Wolcen early impressions: A beautiful, innovative (and buggy) ARPG that scratches the Diablo itch
If you’re like me, you’re kind of done with Diablo 3 and eagerly anticipating what Blizzard is going to roll out with Diablo 4. BlizzCon 2019 gave us a delicious taste of how the game is shaping up, but we all know it’s going to be a long wait.
In the meantime, I’ve tried other isometric ARPGs to scratch the Diablo itch: Grim Dawn, Path of Exile, and even the Torchlight Frontiers III beta. Nothing really grabbed me. Grim Dawn is fun and has tons of content, but ultimately it didn’t really bring anything new to the table. Path of Exile is probably the most popular ARPG on the market currently, but the complexity of it is daunting, and the combat doesn’t feel as crisp or satisfying as Diablo‘s to me. Torchlight III is kind of all over the place right now. The developers swung hard from “It’s a Torchlight MMO!” to “It’s definitely not an MMO!” and it’s hard to say anything definitive about it right now.
I had resigned myself to dropping ARPGs from my game time until Diablo 4. Then two months ago, Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem launched. This one wasn’t on my radar, but the more I saw and read about it, the more I was convinced I had to try it. So here’s my take on wwhow the game compares to Diablo 3 and how it innovates on Blizzard’s current ARPG formula.
An homage to destruction
Make no mistake: Wolcen is certainly inspired by the Diablo universe, as just about every ARPG is in some way or another. Here it hews a little closer to Diablo territory than most. You’re fighting demons through much of the game, in a grim world torn by war and evil cults. The gore and the dark environments will strongly remind you of Diablo 2. The interface and the game in general are like a love child of Diablo 3 and Path of Exile. In some ways, Wolcen exceeds both.
The combat is just as visceral as Diablo‘s, which is something I absolutely need in an ARPG. I’ve never liked playing casters in games like this. Why throw wussy beams of light around when I can smash something with a hammer? Wolcen changed that for me — the spell effects are crunchy as heck. Fireballs and blocks of ice land with such a satisfying impact and lovingly crafted animations that I’m completely hooked on my caster.
Wolcen is a little less responsive than Diablo, but this is a design choice, not a technical flaw. There is no animation canceling. Once you hit a button, you are committed to that action. The result feels awkward for a few minutes, but I found that I quickly adjusted to it — and soon realized how much better this style of combat is. Combat feels weightier and far more realistic this way. It’s also high stakes. Each attack chosen can mean the difference between life or death. And Wolcen‘s bosses will kill you, that much is certain.
A classless society
There are no classes in Wolcen. You begin the game by choosing a starting weapon, but you can switch to anything else almost immediately. Skills are unlocked mostly as drops, though a few can be purchased. Each skill is tied to a weapon type. A skill that shoots projectiles requires a bow or a gun. However, there is still a lot of freedom to combine, say, a pistol with a dagger for a sneaky melee/ranged hybrid or a mace and a “catalyst” offhand to create a front-line battlemage.
Typically, ARPGs with flexible builds punish you for trying to combine spells with physical attacks. In Wolcen, doing so actually gives you certain advantages thanks to its ingenious resource system. All characters have two resources: Willpower and Rage. Willpower is like the mana of the Witch Doctor in Diablo 3. You default to full Willpower out of combat and it drains as you blast away. Rage is like a Barbarian’s Fury resource. It defaults to zero out of combat and builds as you attack.
What’s great about Wolcen‘s resource system is that all characters get both Willpower and Rage. As you spend Willpower, it converts into Rage (at different values depending on your gear and build). As you spend Rage, it converts into Willpower. So for a hybrid character, you can start off combat by blowing through your Willpower at a distance, and then switch to Rage-fueled physical attacks. Your resource bar goes back and forth as you switch between attack types. If you choose not to create a hybrid character, your basic attacks (left click) can refill your resource bar instead.
In Wolcen, each skill has a ton of different options that unlock as you level up the skill, similar to Diablo 3‘s runes, but a lot more robust. You can choose multiple “runes” per skill by allocating points for different bonuses, including some that change the animation.
Not only that, you can also create multiple versions of a skill with different options chosen for each — and put several of them on your bar at the same time. Do you want three different spells to summon a poison golem, one that tanks, one that’s speedy with high damage, and one that debuffs enemies while pooping out health globes? Go for it.
Choose your fate
As you adventure through the world, you build your own fully customized class by learning skills from drops, investing points into four different stats, and filling out a Path of Exile-esque passive skill tree called the Gate of Fates.
The Gate is another area where Wolcen has outdone the competition. Like in Path of Exile, you can explore the skill tree and create some really interesting builds. But whereas Path of Exile‘s tree feels vast and overwhelming in scope, Wolcen‘s is less intimidating. There aren’t as many options, so each point is more impactful as a result (or at least that’s the intent — see below for more).
