Dusk, Amid Evil, Ion Maiden, Hellbound, Apocryph. Put “cinematic” scripted moments and “realistic” shooting experience in check. These bad boys are here to remind you how awesome and crucial the ’90s were for the first person shooter genre. Just a badass hero, tonnes of impractical weaponry and a bazillion evil dudes to maw down. Project Warlock is the latest addition to the roster of these old fellas. Most importantly, it’s primarily made by a 19-year-old Jakub Cislo who was not even born during the great FPS boom of the ’90s. Makes it all the more interesting that I dive head deep into Project Warlock and see if it delivers.
Project Warlock is a retro-first person shooter developed by Buckshot Software as a timed exclusive for everyone’s favourite DRM-less GOG.com. The game was released for Microsoft Windows on October 18, 2018.
Story & Narrative
In Project Warlock, you don the runic robes of one mysterious Warlock, as he tries to rid evil from every nook and cranny above and below…ah who am I kidding? You don’t play a game like this for the deep story and narrative. I can’t think of anyone who asked a pinky demon the meaning of life before filling its face with hot lead. In the words of the great John Carmack, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” While this statement can’t be applied for all games, it definitely suits this one. Plus it’s not like the game offers minute long cinematics and dialogues to tell you what’s going on. The only thing you need to know is that you click on anything that moves and it dies in a horrible fashion. Sometimes I’m not even that discriminating.
Gameplay & Mechanics
If you have played Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Heretic, Hexen, Strife, Duke Nukem 3D, Blood or Shadow Warrior, you’ll feel right at home. Even though Warlock takes inspirations from all the aforementioned games, it’s Doom with a heavy dose of Hexen that drive Warlock forward. Basically, you run around a level shooting everything that moves while searching for colour-coded keys and keycards to gain access to another section of the map. Staying true to the oldschool approach, there are lots of secret areas to find in the levels which reward you with experience points (I’ll get to that later) and loot. So there is some incentive to go around dry-humping each wall. It wouldn’t be a retro FPS if you didn’t have access to a load of badass weaponry and Warlock doesn’t disappoint. From a measly magical knife to a less measly magical staff to the iconic double-barrelled shotgun to the BFG, Warlock holds true to its promise. The shooting is fast-paced, violent and highly satisfying- almost like a little brother to Brutal Doom. Instead of the classic save everywhere system, the game provides limited lives to the player. Thankfully, Project Warlock is generous with providing additional lives within the levels and doesn’t get frustrating for even bit.
The Upgrade System
Almost (emphasis on almost) every weapon is viable across a wide variety of scenarios and if you find a weapon to be lacking, voila! The upgrade system has you covered. Thanks to this system, you can turn your generic revolver to a beefy hand cannon that feels useful all the way to the end of the game. Annoyed that the super shotgun has to be reloaded after each shot? Why not upgrade it and fire twice before you have to reload, or you could just upgrade it to do twice the damage. Some of these upgrades even change the entire way a weapon functions. For example, you can turn the laser rifle to a rapid firing rifle or a slow firing flak gun. Do note that once you choose an upgrade, you’ll be effectively locked out of the other option for the remainder of the playthrough. The upgrade system, while simple adds a lot of depth and experimentation to the combat.
If you don’t prefer killing foes with bullets, why not kill them with sorcery? As a warlock, the hero has access to up to 12 spells, every one of which you’ll have to find in the levels and unlock using upgrade points. These share the same upgrade points as the weapon upgrades and thus, you have to choose wisely on which way you want to go. Aside from a handful of cool spells like lightning and ice wave, I didn’t find the magic system to be that much fleshed out. Not to mention the fact that by the time you unlock the badass stuff, you’ll probably have more guns that you don’t know what to do with. Still, it’s a nice addition and I look forward to trying out a mage build someday.
Finally, there is a bit of light progression going on. Once you have sufficient talents, you’ll be able to increase stats such as Strength, Life, Spirit and Capacity, which in turn, raises your melee damage, HP, mana and carrying capacity along with unlocking several perks which lets you run faster, move through enemies and all that jazz. It’s a much-appreciated feature, even though you end up being way overpowered midway through the game.
