My only other experience with the SpellForce series is SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, which was released in 2006. I remember being enamored by the incredibly detailed graphics and the gameplay that effectively combined RPG elements with RTS mechanics. Unfortunately, I fell away from the series, so I wasn’t there to experience how the game evolved throughout the many expansions for SF2 or what changes the various developers made along the way. But the concept and execution of the game left an indelible mark, so when I discovered that SpellForce 3 was on the horizon, I bought it on day one, sight unseen. SpellForce 3’s a fine game, and one of the longest RTS games I’ve ever played, but buyers will be better served if they wait a few months for the bugs to be worked out.
The bulk of SpellForce 3 takes place after an eight-year war where mages rebelled and almost overthrew the kingdom. That rebellion was led by Isamo Tahar. The player takes on the role of Isamo’s child who is saved from sacrifice before the wars begin. After the wars, the kingdom returns to relative peace until a strange magical blight begins killing off the citizenry. The player is sent out to investigate, which eventually leads to a conflict of monumental proportions.
The view of the game world is from an elevated isometric position, but the player has the option to zoom in extremely close and swivel the camera around. Most of the time, the player controls up to four heroes with their own skill trees, adjustable attributes, and equipment slots. Skills can be appended to hotbars for each hero for quick access. Alternatively, a pause-and-play mechanic also allows the player to pull up the same skills using a selection method, similar to Neverwinter Nights, while also pausing or slowing down the action. The party can also interact with select parts of the environment and even engage with NPCs in branching dialog. Some of the NPCs will also grant quests. On the surface, SF3 has the look and feel of a full-fledged RPG.
Below the surface, the RPG aspects are shallow. Character creation is limited to only a handful of ugly character models and portraits that are recycled throughout the game. Dialog about the player character and the dialog choices the player gets to make don’t let you feel like you’re inhabiting a role that you created. Instead, they’re stepping into a role that the story created, with its own history and motivations. While there are some impactful choices to be made, they don’t alter the story in a meaningful way which would entice the player want to play the game again to see the outcome with a different decision.
On the RTS side, the gameplay is reminiscent of other THQ properties, like Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. The player is given a sector to control but can only expand by building outposts in other sectors. Each sector typically has resources that the player needs to build structures higher up in the tech tree or recruit more advanced units. While the player can build an outpost wherever an outpost can be built, only outposts in sectors adjacent to sectors that the player already controls can receive supplies. Supply chains are necessary for the outpost to grow and also to share resources with the rest of the network. There’s a real sense of a living economy when you watch supply carriages running back and forth between outposts, and it’s always satisfying to destroy enemy carriages in transit.
Active special abilities are limited to heroes, meaning that while units may have special properties, like self-healing, dazing, and magic spells, the unit will cast those abilities on their own accord. On paper, this sounds limiting, but in practice it’s a boon because managing hero cooldowns is a minigame unto itself. This is due to how small the hotbars are, which only allow for three abilities to be equipped at a time. You can switch hotbars on the fly, but this switches them for all heroes. So, if you want to combine one hero’s skill in hotbar one with second hero’s skill in hotbar two, then you’ll have to switch hotbars in the middle of the fight. This becomes more and more of a necessity as you gain more skills, especially the persistent auras that affect nearby units. Unfortunately, those auras only work when they are in an active hotbar. While there is the ability to pause the action by using the radial tool to select a skill, it’s limited to the currently active hotbar, so you’ll still have perform more actions than comfortable just to get your heroes to do what you want.
In the crossover section of the RPG/RTS Venn diagram, SpellForce 3 works rather well, but there are moments that are infuriating. Those moments typically occur when your heroes are engaging an NPC in dialog while your base is under attack. Fortunately, the dialog box stays on your screen even while the camera is somewhere else on the map, and the dialog won’t proceed until you actively allow it too. You can also walk your heroes away from dialog if they’re needed elsewhere. It just breaks the RPG immersion.
The THQ RTS games have always had wonderful visuals, and SpellForce 3 is no different. In fact, this is probably the most beautiful RTS I’ve ever seen. Every object has a real-time shadow which dances around according to the light source. Foliage reacts to character models moving through it. Clouds darken the land as they pass overhead. Bokeh effects make the player feel gigantic, looking down on a tiny living world. The world of SF3 feels lush and vibrant, and players will be hard-pressed not to lose themselves in the graphics.