Another reason I prefer Wolcen‘s tree is because the Gate features three rotating rings. If you don’t like where the tree is headed when you come to the edge of your current ring, you just rotate the next one until it lines up with where you want to go. This is yet another fantastic innovation that makes Wolcen feel like an upgrade over existing games in the genre.
Between your equipped weapons and gear, point allocation, skills and their customization, and the user-friendly Gate of Fates, the possibilities for character builds are virtually limitless. It’s a smart, effective design that has loads of potential.
The apocalypse button
The final innovation that I really enjoy in Wolcen is the Aspect of Apocalypse transformation. Once you unlock this ability, your character builds another resource called Primordial Essence by killing enemies. Once you’ve built up enough Essence, you can transform into an Aspect. Your character erupts into an unkillable boss-size avatar with its own skill bar.
There are four to choose from: the Aspect of Dawn, War, Infinity, or Flesh. Each comes with a different appearance and different skills. What they amount to in gameplay terms is a defensive cooldown that can help you survive when you get overwhelmed by monsters.
They look incredible and their abilities are some of the flashiest in any ARPG I’ve played. They also have some of the best spell names ever: Calamitous Paradox, Rapid Assimilation, and Scorching Obelisk of War, to name a few. What I like most about the Aspects is that you don’t have to waste a skill slot on a defensive spell if you don’t want to. Every character has an “oh sh*t” button built in.
If it all sounds a little too good to be true, you’re not wrong. Wolcen unfortunately launched too early, and the game has suffered in these first months as a result. A huge surge of initial players has dwindled over time. Many early buyers ended up dissatisfied with Wolcen‘s launch state for a multitude of reasons.
For one thing, there are just too many bugs, including game-breaking ones that no self-respecting studio should tolerate in their live software. Players have encountered un-lootable loot, glitched bosses that are impossible to beat, crashes, lost progress, passive bonuses and gear stats that straight up don’t work, and many more issues. Wolcen‘s devs have had to switch their focus from flushing out the endgame to bug squashing, what the devs are calling Operation: Second Dawn. They’ve hired an outside Q&A team to help out as well. In the past few patches, many of these issues were resolved, but there are still some serious problems that haven’t been fixed.
The endgame also remains unfinished. The campaign isn’t yet complete. For longer-term character goals, there are a series of upgrades to your city that you can unlock as well as a fifth skill bar button (in addition to the two mouse buttons). You can also run higher and higher level Expeditions, similar to Diablo 3‘s Rifts, as you upgrade your character. And that’s about it right now. Wolcen Studio has said they plan to launch seasons and more endgame content in the future, but that is on the back burner while they make the existing game more playable.
Balance isn’t really there yet, either. Ailment builds (DOTs and debuffing, basically) currently rule high-level Expeditions, and a lot of work needs to be done to bring other builds into line. Plenty of builds are viable for most of the game, and you can clear the campaign with pretty much anything that makes sense. But there are clear outliers that perform way above others.
That’s the frustrating thing about Wolcen. Someone asked in the subreddit the other day why so many players keep posting there if they are angry at the game. The most upvoted reply basically said, “Because we see the promise in it, how it could be the best ARPG on the market, but it isn’t there yet.”
That’s the gist of it. If you’re going to play Wolcen right now, you have to have the mindset of a beta tester. Things are going to go wrong that impede your progress and waste your time. It’s going to drive you a little nuts once in a while. On top of that, it’s a beta that you have to pay to play. For many people, they just don’t want to put themselves through that when there are other games without all those issues.
Hoping for a brighter future
As our own Liz Patt wrote, a small independent company like Wolcen Studio can’t compete with the likes of Blizzard. The project began with a Kickstarter campaign. It will never be on par with Diablo 4 in terms of resources or investment. But for all that, they really did nail the overall design, the systems, the look and feel, and the gameplay. I should also say, the “transmog” game in Wolcen is pretty on point, too.
For a casual player like me who’s just been dabbling with different characters before tackling endgame stuff, Wolcen has already been worth the money. It has opened my eyes to how ARPGs could and should evolve in the future. It’s the first one in a long time that has felt truly “next gen.” If you’re burned out on Diablo 3 and patiently waiting for the launch of 4 sometime in the distant future, Wolcen can scratch that itch. But only if you’re willing to put up with a lack of technical polish.
I believe the game has a very bright future, even if it takes the studio a year or more to iron out the kinks. Given that Diablo 3 didn’t really hit its stride until the Reaper of Souls expansion, I can forgive Wolcen for taking its time.
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