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Hands-On: Warlock II – The Exiled

Exiled On Mage Street

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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.

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