

      • RanDomino says:

        To be honest, I’ve really only been playing the Armageddon mode, so “diplomacy” has consisted mostly of keeping the other factions alive to serve as meatshields.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Jonfon says:

    Note to self: buy the original off of Steam, if and when you come out of your current bout of Heroes of Might and Magic 3 addiction.

  8. Ergates_Antius says:

    “Master of the Arcane’s greatest design flaw was the lack of a compelling end-game. Discovering a new world at the opening of each campaign involved challenge and surprise, with all kinds of odd creatures and lairs to hunt and investigate”
    This exactly describes the problem I had with the original.
    The start of each game would be great. Expanding, exploring, upgrading, getting new units etc. The end game was just a grind, a war of attrition. Most games I didn’t even bother winning. Once I had the upper hand and victory seemed inevitable, I’d just start a new map.

    • Zonker says:

      Exactly the situation I’m currently in. I’ve started a new Warlock game recently (hadn’t had the time to take a look at the DLCs before) and after maybe 17-20 hours, I’m practically dominating the map, 2/3 of it is plastered with my cities and I’m slowly conquering the last pockets of resistance by the other wizards. But while I usually can’t get away from a Warlock game for the first 10 hours or so, it almost feels a little like work later on.

      Once you reach that breaking point of getting a small army of absurdly overpowered units, all you do is steamroll the last cities and that’s it. I like the unit and combat focus of the game, but the endgame kind of suffers from it. In comparison, Civ games still have a variety of stuff to do later on; diplomacy, cultural expansion, city management, religion…

      While I don’t want Warlock to be just a “Fantasy Civ” and retain its focus instead, I certainly hope they find *something* to add to next game to keep the player interested later on.

    • RanDomino says:

      This is a problem that is endemic to the entire 4x genre. We can only hope that someone will figure out how to break the cycle of the tedious endgame, with something please more interesting than “build the Tower of Instant Victory”.
      There’s that one game coming out, which I’m sure someone will name within a half hour after me posting this, which is set in Roman/Barbarian times, which has the map shift seasonally. That seems interesting- keep on taking things back to the early game exploration/expansion phase, so the endgame tedium never really gets rolling. I hope the fractured worlds may be an attempt to do something like that.

      • Ergates_Antius says:

        One thing that would help would be the ability to “concentrate” your armies more, and/or some kind of rapid transit system (magic portals or whatever). Being able to turn your dozens of units into a handful of super-units that could all attack the final cities at once one make things a bit less grindy.

      • Tssha says:

        What is At The Gates by Jon Shafer, Alex?

  9. The Random One says:

    I’ll echo everyone’s thoughts and say I hope it’s as fun and weirdy as Warlock but doesn’t drag and has a clearer spell research tree. I like the new fractured world thing, since exploring the magical realms was one of the most fun things of the first game, but I hope it doesn’t entirely replace the empty alien worlds, since I like knowing my empire has colonies in the Moon and in Hell.

    • Premium User Badge

      LTK says:

      They never mention the living conditions in the other dimensions, but it would be awesome if they had different survival requirements. Found a water world? Send reptiles! No atmosphere? Bring out your undead! Probably wouldn’t be the first time we sent zombies into space.

  10. cptgone says:

    i’m amazed that neither the article or the comments mention Warlock: Master of the Arcane‘s biggest downfall:

    it’s A.I. (or lack thereof).

    • Snargelfargen says:

      My biggest beef with the game was the overactive creature spawns. The AI wasn’t great, but a large part of that was because it was constantly getting overrun with random creatures.

      The spawns also contributed to making the end-game more tedious. Sure, the player had amassed a massive army, but much of it had to be deployed clearing up lairs. God help you if you attempted to colonize an extra dimension, because the spawns are even more annoying there.

      Still got two very enjoyable weekends out of Warlock. Hopefully they can tighten up the formula.

    • sPOONz says:

      Yeah, the A.I was so bad it was off putting. I will be listening out for a notable improvement on it before I part with money. I really enjoyed the game, but it wears thin quickly seeing the A.I perform so incompetently.

    • Vesperan says:

      This. Didn’t get any of the dlc as it didn’t say the magic words: improved A.I.

      • Tssha says:

        That shouldn’t really be a DLC though. That should be a patch.

        It might be funded by DLC though, that would be acceptable.

  11. DrManhatten says:

    Could be a Master of Eador done right! If it gets rid of the repetitive boring rush mentality of it

  12. noodlecake says:

    Sounds interesting. How does this series differ from Fallen Enchantress?

    • onyhow says:

      1: Lots more focus on battle, less on 4x side (first game is actually quite a bit like Civ 5 with more emphasis on battle really, not sure about this)
      2: Lots more humor! (darn important!)