Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane is a wizard with a gun in Project Warlock 2.
It took a while for Project Warlock 2 to click with me, to the point where I began to wonder whether I’ve finally had my fill of retro-FPS’. (I refuse to call them ‘Boomer Shooters’, as most baby boomers would have been around 45 when Doom came out. The only shooter boomers actually understand is the Vietnam War). From Prodeus to Wrath to Turbo Overkill, there are countless low-poly, high fire-rate experiences tearing up Steam’s underbelly like a space marine with a chainsaw, all of which put their own little twist on the classic formula.
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It’s this twist which Project Warlock 2 initially lacks. Dumping you in a nondescript geometric labyrinth and hurling hordes of zombies and skeletons at you, the sequel to the even more retro Project Warlock plays like a vague mishmash of every FPS released before Half-Life. The art style seems to have been hastily assembled from the remains of Doom, Duke Nukem and System Shock, while many of the game’s enemies are either unsubtle references to or outright copies of iconic foes from the era, including an almost identical version of Quake’s shambler.
It all feels a bit shapeless, a sensation compounded by the fact that one of Project Warlock 2’s major new features is non-linear level design. Where the first game’s levels were small, straightforward gauntlets, the sequel’s maps are like souped-up versions of Doom’s sci-fi mazes, combining sprawling open areas with meandering networks of corridors. Yet while large, the introductory level demonstrates little flow. You spend most of it spraying assault-rifle bullets at a constant stream of enemies while desperately figuring out where you’re supposed to go.
Project Warlock 2’s opening is not all bad. The starting assault rifle may be unimaginative, but it is enjoyable to shoot, making your enemies collapse in satisfyingly grisly fashion. In fact, Project Warlock 2 has one of the best ‘gibbing’ sound effects I’ve ever heard. Blasting an enemy at close range sounds like a helicopter crashing into an abattoir. Otherwise, though, Project Warlock 2’s first half-hour is messy in all the wrong ways – confusing and lacking a clear direction.
As Project Warlock 2 progresses, however, it begins to sculpt a more distinct experience out of the lump of flesh it initially presents you with. The second level has a better rhythm to it than the first, and it’s also here where the game’s spells began to show their value. The first spell I obtained let me dual-wield my guns, which, let’s face it, you can do without the aid of magic. The second, however, would freeze all surrounding enemies within its large splash radius, making it very useful for responding to the game’s frequent ambush sequences. In the third level, I unlocked what I’d describe as a “fire-hose” spell, turning any enemy in front of me into a dancing conflagration.
These spells form the climax of Project Warlock’s combat rhythm, with you building toward unleashing your incantations by collecting floating orbs that speed up your cooldown. Running alongside this is a thoughtfully designed upgrade system that lets you alter the function of your weapons in some dramatic ways. One of the first available upgrades lets you convert your assault rifle into a laser rifle, which can be further adapted with a railgun-like alt-fire. Your cannon, meanwhile, can be improved so that cannonballs pierce through multiple enemies, or converted into both a grenade launcher and a rocket launcher.
When you combine Project Warlock 2’s gun-tinkering with its rhythmic spell-slinging, the game blossoms like that giant rainforest flower that smells of meat. Engulfing enemies in a wave of flame before splattering them across the walls with your quadruple-barrelled shotgun is undeniably entertaining. It’s also worth noting that the above only applies to one character you can play as. There are three in total, each equipped with a completely different range of spells and weapons to experiment with.
There is an impressive level of breadth of Project Warlock 2’s combat, and I reckon some of that initial shapelessness is simply a consequence of the game having to cater to multiple playstyles. But even if that is the case, I still think Project Warlock 2 lacks the clarity of vision of the very best games in this space, your Dusks and your Amid Evils. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas and imagery from other great games, but you need to do more with them than point at them while yelling ‘remember this?’. And Project Warlock 2 is a little bit guilty of this. Not entirely. But a bit.
What I want from Project Warlock 2’s Early Access development, then, is a firmer understanding of the game’s own personality. I want to know less about what games Project Warlock is like, and more about what it can bring that I haven’t seen before from retro shooters. I want a clearer sense of the journey it’s going to take me on, how it elaborates on the ideas established by those formative shooters of the ’90s. I don’t want it to feel like the games that id Software and 3D Realms made. I want it to feel like a game they could have made, but didn’t.
Project Warlock 2 is available via Steam Early Access. If you liked this article, check out the rest of our Unfinished Business column.