Wot I Think: SpellForce 3

spellforce

SpellForce 3 might sound like the name of a magically-inclined superhero team — and it absolutely should be — but it’s actually a chimera, a beast created by smashing together an isometric RPG and an RTS. You’ve got your jolly old fantasy adventures, pilfering dungeons and beating up hardworking goblins, and then you’ve got outposts to build, trees to chop down and troops to train. Considered individually, neither layer is going to set the world on fire, but SpellForce 3 is the poster child for being more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t have particularly clear memories of the last SpellForce, which I haven’t played since 2006, so when I felt a twinge of familiarity upon starting my adventure through Eo, a land beset by magical plagues and still reeling from the Mage War — you know, typical fantasy problems — it was not because of the previous game, but rather, unexpectedly, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

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Plenty of comparisons to the BioWare formula in general could be made, but with Inquisition, the similarities are especially strong. Tahar, child of the mad fella on the losing side of the aforementioned Mage War and the game’s protagonist, is a reluctant hero who finds themself gallivanting all over the world, forging alliances, recruiting an army and trying to stop a magical threat that’s poised to make the world a deeply unpleasant place. There’s even an ancient stronghold that can be turned into a base of operations.

It’s familiar, then, but it’s also a proven solid foundation for an RPG. And hybrid though it may be, SpellForce 3 is first and foremost an RPG, complete with shiny loot and customisable character classes. There’s enough crammed inside the 30+ hour adventure that it could be just an RPG without feeling like half a game. It would still be missing something, however. The structure serves it well, not only because it’s tried and tested and, for the most part, replicated here competently, but because it also creates the type of scale that can support a strategy layer. It’s a game that sets cities, nations and races against each other, and while that’s excellent fodder for a roleplaying adventure, it’s also a perfect setting for an RTS.

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Rather than intermittently switching between RPG and RTS, SpellForce 3 is always an RPG, but sometimes the role switches from adventurer to general. Major quests — though not necessarily main quests — often start out as typical roleplaying fare, sending you to find items, rescue the unfortunate and occasionally delve into dungeons, but then it frequently becomes necessary to recruit troops and build outposts. All the time, however, you’re in control of your party, completing quests and getting into scraps.

Though there are the occasional seams — moments where you have to take off your RPG helmet and put on your strategy beret — it’s mostly cohesive, and the mechanics of each genre complement each other extraordinarily well. If you spot a king’s ransom in loot protected by a fortress full of bandits, for instance, and decide that your chances of surviving are a bit too slim to risk an attack, you might be able to recruit some troops to come and lend a hand. Similarly, an army can benefit from a hero, or the whole party, leading them into battle.

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Troops recruited in the barracks just have the one attack, and no special abilities beyond that. So while arsonists are good at demolishing buildings and scouts can chase down fleeing enemies, when it comes to healing or magic, you’ll want to bring in members of your adventuring party. They end up adding a bit of colour to the otherwise traditional rock, paper, scissors dynamic of infantry, archers and cavalry. Companions have three talent trees, one of which is always unique, that let you to cobble together a custom class. Magical archers, geomancer tanks, healing warriors — SpellForce loves its hybrids. Tahar also gets a fourth tree, Leadership, which applies to the strategy layer specifically.

Combat takes its cue from both RPGs and RTSs. Each character gets three abilities to slot into a loadout, and then three loadouts can be swapped in and out mid-battle — which isn’t made completely clear, resulting in people thinking they could only use three abilities at any one time. Battles are in real-time, but there’s a whiff of tactics about them thanks to the ‘Click ‘n’ Fight’ system. Hold down Alt and click, and a radial menu pops up and time slows down, letting you select abilities from all of your party. So if you click on an enemy, you’ll be able to launch magic attacks, melee assaults and put an arrow in its eye all at once. For buffs and heals, you can just click on an ally. The radial menu also reveals extra information, like resistances, hinting at the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s an extremely effective way of quickly displaying the most important information while giving you several tactical options. Because the most efficient way to play the game is fully zoomed out, it can be hard to parse a busy fight, but this makes it considerably easier to read and set priorities.

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When soldiers are introduced in strategy battles, the same systems apply, but then positioning, terrain and formations also get thrown into the mix. But that’s also when things start to devolve into hectic brawl. Sure, picking the right unit combinations and hero abilities and micro-managing all of them with control groups helps, but throwing a blob of units at another blob of units is also super effective. Enemies just sort of charge in, looking for a fight, any fight, and typically try to win them by using superior numbers, so huge, messy confrontations are extremely common.

While I was still playing, I thought that the strategy layer most closely resembled Age of Empires, but I’ve since realised that there’s a far better, more recent, comparison: Northgard. Like both games, it’s a simple but addictive cycle of gathering resources and workers so you can construct buildings to let you gather more resources until you can eventually field a big army and send your opponent packing. Like Northgard specifically, however, SpellForce 3 is also a game of conquering territory.

