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Early Impressions: Warlock 2 - The Exiled

Worlds apart

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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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