2004's SpellForce: The Order of the Dawn was a potent blend of real-time strategy and role-playing that was hampered a bit by some lackluster pathfinding and control issues. Now, the series returns with SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, and developer Phenomic has certainly learned from experience. SpellForce 2 shows strong signs of improvement while keeping the unique mix of gameplay relatively intact, and the result is a real-time strategy game that feels more like an action role-playing game. Or is that an action role-playing game that feels more like a real-time strategy game? It's hard to define SpellForce 2, but it's certainly a nice change of pace from the real-time strategy rut.
In Shadow Wars, the dark elves are on the offensive, and it's up to you, as a member of an outcast human/dragon race, to rally the various "good" nations to meet the threat. But since no one trusts you, you must pursue a ton of quests to gain their trust, as well as deal with various evildoers and monsters along the way. In fact, there's so much of this questing going on that it won't be too long before you realize that for a real-time strategy game, SpellForce 2 seems a lot like Diablo and other role-playing games. The variety of quests is also impressive, since they don't feel like the generic FedEx-style quests (go to point X and bring back item Y). Actually, most of them are, but you'll experience so many different challenges that it never quite feels like the same thing over and over again.
Like any good role-playing game, SpellForce 2 inspires a strong sense of satisfaction as you see your hero level up and get new weapons and armor, as well as unlock new powers and abilities. SpellForce 2 features a new skill system that lets you distribute points across two skill trees, one based on magic and the other on combat, and you can put points into each skill up to a max of three times, so you have some leeway as to what kind of character to create. You can be part magic user and part warrior, or dump all your points into either skill tree. Moreover, you can specialize even further by focusing on being able to use heavy weapons or armor, or perhaps lighter arms. Speaking of which, there's a huge variety of stuff in the game, and thankfully, there seems to be no effective limit on your inventory, so you can be a pack rat and carry everything along with you. The only thing is that, in the frenetic combat that makes up most of the game, you're dealing with such huge numbers (your character will easily have thousands of hit points), that it doesn't seem to make much of a difference if you use a weapon that does 130 points of damage or another one that does 160. Weapons and armor seem to be there mostly for cosmetic purposes, since it's hard to tell the difference between weapons that fall into the same level class.
When you're not hacking and slashing your way across the map, you will have the opportunity on occasion to do some real-time strategy management. Thankfully, the complex economy from the original SpellForce feels like it's been streamlined, so it's just a matter of setting some workers to gather the three main resources, put up a handful of buildings, and start churning out various military units to beef up your heroes. Command and control of all these different units is easy thanks to the slick interface. While you can use regular real-time strategy conventions to create unit groups, SpellForce 2 goes a bit further by letting you easily designate targets for various groups or telling a hero to unload a particular spell or skill on a specific target with just a couple of mouse clicks.
Another enjoyable part of SpellForce 2 is the worlds that you explore. Some of the maps are downright huge, and you'll wander around gigantic cities with different districts or romp across a vast wilderness. Quests will have you exploring every nook and cranny of the map, and you never feel like you're being shepherded along on a linear path. In fact, you can jump back to previous levels at any time, and it's something that you'll have to do to accomplish some quests. This also helps eliminate the need to solve every quest on each map before moving on, since you can go back and solve them at your leisure at a later time.
Pathfinding, which was an issue in the first game, seems much improved in the sequel, and it's possible to give your troops an order to move to a distant point and then tinker around with your inventory while they're in transit. However, the sheer size of some maps, along with their mazelike layouts, results in a lot of waiting around while your heroes get from point A to point B. While your hero can transport instantly to various points on the map, the bulk of your army usually has to hoof it. Still, at least you don't need to micromanage them, as they're generally pretty good about not getting stuck in dead ends.
The single-player campaign will keep you occupied for a long time, and when you're done with that, you can tackle multiplayer. Online play lets you play in skirmish mode with any of the game's three factions in a fairly traditional real-time strategy mode, and there's also a cooperative mode that lets you play alongside with up to three other players in an online campaign that features the same sense of role-playing as in the single-player game. The downside is that it seems that most of the online player base is in Germany for now, which might give you translation issues, so it's probably a good thing that the single-player campaign offers so much gameplay.
SpellForce2 is certainly a pretty game with some nice visuals, though, and things such as the populated towns and cities and the accelerated day and night cycles help immerse you into another world. SpellForce 2 lets you play from a zoomed-out, real-time strategy view or a behind-the-back, third-person view. However, performance varies on a midrange machines. The frame rate does struggle if there's a lot happening on the screen at once, particularly during large battles or if you play from the third-person perspective. Thankfully, third-person doesn't seem all that useful, so you'll rarely feel a need to use it. The audio in SpellForce 2 seems standard for the genre, with the obligatory attempts at dramatic voiceovers and bombastic orchestral music. The voice acting is decent and doesn't cripple the game, so it basically does the job, while the music suffices to convey emotional moments, such as battles.
Still, the frame rate issues don't detract from the sheer variety of things to do and places to see in SpellForce 2, and if you're looking for an interesting blend of strategy and role-playing, this is certainly worth your while.