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Every map is split up into different regions, each with a limited but varied number of resources. A forest region might have lots of wood and food, while a rocky area will probably have some stone and iron. When your town centre is activated, you get control of a single region, but expansion is immediately necessary. Capturing regions and erecting an outpost boosts the army cap, nets you more workers and unlocks resources required to start constructing more advanced structures and soldiers.

Limited and exhaustible resources and an opponent who will occasionally pinch regions you’ve not settled (and those you have) lend SpellForce 3’s strategy battles a surprisingly brisk pace. Surprising, because there’s never not a lot going on. There are military objectives, quests, bands of unaffiliated enemies, countless stashes of loot — it’s hard holding down two jobs. The drive to expand and multitude of optional objectives means there’s rarely any lulls or time to realise that, actually, the enemy is far too slow to ever catch up to you.

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Three different armies can be played with, representing the Human, Orc and Elf factions, though the buildings and troops are largely the same no matter which you use, aside from cosmetic differences. You can recruit them in any order you like, so if you desperately want to start battering folk with your Orc pals, then by all means, start seducing them first. You only need to recruit one ally to progress the story, but you’ll miss a lot of stuff by ignoring the other two.

Each faction’s story is a vignette of the crises engulfing the world, emphasising how each race, despite their opposition to each other, suffers equally. Through quests and new companions, SpellForce gives more reasons to explore the factions than simply getting a cool new army to fling at enemies. Optional though they may be, they feel every bit as important to the narrative as the critical path.

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I just wish there were more surprises. There’s barely a story beat or piece of world building that doesn’t feel at least a little staid, though it’s all presented very earnestly. Grimlore absolutely wants you to know that Eo is an interesting place full of fascinating people, and that learning about its history — strictly speaking, this is a prequel and thus all history — and conflicts and nobles is pretty compelling. It isn’t. But all the lore and incidental detail is convincing, even if it definitely isn’t worth the amount of time I spent learning about it.

It is at least shuffled in a way that makes it interesting to muddle on, mind you, and the quest to cure the magical plague unravels in a way that rather elegantly links the precarious political and religious situation to a quest that could have easily become a simple ‘hunt for the maguffin’.

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If it’s not already apparent from the screenshots, SpellForce 3 is beautiful, with more than a few hints of the Infinity engine RPGs. Unlike them, however, it’s fully 3D, with a rotating camera that only sometimes struggles with the game’s varied geography. It’s not just the isometric perspective that brings the likes of Baldur’s Gate to mind, it’s the use of scale. Massive fortresses, huge monuments, rooms that exist solely to look very, very grand — it’s constantly showing off and making the heroes look a terribly insignificant in comparison to the huge world they’re journeying through.

A lot of it is illusory, though. SpellForce 3 has all of this space, and nothing to fill it with. What seems like a large hub might only have three people for you to talk to, not including a couple of merchants. It slows down the game, too, forcing you to trek all the way across huge areas that are often devoid of things to do.

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I’ve seen mention of quest bugs and events not triggering, and in my own game I did have to re-enter an area for one quest to actually progress, while certain notifications appeared at the wrong time — but the game has been largely stable, and Grimlore has been quick to release patches. The more prominent niggles are design oversights. The quest log is constantly automatically expanding, taking up an unnecessary amount of the screen; characters are de-selected upon entering a new area, every damn time; and load screens are often accompanied by a bit a narrator’s introduction that has a tendency to repeat every time you see the screen. They’re all minor, but so frequent that they become proper nuisances.

It’s so bleeding long that I’ve barely had an opportunity to dabble in the multiplayer, aside from a few skirmishes, but so far they seem to work surprisingly well. I wondered if, without the greater context of the adventure and its myriad quests, these discrete battles would feel a little hollow, but with tactically interesting maps full of chokepoints and fortresses and the ability to summon pre-made heroes that differentiate the factions, they’re actually quite robust.

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SpellForce 3 is a game that, when pulled apart, doesn’t always come out looking great, but that I’ve still really enjoyed. I get a sort of primal delight in seeing two of my favourite genres blended together competently, and that’s definitely SpellForce — competent. It probably seems like I’m damning it with faint praise, but it’s a cautious recommendation. So many RPGs give you positions of power and authority but then just throw a few arbitrary choices your way; SpellForce lets you actually wield that authority, both as a sword and a hammer.

SpellForce 3 is out now on Steam, GOG and the Humble Store for £39.99/$49.99/€49.99.

18 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    This sounds quite good despite the lack of a recommended sticker.

    RPG and RTS do have a bit of overlap, honestly, and even as far back and the LBB versions of D&D there was the chance to hire NPC mercenaries and such.

    I suppose I’ll just have to wishlist this one then.

  2. Halk says:

    Some comments on how well the co-op feature for the story campaign works would be welcome. Thanks!

  3. Kemipso says:

    Thanks for the article, I’ve been keeping an eye on news since you mentioned you were reviewing it last week!

    One note, perhaps an error on your part?
    If it’s not already apparent from the screenshots, SpellForce 3 is beautiful, with more than a few hints of the Infinity engine RPGs.
    The screenshots are very small, and cannot be clicked on to enlarge, on my desktop with Chrome. Is this intended?

