An enjoyable game but not anything truly amazing.
The story is set in a medieval fantasy world where there are three separate factions each consisting of a further three races. You are a Shaikan; you have the blood of a dragon running through your veins which gives you the special ability to raise other Shaikan from the dead provided they have only recently passed away. The Shaikan have no alignment with light or darkness and belong in no factions; they are outcasts.
One fine day, you return home to find your town being raided by warriors aligned with the Shadow race. It turns out the Pact, one of the three factions, is advancing with a large army and preparing to conquer the Realm, another faction consisting of Human, Elf and Dwarf races. Your home town just happened to be in the way. From this point on your objective becomes to stop the Pact and the leader of their invasion, Sorvina.
SpellForce is not a game that immediately reveals itself. It will require about four hours of play before you feel compelled to play it out of your own desire. This will undoubtedly drive away a lot of players which is a shame because the game becomes much more enjoyable after the first few missions.
There are a variety of different setups for the maps throughout the game. However, the majority of them are built around a similar framework you would find in an RTS title. You start out with your party, find your way to a base and from that point on it will basically play out as an RTS would. At other times, you may find the opening sequence with just your party is extended and includes some challenges. There are also some maps you will have to complete solely with your party without the support of additional forces. Finally, there are passive maps which are large towns or homelands of some race where you will not be constantly attacked by enemy forces. These are RPG-centric maps wherein you will interact with the townsfolk, learn more about the game world and story, and take up various quests.
There are some memorable moments throughout the campaign. One particularly good mission has you mounting an assault against a massive Orc fortress called the Bulwark. The monolithic size of the Bulwark combined with the fact that you have two other armies fighting alongside you left a lasting impression on me. It really felt like a cinematic and epic battle. Another map I enjoyed was based around a different style of RTS where plots of land needed to be captured in order to gain resources. This was a welcome change to the established style of collecting resources with workers and added a whole new dynamic to the gameplay.
The locations, while not as memorable as the missions, feature some highlights. You'll find yourself in interesting places such as the inside of a volcanic mountain, an elf village and a town of the undead. A good change of pace was a crystal ice land that had a nice visual touch where you could see the reflections of your party members in the large crystals as you wandered around. This place was home to an eccentric professor with a time machine and a man who had crafted a "heart" crystal that resonated at the same frequency as his soul so he could live forever. It was an unusual place in comparison to the rest of the game but ended up being a nice break from the main quest and a welcome diversion.
These kinds of diversions come up several times during the course of the campaign. There were some really nice ideas on show that I wish had been furthered developed or made more numerous. For example, there is a whole map dedicated to a town called the Westguard that you can help rebuild and get back on track. It is sort of like a passive RTS mission where you can play at your own pace and are not distracted by the constant threat of enemy raids. You are not required to go there even once if you don't want to but if you choose to help the townsfolk you will pick up some nice gear along the way and will have a place to call your home. Another map contained a fighting arena where you could participate in battles against increasingly more powerful foes and gain respect for your clan along with precious jewels. For such content to simply exist in the game without being forced down your throat and yet still be completely fun and a valid experience all by itself is a credit to the designers.
Looking at SpellForce from a broader perspective is most likely the better way to evaluate the entire experience since it is a hybrid game but how do the two gameplay components weigh up if they are examined separately? And is anything worthwhile achieved with their synthesis?
The RTS segment is mostly average. Throughout the course of the game you will use the units and buildings of the aforementioned three factions. There are melee, ranged, mounted, aerial and some special units. You collect resources in order to train units and construct buildings. There is some depth to the strategy as certain units perform better against certain enemies or are best suited to certain situations. They also have stats such as armor and piercing damage and some even have access to spells and skills.
Your armies need to be comprised of mixed units in order to execute the most effective attacks and suffer the least losses. The ranged units are quite often the most effective in combat to a point where they feel overpowered. All that is really needed to succeed in RTS combat is a group of damage absorbers for a distraction and then a large pack of ranged units to do all the damage.
Despite there being three different factions available to you throughout the game, it still felt like there was a lack of variation or a shortage of any really interesting units. When you start off with a faction, you will only have access to the technology of one of three races; you acquire the units and technology of the other races as you proceed further into the game. A faction with all three races has just 12 different units and in some factions the unit specialties will overlap. For example, in the Realm faction you have human archers and elf archers. Elf archers are far more effective than human archers so of course you are going to use them whenever you can. This is also the case with dwarf combat units; they are a lot more powerful than the human soldier. When you take this into account along with the ineffectiveness of some units in any sort of situation, you will find only a handful of units for each faction are of any real use and most likely stick to those particular units.
While the RTS segment can be a little underwhelming in some areas, the RPG portion feels more solid and enjoyable. Your party consists of your avatar and a number of heroes that permanently join your group throughout the course of the game along with some temporary characters who drop in and out at various times. You will take up various quests, gain experience and ultimately level up, pick new skills and have access to new gear on the course of your journey.
The most noteworthy element, the skill tree, is similar to that of Diablo 2. You spend points to learn new skills, learning a new skill unlocks further branches and each skill has three ranks that grant you additional abilities. The first rank of all skills allows you to use a certain type of equipment such as heavy armor, bows or robes and crowns. Instead of having class-specific skill trees like Diablo, SpellForce uses the same dual-tree system for all characters. There are two separate trees, one for combat and the other for magic. You are free to distribute points in both trees but it is more worthwhile to just concentrate on one tree and master several skills in it. Instead of diversifying your character, it is a wiser option to diversify your party and you are free to do this by choosing to distribute skill points for all your heroes. The trees have enough branches and ranks to allow for a high level of customization and cover five or six different builds such as mage, druid, tank/bruiser and archer.
