It is time to return to Ardania. Whilst you, a Great Mage, were away fighting the Dremer, one of your rivals cast the Spell of Unity during events that played out in the first game, Warlock: Master of the Arcane. Your rival now rules your homeworld and all other mages have fled or are now subservient to him. Unfortunately your war with the Dremer has destroyed numerous worlds so your journey home to challenge the United One will be a long one across shards of broken planets. This is the plot for the new Exiled campaign mode in Warlock 2: The Exiled and you are, as ever in the Ardania series, accompanied by your trusty Sean Connery sound-alike.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane was a war-focused fantasy turn-based 4X game which had a side-attraction of being able to move your units through portals to explore other worlds. You are still able to play this mode, with the addition of the new rules in this sequel. There isn’t however enough new here to warrant an upgrade over the first game if that’s all you are interested in. So the draw of this game is the new Exiled campaign mode and the potential of the extremely flexible included game editor. The first thing to note about the campaign is that, as the plot outlined above suggests, portals to other worlds have been elevated to a major game mechanic. You and your rival exiled Great Mages each start on a small shard of a world, linked to each other and your destination via a series of neutral worlds populated by monsters. There are a variety of environments these world shards come in, such as ice, desert and dead worlds. Each of these are populated by a variety of different themed monsters and each is accessible via a portal from another world.
In traditional fashion, you begin the campaign with a starting city and couple of units and your goal is to expand your empire by exploring and conquering new lands and founding new cities. All of this with the aim of increasing your resources to allow you to research and build more and better units. Whilst doing this, you will very quickly come up against a new restriction in this sequel on the number of cities you can found. All games of this genre have come up with a variety of ways to enforce diminishing returns on aggressive expansion, but it is still generally worth doing if for nothing more than denying the land to your opponents. Warlock 2 takes this more seriously than most by specifying an optimal number of cities you can have after which quite punishing penalties come into play. This number also starts quite low, at five, though it can be increased by research as the game progresses. On top of these traditional cities, you can build unlimited numbers of ‘special cities’ which you have no direct control over and these can either generate taxes, serve as defensive structures or as temples.
This major change has the dual benefit of greatly reducing the time you would spend micromanaging your settlements in the late game and balancing the game. You are left wondering though if one of the reasons for this latter effect is to aid the AI, which wasn’t very highly regarded in the first game. It does however add a series of strategic decisions all of its own to the game. When you reach a new world and can’t build any more cities, do you build a special city on your new front line and have a long supply chain running units from far away established settlements? Or do you convert an old settlement into a special city, losing all the benefits of its buildings, in favour of a new frontline city that will take time to build up. It is worth noting that you can disable this city-limiting feature, although the developers do not recommend doing so. You probably don’t want to do it in the Exiled campaign when playing single player as the game is designed around it. But if you really want to, particularly in multiplayer, the option is there.
The combat in Warlock 2 all takes place on the strategic map, there’s no zooming in to tactical fights in this game. There’s also no unit stacking or grouping together of units here either. So with instantaneously resolved fights, you’ll be spending more time moving units about over those long supply lines from world to world rather than actually fighting. The combat follows the fairly standard melee attack, counter-attack and ranged attack rules you see in most such games. There are a variety of damage and resistance types in the game and units can be equipped with armour gained from constructing certain buildings and assigned new skills and improved stats after levelling up from combat experience. A new feature in this game is the ability to hire up to four powerful, but expensive, Lords at a time who offer their services to you at various points as the game progresses.
Magic plays a big part in the game. There are a variety of spells to research that can help or harm units in a variety of ways, summon units or provide passive benefits to your empire. These spells take both the mana resource and a fixed amount of time to cast. Depending upon the spells, you can cast multiple per turn or more powerful ones may take a few turns to cast. These spells can easily turn the tables in a fight so good use of them is essential. In the first game, the spell research tree was randomised to add variety to your games. In the sequel it is a more traditional fixed tree where you can plan your research and again this aids game balance. On top of the magic you can research as a mage, there are a variety of powerful spells you can research based upon your current alignment with the gods. This alignment is represented as a circle with each god around it like a clock face with you starting in the middle. This means that to gain favour with some gods to learn powerful spells requires you to move away from others and risk their wrath.
