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.