Wot I Think – Warlock 2: The Exiled

By Alec Meer on May 8th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Warlock II is a turn-based strategy game with roleplaying elements (players of both Civilization and Heroes of Might & Magic will be at home here), set in Paradox’s comic fantasy universe of Ardania. You play as a Great Mage, building towns, raising an army of assorted pointy-eared things and wielding spells in battle against other Great Mages.

Possibly important disclaimer: I played very little of the first Warlock, so please look elsewhere if you need an article that compares Warlock II to its predecessor. For the record, I am aware that some people feel this comes across more like an expansion pack than a sequel, but all I can do is talk about this as a game in its own right.

Accepting change, forever the tricky one, eh? I spent my earliest hours with Warlock II’s main campaign in a state of a mild frustration that it kept enacting random acts of cruelty upon me, that there was a severe cap on the number of active cities I could have, that I had to spend so much time schlepping units from one world to another. The great beast Grumpzilla was rising once more – then I arrested his ascent by realising that I’d unconsciously been expecting Warlock II to be Civilization with wizards. I think that’s understandable – Warlock II looks and behaves similarly to Firaxis’ more sober game of turn-based world-dominance.

It really isn’t trying to do the same thing, though. As a singleplayer, lightly plotted campaign (the only way I’ve played it so far – both a sandbox mode and multiplayer are available too), it’s ultimately one big quest across a world split into monster-filled shards, as embarked upon by a rapidly-shifting frontline rather than a lone hero. The key concept to grasp – and this took me a while – is that cities, and even entire continents, are essentially abandoned as you move forwards. Automatically-managed vestiges of your settlements will continue to generate a trickle of resource, but really they’re ghost towns. New settlements, close to the heart of the latest action, become your focus – where soldiers are built, where the mass of mana, gold and food are created, where the push and pull of invasion and defence occur.

It’s hard to leave somewhere behind – to press the button that transforms it from a collection of carefully-selected buildings and specialisms into an autonomous Free Town, Fortress or Temple City. There was investment. Every building mattered at one point. The types of unit it can generate often aren’t available to any of your other towns, so this might be the end of the line for you and Elves, or Witch Doctors, or giant turtles.

When you press that button, you lose more than you immediately gain. You gain a free slot to build another active city – an investment for the future, a new bastion in your great quest to cross the network of shard-worlds and reach the evil lord who waits at its furthest edge. Which town will fall so that another may rise? That’s the key decision in Warlock, and it’s made many, many times. I didn’t like it at first, because it felt like throwing hard work away, but once I broke with the “waah, but my beautiful empire” mentality I was free to enjoy the beautiful agony of city-sacrifice. High stakes, high risks.

Similar was the game’s propensity to chuck random cruelties at me. Spells that turned fertile land into blasted heaths, or a wealth-generating iceland into useless swamp; bloody great dragons spawning from nowhere next to a major city; a magic graveyard which releases a slow swarm of skellingtons until removed; monsters, monsters, monsters. Oddly it’s more galling when something is spawned next to one of those ambient ghost towns left in an old area. Getting some units over there to sort out whatever beastie is trying to seize it is usually a hell of a schlep (teleportation spells are available, but you can only do it once per turn and it uses a big chunk of precious mana) – is it worth it, just to preserve the tiny trickle of resource from the abandoned city?

Maybe not, but what if, left unchecked, the enemy steadily seizes all half-dozen autonomous cities from that area? Then the loss becomes significant, and so too does the reclamation effort. Leaving a unit or two stationed in every zone isn’t viable, at least not unless you’re running a perfect machine of an empire, because each soldier gobbles up a ton of resources – you don’t want your cities to starve so that you can put a lovely big dragon in each corner of the map.

That’s Warlock’s key thing, really – while Civ encourages you to spread and spread, this is about doing what you can within strict limitations. It’s also about rolling with the punches. The situation changes often, whether it’s down to some bastardly random act or because your most veteran units turn out be a bit of a chocolate teapot in a new area with new enemies. Disband, build something new, try again.

While this concept of sacrifice, and repeatedly starting over, keeps Warlock II safe from the agonisingly glacial sprawl of late-game Civ (instead it plays like a series of mini-campaigns, with a few favoured units carried through), it can also make the game into a war of attrition. A grind, in other words. It reminds me of the King’s Bounty games once the joy of the first hours had worn off, and entering a new area meant doing it all again, against tougher enemies. After a while, that can feel like a chore.

Warlock II doesn’t succumb to this quite so much, because worlds and their denizens are randomly-generated per campaign, and because there’s a bunch of ways to treat the other ‘civs’ around you – so if you do get bored you could always switch from being relatively diplomatic into all-out conquest, or knuckle down on research to see if you can achieve the game-ending Unity spell rather than crush everything in sight. The choice of available units, and mini-tech trees for the various races, is lovely too, creating an ongoing choice between trying to remain a purist to a particular faction or creating a hodge-podge in response to what’s available and what’s effective.

