For over two decades the Civilization Emperor has ruled on the throne of turn-based strategies. On its squared or (more recently) hexagonal shores many adversaries have gathered over time, some of them very respectable, but somehow swallowed by the mists of history (Alpha Centauri), others resembling many politicians, full of promises, but mostly incapable or full of defects (Elemental: War of Magic).
Not caring to try new formulas with which to tackle the greatness of Civilization, Warlock: Master of the Arcane directly targets many of the characteristics of the last game in the leading franchise, even so much as it seems to herald the rebirth of a ’90s trend, when the “Doom clone” category was very close of becoming a genre of its own.
What’s striking after the first few minutes of wizardry rule is how much is Warlock… inspired by the last Civilization. The division of the play space in hexagons is not really the most direct clue, in any case no bigger than the very detailed and similar graphics and interface, which comes with some dubiously similar looking elements placed exactly in the same way the source of inspiration has. If I would have seen images from Warlock without knowing its name, I could have sworn on a diplomatic victory that they are from a Civilization V mod.
Here, the illustrious ruler is a very powerful wizard, which can originate from three races: human, beast or undead. Although the available units differ for each race, the differences between them are really not that important, regarding mostly the necessary quantities of resources for unit upkeep and they tend to level after enough gameplay time.
What’s pleasing is the fact that you can summarily customize your avatar before starting the game, with the help of a few perks (like Treasury, which gives you 100 Gold) and some level-varying spells, this being an aspect that for me is unfairly missing from the last Civilization. Sadly, even with these there is still no essential modification of gameplay, as the effects of the customization options gradually lose their value after some time.
On the way to victory you start with an already built town and some basic fighting units specific to your race. The first available buildings are the farms, granaries, two offensive/defensive towers and a building that has the purpose of gathering mana necessary for spells and units.
Here we have the second very good idea in Warlock: the buildings are not just placed in the space occupied by the center of the city; all of them must be manually placed in their own hexagon. However, it would have been even more interesting if you could directly attack these structures, because their placement would have been a major element in the administration of the cities. But only the offensive ones and the center of the city can be attacked, and when you lose the latter, you also lose the buildings that were in its boundaries.
The neutral settlements don’t have quite the same role as the city-states in Civilization V and are treated very simply. In that they are always hostile. On the other hand, their consistent number (which cannot be chosen before the start) offers a military alternative to the spamming of settlers. In their absence you can “obtain” new cities using only combatant units. The settlements can be captured no matter their race and the race of the conqueror, an element that will although guarantee diversity in gameplay style (especially military) also contributes to the gradual removal of differences which should come with choosing a specific race.
The groups of hostile creatures populate the map in a big enough number so as to allow the upgrade of your units before tackling the wizards that also seek world domination. But their AI seems either extremely simple or heavily scripted, because every time you bring units in their line of action you will be attacked, regardless of their chances for success.
This is partially balanced by the fact that those units are sometimes aerial (and in the first few turns you will have to run from them if you lack any aerial attack units) and by the last difficulty level which places on the map, even from the start, very powerful creatures. But even on this difficulty, the AI doesn’t take very good care of them: it’s enough to attack with naval units to see how the enemies dumbly stroll over the same two hexagons while waiting for their demise.
The same situation applies when you create towns too close to hostile creatures. The AI will sometimes siege them with extremely weak creatures that you can eliminate stress-free in two turns. There have been moments when I’ve lost towns to a high-level creature, but only because it was placed in the creature’s line of action. Mostly, the low/mid-level creatures migrate on the map while the very powerful ones remain idle until you get close enough, even on the highest difficulty level.
I understand the justification for this kind of scripting – the assurance that you won’t lose all your cities to neutral creatures – but seeing two-three high-level beasts just standing there without any semblance of life is not the most interesting sight in regards to the AI.
Similarly to Civilization V, combat elements are the most evolved and those of you who favored that particular battle system will get right down to business, helped a lot by the map’s visual familiarity. The positioning of units on hexagons allows for attacks from multiple directions and, just like in the eternal source of inspiration, in the lower left you get an approximate report of a fight together with any bonuses given by unit type or terrain type.