SpellForce: The Order of the Dawn was an ambitious blend of real-time strategy and role-playing that came out nearly two years ago. However, like many games that try to combine different types of gameplay, SpellForce suffered from some complex gameplay mechanics and an unwieldy interface. Still, the game did well enough to warrant a sequel, and German developer Phenomic went to work on SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars. This time, however, the designers paid attention to the feedback on the first game, with the goal of not only streamlining the gameplay to make it easier to play, but also to emphasize the role-playing and real-time strategy aspects even more.
Like the first game, SpellForce 2 returns you to a fantasy world filled with elves, dwarves, trolls, and many other magical creatures. The game is billed as a blend of role-playing and strategy because you'll be able to play SpellForce as both a third-person action role-playing game and a traditional real-time strategy game. In fact, you'll do both in a single mission--the levels are so large that you'll alternate between the two. For instance, you may start a level where you have to clear a dungeon of monsters with your small party of characters, and once that task is finished, you'll open up a new area on the level that lets you build up a base, real-time-strategy style.
Fans of SpellForce will most likely cheer many of the changes, because there is a much heavier emphasis now on the role-playing aspects of the game. You can create your own hero, as you do in a role-playing game. Simply select a race, gender, and skills, then outfit your character with a large variety of weapons and armor using the paper-doll inventory system. The skill system is simpler than it was in the original SpellForce, but it should remain about as deep. There are approximately 100 skills in the game, but a character can learn only up to 30 of them, which means that you can specialize your hero or heroine the way you like. And since you can control a party consisting of five characters, you can specialize each team member, so you can have the front-line fighter, the ranged fighter, and so on.
Of course, controlling this party, as well as other units, becomes the issue. The first SpellForce suffered from a dense interface, not to mention complex gameplay. To address this, the developers have streamlined many things to make them simpler, but still keep some of the depth. For instance, the sophisticated resource system in the first game was a micromanagement mess; you had to account for seven different resources, which is a huge number for a real-time strategy game. SpellForce 2 only has three resources, and they're easier to harvest because you can automate workers more easily. There's also a nifty new context-sensitive menu system that eliminates a lot of the hassle that you experience in many real-time strategy games. For instance, say you want to heal a unit. In most games, you have to select the healer unit and then hunt down the unit that needs to be healed--a difficult task if there's a battle going on and everyone is running around. SpellForce 2's interface stays one step ahead of you, so when you select a unit, all the appropriate spells and abilities that unit can do are presented on the screen, as well as all the appropriate targets for those spells. Everything is presented in one place, so all you have to do is click on the healing button and the unit you want healed, and the selected unit will go about the task.
The original SpellForce was a beautiful game, but it was something of a hardware hog, as frame rates struggled to keep up with the action on the screen. The good news is that two years later, it appears that SpellForce 2 both looks and runs better than its predecessor. Phenomic has optimized the graphics engine and added in the latest graphical features. (It doesn't hurt that hardware has improved since 2004, either). In particular, the designers want the game to look good from both the third-person action mode and the traditional top-down real-time strategy mode.
This promises to be a huge game, as well. We're told that the single-player campaign can last between 40 and 50 hours, and that there is a separate cooperative campaign that can last another 20 to 30 hours. Normally, cooperative campaigns just let you play over the single-player campaign with other players online, but the co-op mode in SpellForce 2 takes place on different maps than the single-player game. Factor in the traditional skirmish and multiplayer modes, and SpellForce 2 promises a ton of gameplay. Like its predecessor, this is a highly ambitious game, but it appears that the developers have learned quite a bit from the first SpellForce and are looking to nail down the formula in the sequel. SpellForce 2 is in the home stretch of development, and we should see the game ship worldwide this spring.