Level & Enemy Design
Project Warlock has a lot of content with respect to its price. You get 5 episodes, each containing 5 scenes with 2-4 levels inside each scene. That adds up to about 60 levels in total, each of which can be completed in 3-10 minutes. Speaking of the levels, they’re more akin to what’s in Doom and Heretic than the later Build Engine games. Meaning that they are pseudo-3D environments with not a lot in terms of verticality. But this is a design decision rather than an engine issue. The levels are maze-like but nothing too confusing that it makes you run around like a headless chicken.
However simplistic they may be, one has to appreciate the variety in the featured locations. Each episode takes place in a distinct and rather contrasting location which take you from dark medieval castles, frozen Antarctican wastes, ancient Egypt to a futuristic industrial setting and finally culminating in Hell itself. Each episode distinguishes itself from another aesthetically as well as featuring its own set of enemies. Enemies are rather well designed and fit all the tropes you expect them to. You won’t ghastly suits of armour in the futuristic cityscape or run into giant mechs in Hell. Everything feels to be in place. However, a lot of the enemies feel like pushovers, especially the ones from the early stages. It’s way to easy to dodge their rather slow projectiles as well as circle-strafe around them. It’d have been way more engaging if they were a little bit more aggressive towards the player or maybe I’m just too good (Illusion: 100).
Not everything in Project Warlock is perfect, however. At the time of this review, the game only offers three difficulty settings, with the last one featuring permadeath. Meaning in the case of death, you’d have to start over again. A daunting proposition for a first time playthrough. Hence I went with the moderate difficulty setting and found the game way too easy. There definitely needs to be another difficulty where enemies deal more damage, but rather than featuring permadeath, it should limit the number of lives you have available. Ultra Violence in Doom ruined me. Then there is episode 3, which is set in Egypt. Nothing is wrong with the level from a gameplay perspective, but the entire episode is just too dark. You won’t be able to walk five feet without the help of the ‘magic light’ spell to…well, light your path. It is atmospheric if you look at it from an aesthetic point of view, but it’s just too damn annoying. Remember how fun it was in vanilla Doom 3 switching to a flashlight every 30 seconds? Yeah, me neither.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
Project Warlock has an 8-bit styled art going for it and it definitely works. The sprites look sharp and well detailed. There’s no shortage of blood and gore. Warlock makes excellent use of light sources from the muzzles of your guns to torches on the walls, a clear improvement from the era of Doom and Heretic. The real treat is the customization options available in the game. By fiddling around in the ‘Retro Shader’ tab, you can even make the game look like its straight from the forgotten era of C64 and Spectrum. Scanlines, noise, pixelation and glitches- the game boasts an impressive array of retro graphical options. However, do note that the maximum resolution supported by Warlock is 1920 x 1080 and the fps is capped at 60.
While the game ran at a locked 60 fps from start to finish, a lot of times, it didn’t feel as if the game was running at 60. There was a sense of sluggishness and jitteriness while rotating the camera compared to a modern retro shooter like Ion Maiden. Maybe it’s a design decision or maybe it’s the result of some incompatibility issue with my hardware. I also ran into a nasty bug where one particular boss would not spawn and had to start a new save to resolve this issue. But your mileage may vary.
The game was tested on the following specs:
- Intel i5 7500 3.40 GHz
- GTX 1070 8 GB
- 16 GB Dual Channel DDR4 Memory 2400 Mhz
- Windows 10 Pro 64 Bit
Sound design is very well done, aside from a few sync issues here and there. Weapons sound beefy and powerful (especially the sound of a shotgun shell hitting the ground), monsters sound like…well monsters and the squishy sound they make while exploding to tiny giblets is the stuff Doom dreams are made of. The soundtrack is very well done, but they do feel out of place in some levels. And yes, the main theme is damn good.
If you are a fan of Doom, Hexen or any retro FPS for that matter, it’s a crime to the genre if you purposefully skip Project Warlock. Hands down it’s one of the best FPS of 2018. What little problems the game does have can be easily rectified by patches and fixes. Packed with references and easter eggs to a bygone era, Project Warlock is a love letter to the retro shooters from the ’90s.