Those that are in high-school today weren’t around during the birth of the first-person shooter on PC or there when the likes of Doom, Quake, Hexen, and other ground-breaking titles burst onto the scene. On the account of, you know, not being born yet. A somewhat strange factoid or aside to begin a review of a game that takes inspiration from classic shooters from the ‘90s, but also a reference to Project Warlock’s lead developer being in high school whilst the game was being put together. As a sort of after-school project. Now, that’s not to say that this bit of info should inform one’s opinion, but instead add an additional layer of surprise to what is a solid, fun, and often exceptional old-school shooter.
In terms of look and feel, Project Warlock indeed draws inspiration from classic shooters from the ‘90s – with nods to everything mentioned in the introduction like Doom, Hexen, Quake, and even the original Wolfenstein. But there’s a freshness to the experience that comes from an obvious infatuation with the 1990s and even 1980s, with everything from games to movies and even music covered. This makes Project Warlock a reinterpretation of classic ideas and design in mixtape form, that often feels modern or retro in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Like young musicians employing 1980s production techniques, or filmmakers creating period pieces in settings and timeframes that they recall from a picture or film, Project Warlock is a wild ride of inspiration and the execution of solid first-person combat. First up, there’s the look which offers a surprising level of customisation to mimic old-school colour palettes across a wide variety of classic hardware – including C64, VHS scanline, and distortion.
The pixel-art might be in line with the era that brought us Doom, but Project Warlock employs robust lighting, reflections, and art direction for enemies and objects that feel more like a blend of classic 8-bit NES-era action games like Contra with Nintendo-like animated sprites. The levels also feel more like a nod to classic first-person dungeon crawlers and the low ceiling maze-like design of Wolfenstein than something like Doom or Quake. Verticality is all but absent outside of the odd elevator ride, but even this older-school design choice doesn’t affect the enjoyment in any meaningful way.
With levels spread across four disparate campaigns themed for different time-periods and settings like the medieval era, ancient Egypt, Antarctica, the high-tech future, and even hell itself, it leads to an impressive amount of visual variety too. Brilliant references, like the Antarctica campaign offering several nods to the classic John Carpenter film The Thing and one enemy looking like the titular alien from Super Metroid, are part of the fun.
With no real story to connect it all together though, keeping you engaged is entirely left up to the fast-paced action. That at times takes on the guise of a classic arcade release merged with a fun and varied shooter. In terms of its FPS-feel, Project Warlock nails it – with a great line-up of classic weapons and a real punch to enemy impact. There’s a definite flow to the action that makes it hard to put down. Even larger enemies break apart or transform to vary their attack patterns in cool ways.
Stages themselves only last a few minutes and need to be completed in small batches in a single life (or lives if you find a pick-up). This naturally adds to the arcade feel but time between runs is spent in the Workshop where you can spend upgrade points, skill points, and equip perks and buy spells. It’s all very modern action-RPG like with the choice between health upgrades, carry weight for more ammunition, or melee damage buffs versus the projectile route. Project Warlock pulls all of this off quite neatly, but the interface takes some time getting used to on the account of its confusing layout.
In the end though, perhaps what sets apart Project Warlock from the very recent old-school shooter renaissance we’ve been seeing is that outside of inspiration and certain elements it doesn’t look like any one thing from the ‘90s. Which in the end makes it special, and something well worth checking out.
Project Warlock is Available Now via GOG.com.