Written by Tom Senior
Sod's law says that the moment you move your armies through a portal to another floating island world is the precise moment the army of hidden dragons will attack. So it proves in turn-based strategy game Warlock II. The blasted lizards punish me for over-stretching an hour into the playable preview build, eating my scouts and laying siege to my capital city.
What's a mage to do? Douse the problem in eldritch flame, obviously. My capital can hurl one magical bolt a turn. I'd previously been using it to whittle down the health of a kraken living in a nearby lake, but now it's enough to send the huge dragon at my doorstep fleeing for a respite. It's a good temporary defence measure, but it's no replacement for an army of veteran bowmen. If only I hadn't sent my veteran bowmen to a plane of reality populated by frost giants who hate veteran bowmen.
The idea of fire/ice/forest themed worlds should be old hat by now, but it's surprisingly effective in the context of this strategy game. Warlock II is set in the aftermath of a war that shattered the fantasy land of Ardania into fragments, and scattered its great mages across a series of peripheral shard worlds. The procedural generation algorithm that builds each hovering sliver of terrain randomly distributes shard-traversing portals on each landmass, and assigns a giant creature to guard them. The restructured campaign mode casts you as one of those exiled great mages, and asks you to conquer your way across multiple planes to return to your homeland. Some planes will branch, offering you a choice of worlds to die in.
I can barely make it out of world one, a pleasant land of luminous green forests and hordes of insect critters. Warlock II is bright and easygoing in the hex-based, moreish manner of Civilization V, but benefits from a quirky sense of humour and a good variety of enemies, units, spells and randomised occurrences.
A smattering of multi-stage quests encouraged me to explore the map and take on large creatures. A magical building I captured unlocked new recruitment options and I bartered with a fellow grand mage who looked like a rat. Warlock 1's variety has provided an excellent foundation for the sequel. “I still encounter high level monsters and different kinds of units from Warlock 1 that I haven't seen before,” says producer Jörgen Björklund, who reckons he's played around 400 hours of the original. “We've added as much content again as in the first game.”
My footsoldiers eventually make it back to my capital city, but their stupid stumpy arms can't reach high enough to swat the dragons. I research a rain-of-fire spell instead and blast them out of the air. There are three lengthy spell trees to research, and in the final game spells can be augmented with glyphs that change their nature. Additionally, you can align yourself with the gods, each of which can grant your empire holy boons.
I'm too busy defending my lands to charm the local deities. The more you extend, the more you have to do to secure your existing holdings. It's a tough war of attrition that will surely grow in intensity with each shard held. Fortunately, my capital city is growing in influence. Its borders spread wider, giving me more hexes on which to plant farmland and rescue my dwindling economy. For all the glamour of the high-fantasy setting, you'll still have to ensure your lands are making money. I wonder if the kraken in that nearby lake is sitting on a pot of treasure. I make a mental note to send some wellarmed men on a very intense fishing expedition once the dragons are destroyed.
Warlock's setting does a lot to refresh the 4X strategy formula. I soon discover that the dragons I've been driving away have been fleeing to a nearby healing grove to recover. What I thought was an infinite stream of dragons turned out to be three big ones taking turns. I train up some more bowmen and send them out to finish the job and wonder how human players will make use of these magical terrain tiles. The developers, Ino-Co Plus, are implementing a multiplayer system that will enable players to make non-aggressive orders such as building and research simultaneously, easing the long waits that can scupper multiplayer turn-based strategy games.
Ino-Co Plus also want players to have a hand in expanding the game. Warlock II will ship with an editor that will enable players to export their creations into the Steam Workshop. “It will let fans edit pretty much everything in the game,” Björklund says. “You can edit units, perks, spells, the buildings, the tech trees. You can make maps with different win conditions, and then link these maps together into story campaigns, which is something a lot of fans have asked for.”
I have a feeling there's quite enough for the community to be getting on with before they have to embrace the modding tools. Warlock 1 earned a deserved fanbase for its irreverence and absorbing campaigns. After an hour or so with the sequel, I find myself similarly charmed.