Early Impressions: Warlock 2 – The Exiled

By Adam Smith on March 20th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Warlock II is everything I wanted from a sequel to Masters of the Arcane, which, as I’ve implied before, felt like the decent gig before a killer afterparty. Taking place across the fragments of a broken world, it’s 4X strategy in a compact form, as dense as a spoonful of iridium and seemingly built from the ground-up to avoid the cycle of ‘End Turn’ clicking that is a hallmark of the genre. I’ve spent a few days with a near-complete build and have many thoughts to share.

The most striking thing about Warlock II is its relative speed and the amount of things that happen from one turn to the next. I’m also relieved to report, having spent time with both, that there will definitely be room in my life for both this and Age of Wonders III. Whatever surface similarities there might be, the two games are very different propositions. Part of my purpose here is to explain what it is that makes Warlock such an unusual and compelling strategy game.

A quick primer. As with the prequel, The Exiled is a hex-based empire-building strategy game, with cities to manage, research trees to explore and units to build. There are six races, customisable wizard rulers, tiered spell systems with a separate branch for faith-based magicks, and enchanted equipment to bestow upon a diverse band of heroes for hire. There are no stacks of doom and no tactical combat – armies clash on the main map, stats and dice rolls deciding the outcome and the damage done.

Nothing particularly remarkable about any of that, although it’s all pitched well. The world is light-hearted, packed with donkey knights and the descendants of long-dead rat kings, but the humour doesn’t collapse into awkward zaniness. Nor does it ever seem like parody – it’s as if the game just happens to take place in a silly world rather than a self-aware goblins ‘n’ giants parody.

There’s always something to do in that world. Or in those worlds, I should say, although there will be more about the separate realms in coming paragraphs. It’s rare for a turn to pass without a new quest, item or hero being discovered. Hordes of monsters spawn from dens and a badly chosen option during one of several multiple choice text adventure interludes can lead to disaster.

On the whole, the game isn’t quite as punishing as its predecessor, but I’ve had creatures as powerful as minor gods punching and kicking my cities within the first twenty turns of a particularly disastrous campaign. Before embarking on the quest to reach Ardania, the core of the destroyed world, it’s necessary to pacify other lands en route, driving out the wild things and dealing with any settlements that have survived the cataclysm.

The important word is ‘quest’. The Elemental games implemented RPG elements, to the extent that the strategic side of the game occasionally felt undercooked or even unnecessary. Warlock II does something similar, grasping the idea of an epic fantasy quest and weaving it through a traditional 4X structure. Not only have 1C: Ino-Co managed to build on the solid foundation of Warlock’s strategic meat and potatoes, they’ve successfully added the gravy of a powerful narrative thrust.

All of the game’s central qualities drive toward the world-spanning mission, which provides a clear objective. Enhancing settlements is a small part of that ultimate objective, as cities must be abandoned or reconfigured as the needs of the quest demand. Instead of becoming increasingly powerful and oozing across a single map like an ugly parasitic lifeform, your units and outposts exist as part of a chain, attempting to create links from one world to the next.

I’ve founded cities in deadlands, made up of gray marshes and withered forests inhabited by spiders the size of cathedrals. The energy drains from any living creature in these places so unless you have a unit of skeletal settlers handy, they’re a terrible place to establish a residence. But it may be necessary to build in the bleakest realms that are scattered through the cosmos, simply to create a fortress that can secure and defend the portal to the next world in the great chain.

Every map is a stepping stone, connected to at least one neighbour by magical portals. On some of those maps, you’ll found glorious cities, surrounded by gleaming riches and resources. Other worlds are made up of harsh desert or wintry wastelands, barely capable of sustaining a village. Food is shared throughout the empire though, across realms, so pacifying a fertile world allows for the construction of several specialised settlements that produce enough wheat to feed the lonely wanderers who are braving the harsh terrain on the path to Ardania.

