It's good to see developers attempt to take a new approach toward the well-worn real-time strategy genre. These games, which typically let you harvest resources, build bases, and create an army to crush your opponents before they can do the same, have been getting more popular, and more similar, over the years, but apparently, German developer Phenomic is attempting to do something different with SpellForce: The Order of Dawn. This ambitious game from copublishers Encore and JoWood attempts to combine role-playing with real-time strategy along with a dash of gorgeous graphics.
At a glance, SpellForce seems like every other fantasy real-time strategy game out there. According to the game's story, mages have sundered the world into different islands, and the races of man, elf, dwarf, orc, troll, and dark elf must battle it out for control. However, upon closer examination, SpellForce actually seems to have some pretty distinctive features. The most obvious one is that SpellForce is a hybrid game that combines real-time strategy and role-playing elements. You create a character that is central to the game by distributing skill points and abilities from a large and varied list of possibilities. With nine different combat abilities and more than a dozen different subclasses of magic, that translates into a lot of different ways to develop your character.
Another ambitious design feature is the game's attempt to develop a persistent world, complete with day-and-night cycles and a full merchant system. In this system, you can actually jump around to different islands, while the settlements you leave behind keep on gathering resources and operating as normal. This means that you should make sure to build up a settlement's defenses, lest you come back to find it overrun with orcs. But it also means that when you jump back to the settlement, you don't need to redo the tedious build-up phase so common to most real-time strategy games.
In addition, SpellForce has some pretty impressive graphics for a real-time strategy game. The textures are bright and beautiful, and the game's graphics seem extremely detailed, especially since you can drop into a third-person perspective behind your character, so you can run around the world as you would in a third-person game or an online RPG. Switching between the third-person view and the conventional top-down overhead view is fast and easy (just spin your mousewheel), which makes it simple to command your troops. Then again, Phenomic is attempting to make units that are smart enough to adopt proper tactics without too much supervision, so you can concentrate more on your character.
In keeping with the RPG aspects of the game, you can complete quests in addition to typical real-time strategy missions. For instance, you may have to rescue someone from an orc encampment, for which you're rewarded with either a rune (which can be used to summon heroes) or pieces of equipment for you to outfit your character and your heroes. Hero units play an important role in the game, as they complement your character in many ways. If you're playing as a spellcasting wizard, then you'll want to have a bunch of burly fighters protecting you, and if you're playing as a fighter character, you'll likewise want to use your character's strength to defend any fragile sorcerers in your army.
SpellForce also lets you mix and match races; you're not limited to playing just one race at a time. This can be a critical part of the game at times, since certain resources in the game can be harvested only by certain races, which means that if you want to recruit an elven spellcaster, you're going to need to find some elves to harvest the magical resource required. However, if you combine any of the "light" races with any of the "dark" races on your team, you run the risk of infighting among your troops.
The single-player campaign explains how the world was broken up and how it's your task to fix everything. In keeping with the living, breathing world concept, the game seems to afford you a lot of freedom in deciding what course to follow. There are so many options that producer Kevin Hoekman estimates that you would have to play through the game at least four times to experience most of it. And that's just in single-player mode. In terms of multiplayer, the team plans to support up to eight players in game types ranging from deathmatch with heroes to conventional real-time strategy modes.
SpellForce even seems to have some pretty impressive production values. In addition to the impressive graphics, the game also has an orchestral music score, along with support from a choir to provide chants and songs.
SpellForce looks impressive at this point, though we did notice some frame rate problems during big battles. According to Encore, the game is currently in alpha and has yet to undergo any kind of code optimization. Also, we noted that the game, in its current state, seems to have a rather complex interface that could be disconcerting to new players, so hopefully the team will streamline this a bit, as well. Fortunately, the development team still has some time to tweak things, since the game is scheduled to ship next February.