In fact, almost every detail seems planned out with its own backstory. Early on I noticed one of the map doodads was a skeleton on a cliffside, reaching up for a flower. I marveled at the attention to detail, but didn’t think anything more than that. Later, I found a non-essential book that told the story of an alchemist who nearly discovered the formula for immortality. Unfortunately, he only discovered the formula for reincarnation, but realized he needed a particular flower for the correct formula. Every time he got close to getting the flower, he always died unexpectedly only to be reborn to try again. I don’t know for a fact that that story is purposefully related to any of the skeleton doodads, but it’s that extra layer of immersion that SF3 keeps striving for.
A favorite part of the game will no doubt be the maps with high NPC populations. NPCs go about their day, harvesting crops, sweeping porches, or any number of activities one might see NPCs do in an RPG. And even though most of them simply repeat the same canned animations and offer the bare minimum of interactivity – if at all – they all seem alive in their own way. I spent a few minutes admiring the patrons outside an inn just to see how the developers posed them. Afterward, I thought that it was a missed opportunity that the game did not have a quest to find a particular NPC based on clothing or other features. It would have been a task worthy of finding Waldo. However, that’s not to say that the developers didn’t include a “search” aspect to their game. In fact, some treasure is devilishly hidden in nooks and crannies that can only be found by spinning the camera around to the perfect angle.
In short, the graphics are so good that they almost make up for the game’s shortcomings. Almost.
Bugs, Balancing, and Other Refinements
At the time of this writing, SpellForce 3 needs a few months of playtesting before it’s truly ready to be released to the buying public. I bought it on day one, and patches were released daily to resolve game breaking bugs that included fixes for essential NPCs dying when they shouldn’t, dialog that looped, quests not completing, and more. One NPC is supposed to be able to craft rare artifacts for the player after the correct pieces are found. After a certain point in the game, a bug prevented me from speaking to that NPC, causing my inventory to be filled with parts of legendary artifacts with no one to assemble them. Another bug prevented me from progressing at all because an in-game cutscene would never end. Finally, constant crashing prevented me from being able to try the multiplayer.
There were so many bugs that getting around the bugs became a game unto itself. Sometimes completing a quest in an unexpected way prevented the quest from being completed in the quest log. For instance, you might save an NPC after defeating the enemy on the map only to have the NPC tell you that the enemy was still there, because the developers thought players would always rescue the NPC first. When that didn’t happen, and the quest wouldn’t complete, I assumed the quest was broken forever, but I tried leaving the map and reentering which fixed the quest. For everything else fatally broken, THQ Nordic makes it easy to report bugs from within the game. Nevertheless, the number of major bugs at launch is reprehensible.
Extra time could have been used for balancing the campaign as well. On some maps, the AI will brutalize the player, even on normal difficulty. The game does not allow the player enough time to set up adequate defenses or provide enough resources to build the necessary forces to succeed. Ironically, those same maps can usually be beaten by razing one main structure in the enemy’s base. So, if the player takes their starting forces and rushes that enemy structure, then the enemy is defeated outright in just a few minutes. In later stages of the game, the player’s four heroes can usually take on the enemy by themselves. I was able to do it even without the super weapons that the bug prevented me from crafting.
Other aspects that detract from the experience are in the category of “just plain bad game craftsmanship”. Every line of dialog is spoken, but the written dialog does not match the spoken dialog in several places. At least one of the voice actors is miscast and/or misdirected to the point of distraction. Party members are spread out throughout the player’s home base, but the spacing took a page out of Dragon Age: Inquisition instead of Mass Effect, forcing the player to traverse huge maps and suffer through load screens just to progress character relationships. Finally, the environment never becomes transparent and will block the player’s clicks, meaning that the environment closest to the foreground receives the click even if characters could never reach that environment, like arches or tall mountains. So, in a battle where the player wants to move injured units away from harm, he or she has to click much farther away to avoid the foreground environment or take time to spin the camera around. Worst of all is that since the environment never becomes transparent, the camera has physical proportions within the game. So, spinning it around will cause it to bounce against tall structures, like buildings. Time spent with more community feedback could have resolved these issues prior to launch.