Something to note is that in the early game, the balance heavily favours the defender. Even if undefended by units, cities have their own hit points which scale with city size and a ranged attack. There’s also the defensive special cities, known as strongholds, that you can build along your front line. These do not scale with game progression, and whilst vulnerable shortly after being built, they quickly have a huge number of hit points and again have the ability to launch a ranged attack even without any defending units. It will take a lot of early game units to make a dent on one of these and whilst you can simply bypass them to reach the more vulnerable cities, your units will be subject to withering fire whilst you do this. Units can also move faster in their own territory so defenders can move much more freely than attackers which is a good reason to spread special cities everywhere you may need to move units. So realistically, until you have more advanced units and spells, you can’t take on a rival Great Mage no matter how numerically superior you may be.
Thankfully, there is plenty for you to be doing in the meantime. The lands are positively teeming with neutral cities and monster spawning lairs. There’s a huge variety in the power of these, so some are easy to destroy, whilst others may take several of your units multiple turns to wear down. Monsters don’t tend to attack you unless you enter their range, however, so they can be engaged in more manageable self-contained battles. New monster lairs can also spawn at random anywhere in previously cleared areas so you need to be ready to defend settlements far from your front lines. On top of the neutral parties, there are a variety of quests to complete on your journey home. Some of these are random events whilst others are scripted as part of the story and generally involve minions of the United One casting spells at you. These include summoned monsters to defeat, items to find and even random terrain changes to mess up your economy.
The game has a good learning curve. As you would expect, Warlock 2 is perfectly accessible to anyone familiar with the genre, but your first few games will be played far from optimally. The basics are covered in early game tutorial screens but there’s a lot of strategy to learn yourself as you play. In particular, you’ll learn how to most rapidly advance your empire in terms of spell research and the buildings you choose to construct to provide you with advanced units and sufficient resources to support them. Doing this well would allow you to far more quickly overcome the early game defensive advantage mentioned earlier. The game nicely achieves the strategy game holy grail of easy to get into but hard to master.
Also worth noting is that the presentation in Warlock 2 is nothing short of top notch. The first game looked good but the sequel looks absolutely stunning, particularly with regards to the terrain detail. Sound is impressive with a variety of combat sounds and different walking noises based on the terrain your units are crossing. Little details like that really add to the game. There are unfortunately a few UI issues mostly with regards to popup screens obscuring things they shouldn’t, including other popups and even obscuring the AI’s turn. There are also logistical problems with the portals. The game handles these nicely on the exit side of the portal where units materialise on a random hex near the portal if the portal is occupied. However on the entry side, units have to go via the specific hex containing the portal. This means you can easily control movement between worlds against an opponent you are not at war with. It also infuriatingly causes any multiple turn movement orders you have queued up to be canceled if entry to a portal is blocked, even when the unit is far enough away that the route may be clear by the time they get there. These are not showstopping issues though and Paradox have a good record for supporting their games with patches post-release so none of this is a great cause for concern.
The final thing to mention is the game’s impressive editor. Absolutely everything about the game can be modified, from the unit’s visuals and stats up to creating entire new campaigns to rival the included Exiled one complete with maps and quests. The first game had a variety of DLC released for it but it’s hard to see how they could do so with this considering people can create their own content so comprehensively. This should see the life of the game extended quite a long way beyond even the already long life games of this genre naturally provide through their random maps. Even if you are not into modding games yourself, the Steam Workshop support provides an easy way for you to find other users mods according to how highly rated it is by the game community.
Warlock 2: The Exiled is a solid war-focused 4X strategy game with fantastic presentation. For newcomers to the series, it’s accessible but with a depth to the strategy that’s going to take you a few playthroughs to master. To fans of the first game, whether it’s worth buying depends upon how much you are looking for a new and unique way to play games in this genre. If the new Exiled mode sounds intriguing then the game has a lot to offer with the potential of user created campaigns to follow. If, however, you prefer the more traditional game mode then there’s not a great deal new here to tempt you.