The leveling system feels a little unorthodox. You will gain much more experience by completing the main and side quests than you will by defeating a whole bunch of enemies. It seems logical that you would learn a new combat skill by fighting rather than searching for herbs or finding lost children but at the same time I can imagine how the system would be abused if it awarded fighting instead of quests. For example, if you entered an RTS section and had your party take care of all enemy raids they would level up and become too powerful very quickly.
The synthesis of two genres within a single game is a difficult thing to pull off, especially with a combination that has not been done often. SpellForce does an admirable job of this but it does have some shortcomings.
The aforementioned leveling system may prove to be a problem for some players. If you take up all the side quests you come across you will find the second half of the game becomes easier and loses much of its challenge. The units created in the RTS portion all have levels just like your party members however they are usually a few levels behind that of your party and a small group of enemies can be easily dispatched. As the difference between levels increases, you can take on larger and larger groups of enemies as you have access to more powerful weapons and skills. Your party becomes so powerful that quite a few RTS portions can be rushed with minimal or no attention to base building or crafting an army.
Many missions can be beat or made much easier by simply taking off with your party as soon as the mission begins and destroying fledgling enemy camps before they have enough resources to reliably defend themselves. To Phenomic's credit, a few missions have been specifically designed to combat any rushing tactics but there are still a number of missions which are susceptible to rushing, a couple of them near the end of the game. When this is combined with the leveling system issues, the game loses much of its challenge and becomes somewhat of a farce as the entire RTS segment is ignored in favor of party-rushing as it is simply the fastest and easiest route to success.
Another issue which reduces the challenge of the game and makes party-rushing easier is related to the AI. Stationed enemy parties really like to stay in one position and if you try to pull them away they will only go a short distance before they turn around and retreat back to their guard point. The problem is that with a little bit of skill you can pull away small parts of a large group and take it apart piece by piece. This use of guerrilla tactics allows you to take down much larger groups of enemies with your party than you should be able to and once again allows your party to shine while the RTS portion is left neglected.
The AI issues don't stop there. When in a large battle or attacking a large base, your army will tend to split up and go off on their own, attacking enemies individually. This can be a problem because success in combat relies heavily on teamwork and concentrating your forces on only a few targets at a time. To curb this behavior you need to reissue orders several times so your troops will stay together which creates extra work where there shouldn't be. In addition, I noticed some problems with path finding. When moving large armies over longer distances, they tend to get stuck temporarily in various places or have trouble navigating some objects. AI controlled characters that join your party often choose to engage in combat with enemies they pass on their way to your chosen destination. This once again creates more work for the player where there shouldn't be as the enemies will need to be defeated before the AI character can move on. You may think you could just leave them behind but in some cases their life is critical to the success of the mission and they are not strong enough to take on a group of enemies alone.
In addition to these issues, there are more general ones which weaken the game. Sometimes the skill points of your heroes will be automatically distributed even if you change the settings to manual selection. The teleport system only teleports your avatar and not your heroes; you need to individually summon each one. The voice acting is mostly bland; many of the characters appear to be emotionless. Much of the action in the shorter cut-scenes is described by text alone. For example, there is a point where you must forge a very important magic ring in the middle of a volcanic mountain and rather than use any graphical effects or animations, it is all described by words. It kind of feels like the developers got lazy at some points as there is a definite lack of polish in these areas.
Regardless of these problems, for the most part SpellForce is an enjoyable game to play. The interface is actually quite well organized given that there is so much information to communicate. Combat with your party takes a little while to learn but once you get used to it, is streamlined and it is very easy to choose which attacks/skills you want to use in the heat of battle. In the RTS portion, managing groups of units is reasonably simple (as long as they behave themselves) and you have access to some advanced commands like follow, guard and hold. The graphical performance is commendable- on modern hardware you can have large scale battles involving over 100 units without any great deal of slowdown. The maps are very large compared to others I have seen in the RTS genre and contribute to the feeling of being on an epic quest. The level of customization and powerful spells and equipment available later in the game makes you feel more attached to your party and it is with them that you will make your journey through the game.
Overall SpellForce is a solid game, it is not remarkable and has not changed the face of gaming but it is enjoyable to play and was an interesting experiment in combining two genres that are worlds apart. The story has a dark sub-plot which weaves nicely with the main quest and entices you to continue playing, providing a welcome but expected twist later in the game. SpellForce becomes a compelling and intense game when large scale battles are fought or when you're taking on some of the better quests and missions with your party. It becomes interesting when the gameplay is mixed up and more imaginative ideas are injected into the game. It becomes engaging when you need to apply tactics and management within your party as you prepare for and enter battles.
The RTS element is mostly average and does not shine through until you start having large confrontations with your armies and are given access to a wider range of units. The RPG portion is much better developed, feels like it was given more loving attention and became my favorite part of the game and my main focus. When these two parts are combined, there are some issues that arise and hurt the challenge of the game and shift its focus away from RTS and towards rushing with your party. Ultimately, the RTS portion provides a suggestive framework for most missions and how you choose to approach the enemy forces (with your party or with a large army) is overlaid on top of that. This inclusion of choice is worthy of merit but defeated by the fact that it was unintended by Phenomic in all but a few missions given that the difficulty and time needed to succeed is dramatically reduced if you choose the party-centric (or rushing) approach to the missions. This loss of challenge can make you lose interest as you approach the end of the game. There will most likely be only a handful of elements that make you want to continue playing.
In the end, the great moments are too thinly spread over the long campaign and most of your time is spent playing something that is reasonably fun but not anything amazing. However, you could do a lot worse than SpellForce. If you are curious as to what the fusion of RPG and RTS is like, it should hold your attention as long as you stay with it past the first few opening hours. Otherwise your time is most likely better spent with the top titles that focus on only one of the two genres.