Mythic has tempered what would otherwise be a solid but unremarkable shooter with a number of role-playing game elements that make Spellbinder surprisingly deep and distinctive.
At a glance, developer Mythic Entertainment's fantasy-themed team-based first-person shooter Spellbinder: The Nexus Conflict might seem like other first-person shooters that have come before it. And considering that it was released within weeks of two of the most sensational first-person shooters ever, Unreal Tournament and Quake III, Spellbinder doesn't really seem to have much going for it. However, Mythic has tempered what would otherwise be a solid but unremarkable shooter with a number of role-playing game elements that make Spellbinder surprisingly deep and distinctive.
Spellbinder is an online-only multiplayer shooter; you don't buy the game in stores, and there's no real single-player component. Instead, you download the extremely small install files from the Centropolis Gaming Center, then run the game's download setup program. Once you've got the game installed, you connect to Centropolis' servers and create a character from one of four spell-slinging classes, each of which has its own base attributes and starting spells. Each of the four character classes plays differently: The magician's strength is sheer firepower; the subtler mystic can alter his own abilities to run faster, jump higher, and turn invisible; the runemage specializes in dropping explosive trap runes; and the healer is the weakest attacker but can cast regenerative and protective spells on his teammates. There's only one game mode available in Spellbinder: a team-based game reminiscent of Starsiege: Tribes' capture-and-hold. In it, you and your allies have 60 minutes to attempt to capture all the power nodes on the map and bias them to your team by approaching them and infusing them with your team's magic. You must also attack your enemies' nexus - the primary power node each team possesses - and defend your own. Once a team's nexus has been destroyed, and all of its nodes are lost, it is defeated.
Since Spellbinder doesn't come on a CD and takes up so little space on your hard drive, you might expect its graphics to be blocky and plain in the interest of speed. This isn't the case. It should be mentioned that as of this writing, Spellbinder is still in its early stages of release; as such, there are only a scant four multiplayer maps and four character models available (each with four different heads and three clothing swaps). But all of these look quite good. The game's four levels - the keep, the ruins, the glacier, and the temple - are all huge, solidly designed areas that don't look especially original, but their cleanly textured stony walls, tapestries, and pillars have a picturesque high fantasy flavor. And though there isn't much variety among Spellbinder's character models either, each is colorful, crisply textured, and each is animated fairly well. Spellbinder's special effects also look quite good. Every magic spell has its own special effects: Fire spells explode into bursts of flame, protective spells encase their targets in transparent shells of light, and tripped rune traps envelop their victims in a sizzling collar of energy.
Spellbinder's sound is also sparse; the only background music you'll hear is the rather bland and repetitive menu- and loading-screen music. In the actual game, the only sound effects you'll tend to hear are those of spells taking effect and death screams of killed characters - often in succession. The spells themselves sound good enough for the most part: Fire spells explode with a reverberating crash, bolts of ice crack and shatter with an unnerving glassy clink, and wind spells travel along the ground with a gusty whoosh. The sound effects also work with the different visual effects to provide a clear indication of exactly what sort of spell just hit you and what sort of protection spells to request from your team's healer.In Spellbinder it's usually best to stick with your teammates. Instead of ammunition, Spellbinder uses a mana and stamina bar to measure how many spells your character can cast in a given time before tiring or running out of spell points. As such, it's possible to take a few kills on your own, but since a lone character with no stamina and no mana is virtually helpless, Spellbinder's characters are at their absolute best in groups. A magician's powerful battery of attack spells is much more effective with a row of explosive runes guarding the doorway and a healer in the back for protection.
Each of the four character classes gradually improves over time as you gain experience points and levels. Instead of simply counting frags, Spellbinder uses an experience point system whereby characters gain experience by scoring hits (either with attack spells or by ensnaring with rune traps) and kills on their opponents, as well as by performing healing and resurrections. These experience points accrue over the course of the match in both your character's standard pool of experience points and in the form of bonus experience points, which are also gained if you play through the entire hour's length of a single match.
When characters gain enough experience points, they can advance levels. Advancing a level entitles your character to permanent improvements: a new, more powerful set of spells and a handful of bonus points, which you can apply directly to your statistics. These statistics directly affect your character's abilities to run, jump, and strafe, as well as how much damage you can take and how powerful your spells are. While in other games, skilled players simply take the higher frag counts in each game, in Spellbinder skilled players advance to higher levels more quickly and are thusly rewarded for their skill with a more developed, more powerful character. Fortunately, Spellbinder's character development model is balanced out by set level ranges for each match; that is to say, each Spellbinder match constrains its players to a certain range of experience levels - one to four, three to seven, or five to ten, for example. A lowly first-level character will never cross the path of a powerful seventh-level character. As such, beginners won't get hopelessly slaughtered by players several levels higher, and more importantly, skilled players are much more likely to play in arenas against players of similar skill.
Spellbinder does suffer from some latency problems. Lag isn't common, but it does happen, especially during peak hours. When you do get lagged out, you'll often simply get disconnected and will have to exit the game to get back in. This can be especially frustrating if you've gained a great deal of bonus experience points, since these will be forfeited if you leave the match before the time limit is up.
Spellbinder looks, sounds, and plays decently enough, but its purely first-person shooter elements pale in comparison to other, more focused games in the genre. However, its RPG elements provide an interesting path of character development that directly and permanently rewards skilled players. If you're after the best first-person shooter out there, you should play Quake III or Unreal Tournament. But if you prefer team-based shooters and want to see an actual return for your skill and effort that lasts longer than the frag-count screen, you should give Spellbinder a try.