Ah the launch days of a new online game. They’re almost always filled with bugs, server problems and teething issues the developers and their play testers never managed to come across. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that Early Access would be a solution to this, even if you spent oh I don’t know something like 4 years in it. Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem debuted to an audience that was hungry for a new arpg and the hype it had built up to its release ensured that its release date was not so dissimilar from the AAA games it sought to emulate, plagued with numerous issues that made the game chuggy and problematic for many and downright unplayable for an unlucky minority. However like many of its other brethren after the initial furor died down what was left was an extremely competent arpg, just one that I lost interest in after the real grind set in.
In Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, you, Valeria, and Edric, are the three only survivors of the slaughter of Castagath. Rescued by Grand Inquisitor Heimlock, you were drafted into the Republic’s Army of the Purifiers at a very young age to be trained in the military academy and become perfect soldiers. You also had the chance to benefit from Heimlock’s occasional advice and training. This special treatment led you and your childhood friends to be named the “Children of Heimlock”. However one day it’s revealed that you’re able to channel some devastating forms of magic, something that’s very much frowned upon in this world. This begins your quest to survive and determine what your true fate really is.
I honestly couldn’t believe that the dev team chose Cryengine as the basis for their game, given its propensity for seriously high end graphics and not-so-great multiplayer support out of the box. However what the team has created is really quite something, making full use of the engine’s capabilities. The environments are massive and filled to the brim with detail although in the later, predominantly procedurally generated levels, things do start to get a bit samey. The game does shy away from the Blizzard/Diablo style of using more bright and varied colour palettes to keep visual interest up but there’s still a good helping of lighting and particle effects to keep everything from blurring into a dark background. All of this runs amazingly well, even when you get a good number of enemies on screen. That’s not to say I didn’t have any performance issues at all but I do have to admit I was trying to see how far I could tilt the thing before it fell over.
Wolcen follows the standard isometric dungeon crawler formula pretty closely with its own spin on the various tropes that I’m sure we’ll see emulations of in future games in this genre. There’s no formal classes to speak of however what weapon you decide to wield dictates which skills you’ll be able to use and, by consequence, which talents and attributes you’ll be prioritising. Skills themselves aren’t a given either, you’ll have to find them in drops from enemies or purchase them with a particular kind of currency from the right vendor. The talent tree is also quite novel, consisting of 3 rings that branch out in a constellation like fashion allowing you to choose your own path to the talents you want. There’s also a rudimentary crafting and gem system although if I’m honest I don’t think they’re actually worth using at all. Finally there’s a kind of rift like system which makes up the bulk of the end-game content, servicing as an endless grind to help rebuild a city which will confer back to you some benefits. Honestly using the term “Diablo clone” here would be a disservice to Wolcen as whilst it certainly draws inspiration from it there’s enough new things in here that I think Blizzard will be taking notice.
Combat is, for my build at least, a fast paced balls to the wall killfest that literally doesn’t stop for anything. Now I’m quite sure that the build I was running has likely been nerfed into oblivion since I stopped playing but suffice to say, when I can 2 or 3 shot pretty much any boss or mob I come across in the game it’s not likely to be long for this world. Still it was certainly fun, especially considering that it was such a glass cannon build that I had to ensure I was actively using particular skills constantly lest I cop a few hits in a row which would see me downed in short order. Of course being basically unstoppable did also mean that there wasn’t a lot of challenge left for me in the game once I reached that point, especially without an end-game grind that was building to something interesting.
It probably also didn’t help that I settled on a skill build and playstyle early on and all other variants seemed to be far, far less effective. To be sure there seems to be a lot of build variance available but speaking with my mate who tried numerous other builds none of them were as effective or useful as the good old slow 2 hander with bleeding edge. Some of the skill modifiers did make for more interesting rotations but most of the time they just allowed me to do the one thing I needed to do more efficiently or with a greater margin for error. I’m sure for those seeking to craft the one true ultimate build there’s a lot to explore and experiment with here but without a goal to work towards I can’t imagine there’s going to be much enjoyment in doing so.
Like most arpgs the progression comes thick and fast at the start but begins to slow down measurably once you hit the end game. When once you’d be able to find an upgrade or two during a dungeon run now you’re likely to go multiple runs without finding anything. Worse still you’ll likely have to spend quite a bit of time sifting through all the gear you’ve picked up to find that one upgrade, a rather tedious chore that’s unfortunately not made much easier by the inclusion of gear archetypes that are supposed to make the culling easier. I found a pair of rogue gloves early on in my endgame grind that were just flat out better than anything else the other types could provide, even though I should’ve rightly been using bruiser or heavy gear. Towards the end I was just looking for gear that appeared to be as good or better than what I was currently using and then saw if equipping it upped my character sheet DPS. A blunt tool, to be sure, but comparisons beyond that just aren’t really feasible.
It doesn’t help that the crafting system is pretty much useless, allowing you to reroll or add random attributes to your gear. Gems are also somewhat moot as you can’t combine lower tier gems to higher tier ones and the effects they provide are minimal at best. Not having a comprehensive crafting system isn’t really a major issue but it does mean that there’s really only one path for progression in the end game and that’s to grind, grind away at those dungeons. For some this is probably exactly what they want but for me? I’d kind of like the option of doing something else with my overflowing pack of loot other than vendoring it all. That or some semi-meaningful goal to grind towards.
All this taken together you’d think that I was somewhat dour on the whole Wolcen experience but apart from the last couple hours I actually really enjoyed it. Tooling around in the campaign was always fun, especially when I teamed up with my mate and we had stupid banter over the dialogue whilst we waited for the next quest step to appear. With loot being so plentiful too it was a no-brainer to share everything as well and the game’s catch up mechanics made questing with my much higher level mate very much worth it for both of us. It’s just that it feels like there’s an expiry date on the experience as once you hit a certain point with the game there’s likely not going to be much going back to it. This was much the same as Diablo III for me as whilst I spent a good lot of hours in it initially after hitting Inferno 1 and seeing the grind ahead I just decided to call it quits. I think I’ve only been back a couple times since.
There’s no denying that Wolcen was a buggy mess during its 1.0 week. For the first few days my group of mates and I would routinely get put on servers all the way around the globe which led to a less than stellar experience, even at 180ms ping. There were also the raft of issues around joining games in progress, how quest progress was handled and just a general set of problems that could only be ascribed to launch week teething issues. To be sure a lot of these got better but for one of my mates the game remained unplayable for a week and when it was useable he’d frequently crash if he used certain skills. Right now though the game seems to be in a good spot so if the initial negative press put you off it might be time to revisit it.
The world and story of Wolcen is certainly interesting although it is somewhat predictable given its use of the standard tropes for many of the game’s protagonists and their motivations. The whole thing is predicated on the big bag thing coming to town and you doing everything you can to stop it. There’s definitely more of this world to explore and I can definitely see myself coming back if they drop any story content in the near future. However for this particular instalment it’s decidedly middle of the road but hey, at least you’re not going to be playing this for the narrative right?
Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is an extremely well thought out arpg, taking inspiration from all the right places and then applying their own brand of creativity to provide a game experience that’s quite different to what you’d expect from a run of the mill Diablo clone. The game’s initial teething issues appear to be sorted out for now and hopefully, if you’d decided to give it a miss because of that, this review can convince you that it’s still worth a look in. You might not sink as many hours as you did in Diablo or Path of Exile but it’s still something to tide you over until Diablo 4 releases sometime this year.
Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is available on PC right now for $56.95. Total playtime was 18 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.