When I first heard that Paradox Interactive were publishing a magic-heavy title set in the Majesty universe, I couldn't help but wonder whether Arrowhead Game Studios were developing a spiritual sequel to Magicka. We'd like one, by the way. However, Ino-Co Plus are planning something very different and more in line with the Majesty franchise: a turn-based strategy game that hinges around global domination, plane-hopping and magical conquest on top of the usual city building and skirmishes.
Even though the preview build is fairly rough around the edges ahead of its 2012 launch, the experience did enough to impress at this early stage. Warlock: Master Of The Arcane will be instantly recognisable to turn-based strategy fans thanks to its tried-and-tested mechanics, but twice as accessible for those who aren't. And has thrice as many murderous spell-slinging liches as its nearest competitor.
Your journey starts with the creation of a Great Mage: your avatar in the world of Ardania. Multiple races such as humans, ratmen and undead all offer different units and traits, while a limited number of skill points can be spent on various different perks and spells for your character to wield. Aggressive players will doubtlessly craft shadow-casting lich horrors to dominate the early game, whereas more pragmatic players can choose to specialise in research or even farming should they so choose. Plenty of pre-built mages are on offer for more impatient players. Once you've designed your wizard and set the map parameters, the game begins... and immediately bombards us with a massive sense of deja vu due to its reliance on one of Paradox Interactive's favourite gameplay mechanics. Hexes.
Nope, not the curse variety. Warlock is definitely a classic hex-based strategy game through and through. You'll build and expand cities with new buildings, garrison them for defence, create units and explore maps; joining battle or negotiating with fellow Great Mages in the process. If you've ever played a turn-based strategy title before (especially from Paradox Interactive), you'll immediately grasp the basics. Fantasy trappings and cliches abound, skeleton archers and ogres replace medieval footsoldiers, but the you'd be forgiven for thinking that the core principles are exactly the same as any number of similar experiences on the market. Luckily, Warlock does enough differently to make an impression.
Of course, Warlock sets itself apart from the pack with its magic. Each wizard can research and numerous spells to use in battle; from powerful damaging effects like shadow bolts and fireballs to unit buffs and defensive deterrants. Choosing which research paths to follow and which spells to prioritise will doubtlessly become an incredibly important part of each game, especially since limited resources require you to undertake RPG-style quests in order to boost your gold supply. The better the spells you have, the more damage you can inflict on your opponents' units on your march to their cities.
Defeating a rival Great Wizard allows you to take over his castle, which provides you with a new city as well as any of his acquired research and slave troops. Peaceful diplomacy seems to play a much more minor role here than in more thoughtful strategy games, though I daresay that human opponents may well decide to work together in multiplayer games. Much may change before release, mind, and I'd love to see more tact and diplomacy in the final release.
The maps are very different from what most players will be used to. Instead of a single two-dimensional field, maps consist of numerous planes linked by extra-dimensional portals. Each plane contains different elemental effects and favours different units, meaning that you'll have to vary your tactics and troops as you explore unknown realms. We're a little worried that some players will be able to turtle themselves within less accessible worlds... but the bonuses gained from capturing rival castles will probably lure all but the most cold-blooded of wizards out of their dark demesnes.
Victory conditions provide a lot of choice, as well as scope to focus on different strategies rather than just killing everyone. Technically speaking, you could just kill everyone and defeat all the great mages for the win, but you could also cunningly hunt down scattered Holy Grounds and fortify them; winning the game if you occupy them all simultaneously. Conversely, a divine avatar stalks the lands. It's outrageously tough and nigh-on invulnerable to all but the most determined attacks... but killing it will make you God. More tactical players will be pleased to learn that gathering enough painstaking research and resources grant access to the Unity spell, which wins you the match as well as granting you every single spell in the game. There's plenty of room for pitched battles, short-lived alliances and introverted turtling, and potential for some incredibly long matches.
What I found most impressive was just how accessible Warlock: Master Of The Arcane promises to be. It's as complex and nuanced as any number of beardy turn-based outings, yet simple menus and streamlined mechanics make it incredibly easy to understand. Frozen Synapse and its ilk understand that the genre needs to appeal to a wider player base without sacrificing the depth we crave, and Ino-Co seem primed and ready to deliver. Definitely one to watch.
Warlock: Master Of The Arcane is slated for a Q2 2012 release on PC.