When we look back at sequels that took a long, hard look at their predecessors and simply made everything better, that list of success might well include Warlock II: The Exiled. Ino-Co Plus have crafted a game that improves on Masters of the Arcane in almost every way possible, delivering a hex-based slice of deep, turn-based strategy that comes out firing on all cylinders.
Though the game's sandbox mode bears much resemblance to the original Warlock, and there are tweaks aplenty to the core gameplay that we'll get to in due course, the big addition to Warlock II, comes in the form of a new mode.
"The Exiled" refers to you, the player, along with a host of other mages who've all been cast out of the realm of Ardania by a super evil grand wizard calling himself The United One. Not only has The United One kicked out anyone who could pose a threat to him, but he's gone and shattered the realms surrounding Ardania, meaning that the worlds have splintered into shards, connected only by ethereal portals. As a super awesome mage yourself, it's up to you to consolidate your power, raise an army or two, navigate those pesky portals, and take back Ardania.
The story barely makes sense, but it also has the decency to never really intrude on the gameplay. Warlock II, like the best strategy games out there, recognises that it's the skin-of-the-teeth battles that will define your narrative as a player, those moments of cerebral fortitude when the game tests your mettle, rather than any scripted nonsense involving shattered world and dubiously-named magicians.
And there are fine moments to be had in that regard. There are six races from which to choose, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. There are newcomers for this second game: the Planestriders are basically a race of outcasts from the remaining races, banding together in the wake of the shattering of worlds, and are hardy folk and useful in a fight. The Svart, on the other hand are thinkers and settlers, and come packing a welcome little research bonus. On top of that, you'll need to choose your starting warlock, and the spells that you'll begin with.
Games in the Exiled mode are all about careful exploration and expansion. Widening your field of influence is a careful business, with buildings only available once per thousand heads in terms of population. Do you go ahead and buy that smithy and turn your city into a militia factory or do you look towards farms and orchards and hope to boost supplies to your empire and nab some precious extra cash? Buildings are snapped onto hexes on the world map, taking up space, and adding a further degree of planning when it comes to expanding your borders.
If there is a downside, it's that there's little variety when it comes to the grand goal. Diplomacy in Warlock II is a bit of a joke. You can treaty with the other great mages in the game, proposing standoffs and ceasefires, and attempting to broker trade alliances and so on, but generally they'll prove to be stubborn bastards at the best of times, and more often than not, they'll just decide to go to war against you. Should that happen, you rather have to resign yourself to a spot of genocide. Though Warlock II presents itself as something of a 4X hybrid, you can knock an X off when it comes to victory conditions -- there's no diplomatic victory in this game, just the total crushing of those who stand before you.
Everything does rather come back to essentially destroying anything and everything that stands in your way on the path back to Ardania. Incidental monsters must be crushed, and their homes utterly destroyed before they'll leave you alone. But Warlock II does a good job of making the world you inhabit feel dangerous and alive. The neutral monsters and incidental annoyances are pleasingly aggressive, always keeping you on your toes. But the other factions sometimes seem as though they'd rather do just about anything other than go to war with you, or anyone else for that matter, even when one of them is nearing victory.
Much of the gameplay revolves around keeping your supply lines of gold and mana flowing, whilst balancing out the need to go out and explore, juggling resources and ensuring that you keep researching new spells. Spell progression is rather more focussed this time around, and you manipulation of the magic arts are essential to victory. It doesn't just come down to blitzing enemies with the odd fireball, though, now you can affect the environment, turning the foundations of an enemy city into a boggy gloop or boosting your gold or food production.
The front lines, those troops that will seek out new life and destroy new civilisations, have been bolstered with a wider range of units than before, and the addition of Hero units. These specialists are your heavy hitters when it comes to combat. They pop up randomly, waiting to be recruited. Though expensive to hire, they more than make up for it when the punches they pack. Better yet, you can supplement them with loot pinched from enemy strongholds or items that you've crafted yourself, if your magical capabilities are that advanced. It's a nice little RPG-lite touch that adds a further bit of depth to proceedings.
Warlock II looks the business, although the the UI is a little cluttered and unintuitive to be honest. That's unfortunately true of many a Paradox title, but Warlock II at least does a good job of easing you into things. I hadn't played the original when I started sinking hours into the game's preview build (that has since been rectified), but I was able to get up and running pretty quickly.
If there is a downside to Warlock II: The Exiled, though it's perhaps that outside of the new game mode, things feel very much like a 1.5-esque tune-up rather than a fully fledged sequel. Playing the game in Legacy mode is something of a nostalgia trip for fans of the first game, albeit with the new units and polished mechanics. The setting for the Exiled mode -- those procedurally generated shards -- is what really separates the two games, with improved focus, and a greater buffet of choice being welcome enhancements to the formula. Warlock II is a great entry point, and is certainly the better of the two games, but there's still space to push on for greater variation and expansion.
Not that I really cared, in all honesty. I was far too busy trying to get back to Ardania.
- Impressive range of units
- Cracking variety in spellcasting
- Exiled mode presents new challenges
- Solid hex-based TBS from the first game has been tuned up and expanded
- Looks pretty good...
- ...Except for that UI
- Seriously, did someone sneeze buttons onto the screen?
- AI is a little too passive at times
- Feels a lot like Warlock 1.5 at times rather than a true sequel
The Short Version: Warlock II: The Exiled is a game that stands on the shoulders of its predecessor rather than blazing a trail, but that's okay. What Ino-Co have given us here is an incredibly solid, hex-based strategy title that provides a great entry point to the series (and the genre, to be honest), with enough here to keep fans engaged for several thousand turns.
Developers: Ino-Co Plus
Publishers: Paradox Interactive