SpellForce 3 Review – Living in the Past
SpellForce 37th December, 2017
"It's like [Game #1] meets [Game #2]". We've all heard that line before. It tends to be the easiest way to describe a game that's difficult to place in a traditional genre. Spellforce 3, even the Spellforce series as a whole has always eschewed sticking to a genre's style. So how to best describe SpellForce? It's Dragon Age meets Company of Heroes. It's a mash-up of RPG and RTS. Something that has become more commonplace since the original SpellForce's release in 2003.
SpellForce 3 in particular moves more towards RPG aspects, or at least that's the perception I got when playing the game. Under new developers and publishers, and set half a millennium before the first game, SpellForce 3 looks to be resetting the series. Why this change? The original developers, Phenomic, were bought and eventually disbanded by EA. The publisher, JoWood, went into administration and were bought by Nordic games, who then bought the THQ trademark.
That little history lesson behind us, let's look at the history of Eo. Long before The Order of Dawn, the first of the series, mages were hunted and persecuted following the actions of one mage, Isamo Tahar. In the main campaign you take on the role of Tahar's child who was spared execution and you fight against rebel mages for the crown. In addition to this is a problematic cult known as the Purity of Light. While they don't believe that magic itself is a sin, they vehemently oppose the use of it. Bar those that use it in service of the crown, or themselves, of course. As such, they've decided that their own version of the Salem witch trials is the best option.
This, in addition to a plague that is spreading across the world, is creating a huge amount of pressure that's beginning to boil over. Your job will be to help relieve some of this pressure. Find out about the plague, fight some evil mages and do a bit of diplomacy along the way. It's all pretty trite. In countless games you've been finding out about a plague, facing against an evil mage or attempting to improve relations with other races. There's also talk of a returning god by the anti-magic cult.
Grimlore, the new developers, truly want to draw you into their version of Eo. There's little doubting they really care about the world they have built and want it to be compelling. They certainly do this to an extent, linking a number of story aspects together in intricate ways rather than opting to segment each storyline or ham-handedly clump them together. It's a shame that this intricacy couldn't be used with the text, which can very often overwhelm.
At times, SpellForce 3 can truly suffer from verbal diarrhea. Too often will you be stuck in an interminable conversation. The game seems to think you want the Encyclopaedia Britannica description of every event. I found myself more than a few times just switching my brain off and not paying any attention to long pieces of dialogue that tried to force-feed me too much information.
It's strange that Eo actually feels limited. The number of playable races has shrunk to just three here, where previous titles featured a myriad of races. There are a number of traditional fantasy creatures to meet and fight along the way, of course, but removing any control limits the game severely.
It's mostly an issue because when it does come to controlling the three factions, they all feel alike. SpellForce 3 creates a connection between RPG and RTS better than the series has ever managed before. It doesn't feel like there's a distinct drop-off point from one before moving into the next, and that's due to the scale given. Moving around the map, interacting with people, talking and continuing quests are all performed simply by clicking on the relevant area. So long as a hero is selected, that is.
While you're wandering around with this hero, you can also be building up a little base of your own. Simply select the building you want to build, pop it down in a valid location. Fortunately, workers are purely automated. This limits on the micromanagement on the RTS side, letting you focus on the RPG side of things. Equipping items, selecting skills and abilities, everything features and makes these hero characters stand out from the regular troops you can hire.
Particularly within combat. Each character can carry, for lack of better word, three abilities to take into battle. These are from a host of abilities that are learned, improved and upgraded using experience gained through battle. In addition to this, they can be swapped out to suit whatever you need at a particular time. The way these skills are both presented and used in combat is certainly inspired by RPG's with a more tactical air about them, such as with Dragon Age. Want to use a particular ability, simply hold down to slow down time a bit, target what you want and there you go.
Combat, away from the heroes, is where the RTS side of the game rears its head. It's certainly functional and doesn't make any real missteps, though is still left wanting. This is because of just how basic it ends up feeling. The aforementioned lack of races in the game leaves you with a fairly limited number of units to pick from. None of them feature any sort of duality either, there are no melee units with a weak ranged attack. No ranged units stand a chance up close or have any real means of escape. It's the traditional rock, paper, scissors that features in every strategy game.