There’re also 100+, impressively diverse spells to research/choose between (e.g creature summons, terraforming, assorted damage, economic effects), and while it is possible to bag the bunch in one campaign, realistically it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to wield the same magic arsenal each time. I’m pretty sure higher difficulty settings will see more territorial to and fro, too – more micro-skirmishes on multiple fronts, frantically dragging units between worlds, juggling between placing impossible pressure on your supply lines and diluting the forces of your main assault.

The attrition/ennui element is one of those things that’s going to vary massively depending on the timescale you play the game at, of course. Binging a couple of campaigns for an article is a very different gig to spending a couple of relaxed weekends trying to take over the world – and it’s on that basis that I do see myself returning to Warlock II now and again.

The only thing that may stop me is the hokey humour, exhausted Monty Python references and the consistently annoying Sean Connery impersonator Paradox uses for the many games set in the umbrella fantasy setting of Ardania. I guess that stuff’s proved popular with someone, and admittedly it is dialled back a significant notch here, but it nonetheless makes an otherwise accomplished game come across as far cheaper and ropier than it is. Clearly voices can be turned off, but I really do beseech the producers to think again next time around. If you want a reputation as one of the strategy greats, sticking a clown wig on top of all your smart ideas is a bloody funny thing to do.

That aside, Warlock 2 is a smart and appropriately chaotic strategy game which really feels as though it has an identity of its own, rather than being made up of borrowed parts (er, other than its own).

Warlock 2: The Exiled is out now.

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16 Comments »

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  1. Senethro says:

    I liked the Warlock 1 demo well enough but wasn’t prepared at the time to put down money for it.

    Something I’m a little bit unclear about in this sequel. Is the sandbox mode your traditional 4X “select 5 AI opponents, a map type and go conquer the world” and is it functional?

    • Grygus says:

      Yes, sandbox mode is essentially the first game with the updated features.

      Whether you should buy it depends on why you didn’t buy the first one. The AI is still incompetent, diplomacy is still an afterthought, and the main challenge comes from the map itself (and the story/quest line, in the case of Exiled Mode.) As noted in the WIT, the sense of humor in these games is entirely intact (this is a selling point for me, I have several 4X games that take themselves entirely seriously and have plenty of room for one that does not.) Just about everything else is improved from the first game.

      Not noted in the WIT but worth mentioning is that the patches have been coming pretty hot and heavy, and a lot of changes have been based on player feedback. It isn’t like the game was released in an unplayable state, either; the post-release support has just been unusually good.

  2. nebnebben says:

    I loved the first one, but based on merely the screenshots it’s clear that reasonably significant numbers of the assets have been re-used. For example, that monty python rabbit had exactly the same description, stats and picture it did in the first game.

    • Grygus says:

      Yeah almost everything that returns is untouched; this is the source of the (illegitimate) criticism that the game should have been DLC. There is a lot of new stuff, mod support, and impactful changes to gameplay, which seems a lot more important to me.

    • Syiavri says:

      I play both, Warlock I, and Warlock II.. and I find myself feeling that both games are very different. I can see how people would feel it should have been a DLC, but honestly, I feel that Warlock II adds a lot to the game, and I find myself eager to play it while doing my multiplayer campaign in Warlock I. The two new races, the new avatars, and the way spells, cities, are done is a vast improvement to the first one. However I found that I dislike the city limit, and have disabled that in my single player games. I find each new world fun to go too, and challenging, and I have seen many new monsters, and smart AI.

  3. Arcturan Megadonkey says:

    This looks just like Age of Mythology which looks just like Age of Wonders III which resembles Disciples 3 which is kind of like Fallen Enchantress. Why do I keep buying these games when I don’t enjoy them!?! The buck stops here. Sorry Warlock 2.

    • Grygus says:

      Gameplay-wise that list of games isn’t very similar; I’d make some recommendations but there’s no handle there on what you don’t like. Maybe you would like Civilization V or Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. Or do you mean “looks” literally? I don’t think the games have much in common, graphically.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Keep an eye on Endless Legend, if you still think you might enjoy one of these fantasy TBS games. I bought into the Early Access version, and I wouldn’t recommend it yet for someone who wants a finished game. But they have some interesting ideas here, some of them carried over from Endless Space like the “neutral zone” where you can engage in early game combat without diplomatic repercussions before fixed empire borders are established. You can only have one city per region, so city placement relative to terrain and resources is important, which limits Civ-type city sprawl. Terrain height is a factor in tactical combat, which will be either semi-automated (like Endless Space) or have full player control over every combat turn.

      Right now the Early Access game is remarkably stable (like the early Endless Space) but needs lots of balancing. Not all the factions are in yet, and there is no Diplomacy yet (AI factions just attack on first sight). But I think it has potential. I bounced off of AoW3 recently…. might go back, but it just didn’t grab me. Endless Legend might stick, if they can avoid the “very polished but bland” way Endless Space turned out.