Almost every detail of the ruleset has been geared toward the construction of the mighty quest chain. Leaders have a city limit, for example, after which unrest spreads quickly. This encourages the conversion of cities into automated settlements. They no longer contribute toward the cap but cannot construct units or buildings, having a single purpose instead, such as boosting favour with a specific god or acting as a powerful defensive chokepoint.

Problems? The numerous worlds in each campaign are attractive and have randomised names that please me far more than they should, but they’re not particularly large. That’s because they’re shards of a full world, sure, and you might end up managing six or seven at the same time, but they do increase in size as you drawn closer to Ardania – just not quite as much as I’d hoped.

Despite that, the campaigns do avoid what I’d feared the most, which is that every new shard would feel like the beginning of a new 4X game. The same process of construction and consolidation, over and over. Heroes – or Lords as they’re called – help there, with ever-increasing stats and snazzy collections of loot and enchanted items. They provide a sense of continuity, as does the journey down the research trees, which mostly offer a ticket for a new power trip at each fresh stage rather than simply buffed versions of earlier spells.

Luck plays a big role. That doesn’t particularly bother me – I see it as part of the risk of skipping through the worlds – but it can be quite galling when a well-laid plan falls to pieces because a pack of demonic wolves appear seemingly out of nowhere, packing a combat ability ten times that of your best units.

And then there’s the other mages. Even more so than in Master of the Arcane, they feel like a distraction rather than proper opponents. The worlds are the enemy and this time around, the game is constructed to make the most of that aspect. Enemy Mages are more like speedbumps on the road to Ardania rather than rivals acting toward the same goal. That feeds back into the questing narrative – you are the hero attempting to achieve something great and your enemies are attempting to stop you rather than opposing in parallel, as Ghandi always tends to when I’m trying to reach Alpha Centauri.

Warlock II isn’t a game of devious plotting and super strategic AI. Despite appearances, it’s not a fully-fledged empire-building game at all. It’s a game about a journey, a big old-fashioned fantasy quest journey, and the rest-stops along the way happen to take the form of cities. There is a sandbox mode, allowing for a more traditional 4X experience, and while it’s enjoyable enough, it does serve to highlight the lack of advanced diplomatic options.

That’s not to say the actual city-building isn’t satisfying in itself. The use of resources and lack of space for building is intelligent, demanding that difficult choices are made whenever construction begins. Will you exploit an elf village within your borders by turning its inhabitants into warriors or by planting a casino on it and turning them into croupiers instead? Tough call.

Despite similarities to Eador’s Broken World, Warlock II’s structure feels like something quite new. It emphasises exploration, exploitation and extermination while restricting opportunities for expansion. You will still expand, of course, but usually into a completely new space rather than across an existing one. Many strategy games of this type become activities about filling a map with things and then filling those things with other things. Warlock II is about travelling through alien places and clinging to the edge while looking for a way back home.

Warlock II is out on April 10th. As of today, pre-ordering provides immediate access. I’ve written about the game before, giving a more general turn-by-turn overview, and I’ll try to cover multiplayer soon.

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35 Comments »

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  1. Fumarole says:

    This is probably the only game of the year that I’ll buy on release.

    Some folks might appreciate this mention from the developers:

    The game does NOT support Windows XP. We know a lot of people request support for it, but that OS is now really old and is not supported. Sorry to all you guys who still run that.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Bugamn says:

    I just saw this game on Steam and then became sad because it has regional lock :(

    EDIT: Looking right now, it seems the lock has disappeared. However, Steam is presenting some problems, so I’m not sure how correct is this.

  3. zaprowsdower says:

    Looking forward to this quite a bit. I’m so glad there’s many new strategy games this year.

  4. MrFinnishDude says:

    This game oddly looks like Civ 5

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      Poor Warlock. It is quite similar to Civ V in both looks and interface. It was developed at more or less the same time, so most similarities are likely to be coincidental- similar interface solutions to the same design problems.

