As a long time strategy fan, I’ve always had a soft spot for the 4X sub genre. From Heroes of Might and Magic to the Total War franchise, I’ve lost countless hours of my life growing virtual empires. Recent years have seen this genre grow in popularity and Steam has been flooded with a whole variety of such titles. Leading the charge is Paradox Interactive, a Swedish publisher who specialises in grand strategy titles. The company has already found success with Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron, so where does this new title fit in? After their many historical titles, Paradox moved into the realm of fantasy strategy with 2012’s Warlock: Master of the Arcane. Created by the Russian studio Ino-Co Plus, the original developers are now back with their follow up, Warlock 2: The Exiled.
For newcomers to the franchise, Warlock 2 succeeds where other strategy games fail in that it never feels too overwhelming. The tutorial teaches you as you play, meaning that players can learn the game’s various interconnected mechanics without becoming bored. A handy reminder system keeps you informed of all the different tasks to perform each turn which is incredibly helpful early on. Unfortunately this good work is somewhat let down by a poor UI. In an effort to keep the screen as uncluttered as possible , Ino-Co Plus hides a lot of the games options behind clickable icons that are quite small and can go unnoticed. This is a shame as for the most part the game does an excellent job of introducing players to the series.
It is a different story for Warlock veterans. When this game was first announced, many fans were worried that with less than two years of development time that The Exiled would be more of an overpriced expansion pack than a fully fledged sequel. In some ways their fears are not unfounded. Warlock 2 looks and plays very much like its predecessor. You gather resources, mange cities and build up your armies in order to expand your empire and crush the opposition. It does have a couple of new factions in the form of the Svarts and the Planestriders and it has a new campaign mode but these could easily have been added via an expansion DLC. The other changes are mostly minor adjustments to the game’s mechanics but they do improve the overall experience. Magic research, for example, is now much more focused than before and Spells are now divided into three different technology trees: Sorcery, Wizardry and Divine. You must research a certain number of spells at each stage of the tree to be able to move onto the next one.
One area that could have done with some more improvements is diplomacy. Inhabiting the world with you is a host of different civilisation, led by Great Mages who you can interact with. All the basic options are there, from non aggression pacts and alliances to organising trade and making demands. What I would liked to have seen are more options, especially when it comes to allies. Being able to request that an ally joins you in a war or even being able to give them specific cities that you want them to attack could have added a much needed extra layer of strategy. The Great Mages’ poor AI is also a big problem as they never seem to be able to make up their mind. One of my allies would constantly break our alliance agreement, only to beg for me to restore it 6 or so turns later.
These problems with diplomacy are a shame as The Exiled campaign as a whole is actually rather good. Tasking you with defeating the United One, the campaign guides you through a series of story quests, which sound like they belong more to an RPG game than a strategy one. Yet this actually works quite well as it means the game is constantly pushing you forward and giving you a clear path to take. In this campaign the map has been divided into various inter-connected shards, each based on a different topographical feature. This means that as your empire grows you’ll be discovering whole new worlds, each with its own unique set of resources, terrain, monsters and cities. This feature is essential to giving the game that addictive ‘ just one more turn’ quality that has often kept me playing into the early hours of the morning. Capturing cities of different civilisations grants you access to a whole new building tree along with new units and upgrades, which ensures that your army will be constantly evolving and changing. The side quest system, which offers new and different challenges to the main storyline, is also instrumental at keeping the game feel fresh, even towards the end of the Exiled campaign.
For those who feel that this story based approach would make the game too linear, a sandbox mode has also been included that allows fans to build the exact campaign they want. The degree of customisation options for each campaign is staggering. Everything from the design of the world to the opposition you’ll be facing can be tailored to your exact wants. The game also comes with an in-depth editor to allow players to change almost any aspect about the game and even create their own scenarios and quests. These options help the game enormously as it adds a great deal of replay value, not only to the single player but to multiplayer as well.
Warlock 2 is at its best when it revels in its fantastical, nonsensical setting. As well as the traditional elves, dragons and skeletal warriors, I also came across giant turtles and a vicious swarm of mosquitoes that could kill my bets unit in one hit. There is a huge number of spells to cast that range from summoning a pack of imps to unleashing Armageddon, resulting in some truly insane battles. There’s also a good deal of humour to the game, complete with an announcer who does a rather poor Sean Connery impression and the obligatory Monty Python references. I would recommend the game to any 4X or grand strategy fan, although owners of the original may find the lack of new content to be disappointing.