Civilization V was a remarkable achievement for strategy gaming, offering a time-tested formula with lots of new features sprinkled in. Evidently, Russian developer Ino-Co Plus took notes while they played, because the forthcoming Warlock: Master of the Arcane is in many ways a re-skinning of Sid Meier’s latest. We got the chance to go hands-on with the game in anticipation of its May 8 release.
To be sure, the new skin makes a huge difference. You live as a wizard in a fantasy world, and instead of researching boring old human technologies, you research magical spells that you can cast on your units and enemies from on high. Everything about the world—from the armies you recruit and the enemies you face to the resources you harvest and the religions you can join—reflects this shift in environment. But at heart, it feels awfully familiar, with a hexagonal grid, similar combat, various ways to win (such as researching the ultimate spell), a fog of war, and the same user-friendly way that the game shepherds you through each action you take. Many have compared Warlock with Masters of Magic, a ’90s classic that took the original Civilization into the realm of fantasy.
Years later, will Warlock be a worthwhile investment for fans of Civ V? It’s hard to say. At this point, just two weeks from release, Warlock’s developers are still working on some significant A.I. problems, and multiplayer won’t be added until a free patch arrives this summer. Civ V provides a level of polish that a newly launched game from a small developer simply cannot, and most of what makes Warlock so much fun is cribbed directly from its inspiration. But the new world is a welcome change, the game does a decent job of aping much of what made Civ V great, and the graphics are a joy to look at.
As for gamers who’ve never tried Civ V—well, first of all, what are you waiting for? But second, Warlock looks like it will be a solid introduction to this style of gameplay, especially for those who love fantasy settings.
The beautiful thing about Civilization is the way the game seems to play itself, even though you’re really the one in control. Each turn, the game lays out the tasks you need to accomplish so you’re not left staring at the screen and rifling through a thousand menus in confusion. And there are countless ways to play, depending on what strategies you choose, and more skilled players can ignore the game’s advice and play however they want.
Warlock achieves this same balance: You feel like a god, but you don’t have to put in too much effort when it comes to directing the universe. Hands-down, it’s the most accessible game I’ve ever played from publisher Paradox Interactive, with easy-to-navigate menus and intuitive controls, but there’s plenty of depth, too, once you get the feel of the game. The game hands you “quests” that award you extra gold for achieving certain milestones, prodding you toward good basic strategy, and yet it doesn’t impede your choices if you decide to take another route.
Movement and combat also take their biggest cues from Civ V. The map is a grid of hexagons, and you’re only allowed to have one unit on a given hex at a time. (This prevents the “stacks of doom” that made older versions of Civilization kind of silly at times.) The various ways of approaching the enemy—melee units, ships, air, archers, etc.—create strategic quandaries that you’ll need to consider carefully. Fortunately, as you learn the ropes, Warlock provides lots of information about how likely your attacks are to succeed.
One significant departure from Civilization is that as you expand your empire, Warlock provides a lot of distractions from the basic mission to conquer the world. You’ll encounter a dazzling array of fantasy creatures, from werewolves to kraken, giving you a sheer sense of diversity that Civ V doesn’t quite match. Also, thanks to the fact you’re living in a fantasy world, you encounter portals that take you to new locations, many of which are incredibly dangerous. In Warlock, you feel a little less like you’re trying to win a game of Risk against a bunch of groups that are basically like you, and a little more like you’re exploring a vast world that’s interesting in its own right.
In brief: Yes, it’s derivative, but Warlock: Master of the Arcane is shaping up to be a well-made, fun, and—in a few select ways—innovative game. It’s been far too long since the grand strategy genre visited the fantasy realm, and there’s no reason this game can’t carve out a niche for itself in today’s game market.