Of course, there is truth in the saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". SpellForce doesn't suffer from the rather basic nature of general army units. What it suffers from is just how simple the game is tactically. The AI shows no tactical nuance, simply opting to charge head-on, constantly. What this invariably means is that there's no real joy in trying to position troops tactically or create a balanced mixed group of units. Eventually, every battle ends up in a mass brawl reminiscent of Braveheart.
Outside of battles, you have to build up and gather the resources required to fund the fighting. This system is similar to Northgard. Much like Northgard, maps are divided into distinct regions. You need to settle in that region, building yet another outpost, to be able to start gathering resources. These resources are automatically gathered by workers, provided you have built the necessary gathering building. These resources are also limited and opponents are more than happy to take them. It tends to mean that battles keep up the pace. Especially since these battles feature a number of side objectives, creature encounters and aspects like loot stashes to collect.
It works because everything is so grand in scale. SpellForce 3 actually makes it feel like you're just controlling a few people in a vast world. While the strategic layer can make good use of this, the RPG side doesn't. Once you're on the slower, more contemplative side, you see how sparsely occupied some maps are. Moving from one conversation to the next can genuinely feel like it takes an age. Some areas also seem designed simply for the sake of looking good, ignoring functionality and enjoyment, making some areas a slog to go through.
At least that's ignoring the gameplay enjoyment side of things. While some of these places may be a slog to walk through, they're excellent to look at. The grandeur of certain structures. Huge varieties of terrain, flora and fauna pop to life on the screen. Everything genuinely looks fantastic, with every creature and person fitting in perfectly. There's little to fault with the aesthetic quality of SpellForce 3, only a few graphical glitches with the shadows when rotating the camera.
It's a shame, then, that the audio wasn't as good. The soundtrack is truly fitting for SpellForce 3, with some fantastic tracks that can really enhance the game. What also assists greatly is the ambiance. From the sounds of battle as swords clash with shield, the roar of a flame or the death cries of soldiers. The atmosphere is second to none. The only thing here that lets the game down is some of the worst voice acting I've heard where delivery is forced and the emotional range is non-existent, bar a few very over-the-top parts. It can truly take you out of the game and only makes you want to skip cutscenes more.
Sadly, the graphical glitches aren't the only thing. I've encountered a few bugs here and there. Dialogue repeats itself, which is especially irritating considering the voice acting on show. Quests sometimes don't trigger correctly. Fortunately, I haven't encountered the same number of issues others have but, in addition to this, the folks at Grimlore have been fairly consistent so far in releasing early patches to smooth the game out.
SpellForce 3 isn't a bad game. Hell, at times it’s genuinely pretty decent. It certainly has its problems, such as the sparsely occupied areas, basic AI and atrocious voice acting. However, it is still an engrossing game despite this. There is an interesting story in there and you visit some stunning looking areas. Most of all, the gameplay is, for the most part, solid and entertaining as a result of the fast pace on the RTS side.
Review code provided by the publisher. You can purchase the physical Standard Edition on Amazon.
SpellForce 3 isn't a bad game, it can even be pretty good at parts. A vast world is left for you to explore with far reaching problems to solve. The game merges RPG and RTS in a great way, never leaving one side the worse for it. However, it can often fall foul of leaving you with little to do outside of RTS, with areas impressive to look at, but boring to walk through. There certainly is something interesting to find out with the story as well, but the delivery leaves a lot to want with too much exposition and terrible voice acting. You can certainly have fun with SpellForce, particularly the fast paced strategy side of things, but it can feel like a slog at times.
- The quick pace of the RTS is entertaining and keeps the game moving along
- Stunning visual design, particularly of huge imposing structures and varied terrain
- Great audio design with an excellent soundtrack and ambiance
- Extremely poor voice acting
- Story that is force fed and ultimately poorly delivered
- Poor level design when doing the RPG thing, maps being too large and sparsely occupied
- Basic AI that shows no tactical nuance
- A few bugs here and there which can cause irritation