      It doesn’t play much like it except in the broadest sense. The focus is very much on the fighting.

    • mouton says:

      Just because something has hexes and cities, doesn’t mean it is Civ5

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      The Warlock games are direct descendents of Fantasy Wars and Elven Legacy, which had the look well before Civ V did.

      Either it’s a coincidence or Firaxis actually ripped off Ino-Co a smidge.

  5. Laurentius says:

    I can’t really make up my mind about this. I hope there is demo or something. There are things that really are to my liking but it’s also looking to shaping into dierection i’m not most fond of in my 4X strategies.

    • Smoof says:

      I actually really don’t care for 4X games. I’ve tried to get into the most popular ones, Civ IV, Civ V, Gal Civ II, etc. I don’t find myself sticking with any of them and instead becoming bored very quickly.

      That said, I really love Warlock. I’ve played the absolute hell out of the very first one, because it’s so different, in terms of setting and overall playability. I think one of the things I quite like about it is that there’s no expansive, confusing tech tree about it; you simply research new spells as they pop-up and that’s about it.

      The first game is often on sale on Steam for pretty cheap; I’d strongly recommend picking it up and giving it a whirl, as I think it’ll give you a good idea of how this one will play.

  6. MrNash says:

    Sounds interesting. I liked the first game and some of the tweaks for Warlock II look nice. Was kinda hoping the other leaders would put up more of a fight, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I guess that’s one of the trade offs when straddling so many types of strategy games instead of being a full-on 4X. In any case, I could see myself spending a fair amount of time here as the first Warlock was pretty fun. =)

    • Chalky says:

      It looks like the AI opponents and diplomacy system is one of the big problems with Warlock that they failed to address in this version.

      Besides that, it seems they’ve made many improvements, the UI is better, the maps are better, the technology system actually makes sense rather than being a randomized crapshoot. A bunch of nice little management interfaces allowing for bulk upgrading and checking of upgrades on units which is a pretty big part of army management in this game.

      Still not sure I’m going to buy this one. It feels like more of an emphasis on AI and strategy rather than trying to overcome randomized “fuck you” events and monsters towards a fairly arbitrary goal would improve things significantly. The original felt like this was what they were aiming for but failed due to extremely bad AI, and now it feels like they abandoned that idea entirely rather than improving the AI. Maybe this is too harsh, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with such a flaw from the people who gave us CK2 and EU4

      • Taear says:

        Remember – Paradox didn’t make the game, they’re just the publisher.

  7. nebnebben says:

    I loved the first game, hope this is as good

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      According to Steam, the only game on which I’ve spent more hours than Warlock is XCOM. Glad to hear the sequel’s shaping up well, though a little worried that it “isn’t quite as punishing.” The first one isn’t exactly brutal, unless you insist on dragon-taming (you should always insist on dragon-taming).

      • Grygus says:

        I think the new one is much harder than the original. The random events regularly shake things up, sometimes even feeling arbitrarily hostile, some of the quests make life miserable until they’re completed, and the random monster spawns have been ratcheted up to be both more frequent and higher level. When I won my first game, it was amidst an empire that was slowly unraveling under relentless pressure from marauding dragons. Judging from the complaining on the forums, I think this is the consensus viewpoint at the moment.

  8. Baines says:

    Wow… The seven bonus in-game items cost $10? That’s the only difference between the Lord and Great Mage editions of the game. (And they are at least currently only available if you pony up another $10 for the soundtracks, novel, and artbook.)

    I don’t remember the first Warlock being quite so exploitative on price.

    How does that content compare to the first game’s path of $2-3 dollar smaller DLCs?

    • gou says:

      worse still they went with a $1 = £1 so if you want the couple of extra spells the starting perk and a few lords from the first game that’ll be £20 quid more than the base game cost.
      Behaviour not to be encouraged

      • Horg says:

        They have some balls, going up against AoW 3 this month and trying to charge those prices for some digital fluff. I think they might have just relegated themselves to a sale purchase.