  4. morganjah says:

    I want to try it out, but I can’t stop playing Northgard.

    Has anyone played both and can give me a quick comparison?

  5. LagTheKiller says:

    Comparing any aspect of game to DLCagon Age: Grindquisition the MMO in (not clever) disguise (transformers theme) was meant as an offence? Mage War(s) is pretty popular theme in every third fantasy setting and every second got some form of magic/human cataclysm buried in the lore.
    So Bioware Game That should Not Be Named was used as an insult or accident?

  6. skyst says:

    I’ve enjoyed the game so far. It feels a lot like the WC3 campaigns with a bit more RPG-like exploration and character builds with a bit less RTS elements. Definitely worth a look for a fan of either genre.

  7. RubberbandAU says:

    Initially, I really enjoyed this game until I hit one of the first major RTS sections.

    Whilst I’m not an APM master, I’ve have played dozens of RTSs and was quite comfortable playing on Normal to enjoy the experience of the game without it being too easy.

    The RTS component is quite fiddly and unrewarding. I don’t feel like I can control my units as they will gladly gallop off and murder everything they see without regard to staying where I want them to. I’m a defensive player and the AI kept attacking my most forward base so I built 3 upgraded towers and placed my army behind them.

    As my army was defending my base, I sent my heroes off to cap some territory and didn’t worry about the AI as I had my defence in place.

    Instead of attacking moderately and retreating back to the towers, my army charged like a herd of screaming teens chasing a celeb for a selfie and didn’t come back. I checked in to see that they had let an enemy hero get up close to my outpost which was losing health at an alarming rate.

    I then had to heavily micro-manage my army, way more than I would want to.

    Next was the carnage that came once I capped several territories. I had resoundingly smashed two hero led armies plus another army, using my towers so I headed off to destroy an enemy outpost.

    As I was doing this another large army came in which I defeated but my army was getting worn down and the outpost had a truly enormous amount of life. A steady trickle of basic enemy units kept rolling in which was getting tiresome but based on my understanding of the game’s resource system I was confident that there was no way another big army could come through without the game cheating.

    It (possibly) cheated and I got smashed by an endless horde of basic units from multiple directions. I couldn’t even take down the outpost which had a pixel of life with 10 units whilst my heroes (using potions and abilities) and remaining part of my army attempted to hold off these units.

    This resulted in a very frustrated rage quit from a TA, Sup Com, AoE Vet.

    I’ll try again and see if I’m missing something but along with the quest bugs, this might need many patches.

    • Lord_Mordja says:

      Units are pretty aggro, but as I recall there is a Hold Position command.

    • shde2e says:

      The AI definitely cheats it’s bum off when it comes to resource management. Some people even claim they saw it just spawning more troops from the teleportation stones.

      That, combined with the frantic pace and the fairly simplistic combat pretty much ruined my enjoyment of the game.

  8. Premium User Badge

    syllopsium says:

    It looks gorgeous, but I note there’s almost bugger all description of the plot. Now, if it’s mainly an RTS, then fair enough, but describing it as an RPG without indicating there’s a half decent plot is a bit of a stretch.

    • MisterFurious says:

      It’s a fantasy RPG video game. Every one ever made has the exact same plot.

    • shde2e says:

      Evil mage, Kingdom corrupted, Evil religion taking over, plucky band of misfits, mysterious magic evil corrupting the land, ancient magic superrace that left ruins and superweapons, unite the tribes, big climactic showdown, yadayadayada.

      That’s about what I picked up from it.

  9. kud13 says:

    I loved the original game, but grew progressively disenchanted with 2 as its expansions kept rolling out. Don’t think I ever finished the second expansion, “Faith in Destiny”.

    If this is a prequel before the world gets shattered into floating islands connected by portals, then they really are making the game even more generic. Which is a shame.

    I’ll probably still get it at some point, because there aren’t really a lot of WarCraf III-likes (besides Spellforce, the only thing I could think of is “Heroes of Annihilated Empires” , which is like a fantasy version of Cossacks).

    • shde2e says:

      It reminded me a lot of old games like Command and Conquer, Empire Earth, Rise of Nations and Age of Empires.

      Although those are all RTS’s, not that combo of RTS and RPG.

  10. Sin Vega says:

    Sounds pretty solid, and a likely big improvement on Spellforce 2 (c.1583). Not that 2 was by any means bad, but it always felt to me like it hadn’t quite got things nailed down enough to do justice to its ideas.

  11. TheBookThief says:

    Always enjoyed the Spellforce series, at the same time I always kinda wished that the 3rd person mode was closer towards something from Rise and fall civilizations at war.

  12. Joppest says:

    I’ve encountered so many bugs and non-triggered quests that I gave up close to the end of the game. Some maps I had to restart 3-4 times to get the next map to function. Last patch may have fixed most of these though.

    I did like the world and even though the story is not that original it weaves the missions together well. Mostly, I once was betrayed by a companion, exiled him and then he showed up at the next meeting without any comment. Wish they would correctly mark major/minor responses when talking with npcs. Sometimes you thing you’re asking a question but actually making a one time choice about how to interact.

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