Expanding on the relative success of Warlock: Master of the Arcane comes the equally tongue-in-cheek Warlock II: The Exiled. After some hands-on with Warlock II, it's with pleasure I can say that it cleans up some of the lesser features of its predecessor and brings some interesting new ideas to the popular genre.
With a self-aware sense of humour, Warlock II plays like a distant, 'wacky' cousin of the more prim and proper Civilization V, and litters the hex-based battlefield with wizards, mages, spells, magicka, portals and new worlds / dimensions. But interestingly for a 4X strategy game the idea isn't just to dominate your opponents, but features a more story-driven adventure from A to B in a more serious and challenging adventure than one would expect
You see, the world has shattered into pieces and these shards are now connected by portals. Why? Erm, it doesn't really matter, but it does open up the game for a very exciting and varied mix of gameplay styles and strategies. When you start off the campaign, you can build up your little city, surround it with settlements, defences and troops, then venture forth into any nearby portals you have found. The idea is to make it back to Ardania via many different worlds, quashing all sorts of feral animals, undead hordes and rival mages' armies along the way. The new worlds are procedurally generated, of course meaning that each playthrough is vastly different to the last.
Normally, the term 'procedurally generated' fills me with dread or disdain, as the advent of random dungeons in RPGs or random level design in any game just seems lazy. Here in Warlock II, it works perfectly. There is a large element of luck that runs through your quest back to Ardania, and part of that is facing the unknown new worlds and adapting quickly. Bring your bustling armies through a portal and you could just as easily be faced with a barren but fertile scene of greenery, perfect for expanding your settlements and improving upon supplies and power, or a world tailored to the undead where your spells have little to no effect.
While the universe within Warlock II seems massive, spanning new worlds, dimensions etc, and with the game rewarding exploration and discovery, the individual world maps can seem frustratingly claustrophobic at times, with no realistic advent for diplomacy between two rival forces. Kill or be killed. Or run for it.
Despite being up against rival mages and races, Warlock II is a game less about global domination and more about your personal adventure to get back home, leading to confrontations against the more structured opponents with their own bases of operations feeling more like boss battles rather than epic showdown battles in a much bigger war. Just more stepping stones in your way, really.
Warlock II is a bit of a slow-burner, but with my forces being split across several maps, I haven't had as much frantic multi-map switching fun in a strategy game since Mega-Lo-Mania. Your hand is held somewhat throughout, with convenient reminders letting you know what options you have available before you're forced into clicking 'End Turn,' which I find refreshing. In-depth strategy games do feel very daunting at times for a relative novice like myself, so this is a very useful way of learning the ropes without being so evasive that pros would be turned off by its simplistic nature.
Far from it, as your own style of strategy is key to your success. There's still your usual city building and army training to be done, but how you split your numbers into defenders of your cities, conquerors of new worlds and whether your resources and research goes into the right fields will seriously affect your time in Warlock II. With the sheer number of rival races to battle against, not to mention the deadly native animals who just want to kill you, mixed with the unpredictable nerfs and buffs of each new world, lead to very interesting battles which never quite work out to be the easy win or blatant defeat they seem at the initial clash – mainly due to the intriguing dice-centred combat that takes a very subtle centre stage to fighting.
Warlock II: The Exiled is an interesting take on the turn-and-hex-based strategy genre, building on its own sense of identity garnered from Paradox Interactive's first outing to make it stand out as a suitable and worthy alternative to the outstanding genre stalwarts Civilization V and Europa Universalis IV. Released on April 10th, Warlock II looks great and feels both relaxed and intense, and is set to invade your lives soon. There are just as many boxes ticked that Warlock II gets right with regards to the genre it finds itself in, as there are new and interesting features that breathe fun and engrossing new life into a genre that has of late felt very oligopolistic due to the aforementioned games. By the looks of it, Warlock II: The Exiled could be the sleeper hit for the strategy market in 2014, with good reason.