        • realityflaw says:

          Has there been an official launch date announced for AoW3? Last I checked they were claiming Q1 2014, which is a little over a week away, and seems quite unlikely.

    • oxykottin says:

      I hate when people get mad at special additions that don’t hold back anything from the game. At-least, they didn’t make many in-game assets then charge $10 more to get them.

      • The First Door says:

        Er… that is -exactly- what they did. You have to pay £10 more for 7 in game items which includes new starting areas and leaders to play as. At least that’s what it looks like!

    • Grygus says:

      The original was $20 on release, then there were a handful of $5 DLC. This one is $30 on release, but has more content than the first game + DLC combined. Seems fair.

      The special editions are stupidly priced and I assume this is to give people a way to donate to a developer they like, rather than representing some fair exchange for goods. I assume the content will be packaged as DLC at some point; if it’s much less than the $20 they’re asking now, I’ll pick it up then.

  9. Chmilz says:

    The first one left me a bit wanting, I’ll probably wait to get this on a sale.

  10. OpT1mUs says:

    So the price for the standard edition is $29.99 which is somehow 29.99 € ? Yeah I’m not gonna sugarcoat it:
    FUCK THAT. I’m not going to buy your fucking games while you treat me like a chump.

  11. PopeRatzo says:

    Warlock II is out on April 10th. As of today, pre-ordering provides immediate access.

    What does this even mean? It’s not out until April 10, except it’s out now.

    “Early access” is an abomination.

    • Premium User Badge

      RedViv says:

      It’s not even Early Access! It’s just… the game. As it will be released, minus scenarios. Probably with a bit more info for a patch first week now, but… It’s the game.

      I do wonder if this is just a slightly odd way to troll physical retail. “No no no, Release is still the 10th. Yes people can play it, we release it to pre-order customers. No, that is not The Release, our ancient pact has not been broken, honest!!!”

      • Chris D says:

        I suspect that in this case they’re trying to cut in ahead of Age of Wonders 3 while giving themselves some wiggle-room to do some last minute polishing and bug stomping before “official” release.

    • Grygus says:

      It means much the same thing as open beta would mean – they get a lot of feedback and bug reporting for free from the community, and they get to point out to complainers that the game isn’t technically released yet. It’s nothing new; early access is just a new name for something that’s been happening forever.

  12. realityflaw says:

    Age of Wonders III’s release date seems to be steadily slipping, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have plenty of time to dedicate to this game before AoW3’s release.

    • briangw says:

      Huh? It’s been sitting at the March 31st date on Steam for the past couple of weeks at least.

      • realityflaw says:

        March 31st is just the end of Q1 which was the time frame proposed in their previous delay of launch announcement.

        Typically developers follow up vague quarter/season announcements with an actual calendar date as they near completion. To my knowledge this hasn’t happened…

        • DevildogFF says:

          Dude, AOW3 is releasing on the 31st according to their official website, official Twitter, and official Facebook page.

          Not to mention that there are a shit ton of preview builds being given out that most major strategy Let’s Players have and are putting videos up of.

          So, yeah, they’re definitely trying to get in before AOW3, but I have no problem with that. In fact, I wish AOW3 would do this because it looks super polished and fantastic already…

          • realityflaw says:

            Hey what do you know, I’ve been asking around for days about this since that Theocrat video came out and made the game look like it probably wasn’t completed, and failed to make any mention of a release date.

  13. Sharongamer978 says:

    This trailer is funny. Will play it probably.

  14. catsniffer says:

    You need to speak from the heart and not stink up the preview with ‘the purple prose’, my nig. You’re words, make no sense. Amateurish.

    “The energy drains from any living creature in these places so unless you have a unit of skeletal settlers handy, they’re a terrible place to establish a residence. But it may be necessary to build in the bleakest realms that are scattered through the cosmos, simply to create a fortress that can secure and defend the portal to the next world in the great chain.”