    • Yglorba says:

      It’s because you’re looking for Master of Magic, and none of its would-be successors has ever quite captured what made it great.

  4. Pneuma_antilogias says:

    The biggest issue for me, in both games, has been the AI. In the first Warlock, seas proved an insurmountable problem for the AI (not that it fared that much better on land): the AI was quite simply unable to launch a coordinated invasion over sea; it kept sending its units 2-3 at a time, to be chewed by my defenses.

    In Warlock 2, the AI is still woefully lacking; it seems to me (though I am not a programmer) that the AI calculates which player unit it can take out if it throws everything it has at it, damn the consequences. This can be a pain early on in the game or if the AI targets a particularly valuable unit, but if the AI loses 3-4 units to take down that one, it simply cannot keep up (even with the significant resource bonuses it receives in the higher difficulty settings).

    The rival mages still cannot coordinate even basic actions against the player; although there is a negative modifier in diplomacy, called “envy of the leader” (i.e. they feel threatened by the strongest/leading mage) the rival mages do not make alliances between them to stop that threat: they keep on fighting among themselves, squandering precious units.

    Also, there has been an issue with the AI not using offensive spells (even at all). As mentioned by Grygus, earlier in the comments, there have been several patches, but this particular problem hadn’t been fixed up to less than a week ago, when I had to put my current game on hold.

    Diplomacy is still broken. I am not talking about meaningful diplomacy on the part of the AI, merely the ability to frame an offer/counteroffer as you please, instead of the “take it or leave it” current situation -diplomacy at the moment is even more problematic than in the original game, and that’s saying something.

    Currently, the biggest challenge is dealing with the “neutral” monsters, which can grow to a significant threat in later shards (worlds).

    There have been several improvements, more units, interesting upgrades etc. With a half-decent AI (I’m still hopeful that it will be fixed or at least shaped up at some point) this would be nothing short of a classic. In multiplayer (haven’t tried it) I suppose it would be excellent, but it would take ages to complete a game.

    I’m actually tempted to replay the last DLC for the original game, Armageddon, I think it offered the best challenge overall; or maybe time elapsed has softened those rough edges…

    Warlock 2 is not bad, by no means, but it could be so much better. Here’s hoping it will be, soon.

  5. Laurentius says:

    It’s a good game and quite enjoyable too but it’s not my type of 4X game as i do love my empires, starting in empty steppes and hundred turns later having them filled with sprawling cities, mines, ports , roads etc. It’s just not that type of game. Number of races and unites is quite splendid but things are given a bit too easily, there are no umph ! moments.

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    LegendaryTeeth says:

    What I want to know is: How’s the multiplayer? Specifically, is a 2-player co-op comp-stomp viable?

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    strangeloup says:

    I really liked the first Warlock once I turned the bloody Tesco Value Sean Connery voice off.

    With this one… I suspect I’ll hold fire until it’s on a good deal and/or some expansions have come out.

  8. Berzee says:

    I’ve always liked Fake Sean Connery.

    In other news I see that Adepts of Lunord are undead now in the Warlock universe and no longer have their cool hats. Sad days for adepts. ;_;

  9. almostDead says:

    This game is a pretty whack-a-mole. Very disappointed. The random enemy spawn is too much and it’s just grind to the end twatting meat shields.

    I played the first for a bit and watched a let’s play preview on the second. Very disappointed that anyone can argue this is much of a difference over the first.

  10. Lord Byte says:

    I’ve played this almost two weeks non-stop. The AI has improved somewhat, but is still completely transparant (you will see him move his units near a weak point to set up a sneak attack. And once they’ve been in a war with you they’re unlikely to stop unless you outmatch them by a lot (even if you consistently and easily wipe them out at the highest difficulty). As some commentators have said , it’s the map that’s the challenge and this can create a hugely satisfying struggle at the start (at Impossible) to grow and, keep up with your enemies! But once you get rolling it does become a slog. I did see the style of the game different than the reviewer. I would generally keep my own cities very specialised and either sacked new cities while cherry picking locations for the maximum amount of special resources (since they’re now limited in amounts). To stop the AI from taking the good spots or encroaching too much in your lands (or rebuilding the conquered lands) I would fill the map with “free cities”, “Temples” or “fortresses” (uncontrolled cities that don’t count to your limit and provide a resource: gold, mana (and standing with the god of your choice) and protection). Whether I sacked towns or just converted them depended on whether I was feeling magnanimous or wanted to squeeze every ounce of growth out of a city (you get a penalty for other race’s cities). I liked it a lot but the weak AI make replayability a lot less interesting than Civ 5 though I like the combat and gameplay more. Still sank a 115 hours into it, which is respectable (and overshadows Civ 5 without expansions, but not with). Multiplayer could be interesting though (I’m not a versus player and can’t entice enough of my friends for a diplomacy style game)….