SpellForce 3 is the most recent entry in the long-running RPG/RTS hybrid fantasy series. It looks stunningly beautiful, but how does it play?
Type: Single-player, Multi-player
Genre: RPG, Strategy
Developer: Grimlore Games, THQ Nordic
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Release Date: 8 Dec, 2017
SpellForce 3 continues THQ Nordic’s epic AAA hybrid RTS / RPG fantasy series, this time with Steam newcomer Grimlore Games at the helm.
If you’ve not heard of the SpellForce series, it all started nearly 15 years ago with Phenomic’s SpellForce: The Order of Dawn in 2003, which always seemed to me to be essentially an RTS game with a focus on the heroes, with a little bit of RPG wrapping around it.
Where SpellForce, its expansions, and its sequel were all set after the Convocation — an apocalyptic magic event in the SpellForce world — this latest entry is a prequel, set some five centuries beforehand, during and after the Mage Wars. After the first couple of introductory missions, when the game properly begins, magic is outlawed and its users shunned, even by the royal soldiers that rely upon the few who use it. You play as a magic user and worse, the child of Isamo Tahar, the evil and powerful sorcerer who was at the forefront of the Mage Wars that brought the armies of the world of Eo to its knees.
Your quest proper begins with you as a member of the Northlander royal elite soldiers — the Wolf Guard — tasked with containing the spread of the Bloodburn, a recently discovered deadly plague of unknown origin that is tearing its way through the population of Eo.
SpellForce 3 looks and sounds great. The game’s presentation is excellent with very high production values.
The game’s graphics are, for the most part, very nice indeed. The game is presented in full 3D, with a zoom range that goes from a great maximum to a slightly too limiting minimum zoom; free camera panning and rotation; and a game world that really does feel alive sometimes: birds fly about, trees and bushes rustle, and clever use of set camera tilt angles and DoF effects make some of the more precipitous areas actually feel high up. I am impressed.
Characters and enemies move well and their appearance is altered based on equipped items. Even when outfitted similarly the characters look different enough to discern close up, but I did find myself getting my characters mixed up when zoomed out to a more effective level for combat.
The great attention to detail in the game world only makes it all the more strange that the character creation graphics are so laughably bad! There are very few choices available and they look like you’d expect from a game that’s 10 years old, rather than less than a fortnight. Comparing the character creation graphics to any modern RPG invariably leaves SpellForce 3 looking bad in this regard.
Music is equally as impressive as most of the graphics, with epic fantasy orchestral tracks, mystical chanting, and all the fantastic and powerful tunes you’d expect from an AAA RPG title. SpellForce 3 does not disappoint here.
Sound effects are fine, though nothing too amazing. They’re all well produced and normalized properly, and I don’t recall hearing anything that seemed out of place.
The game is almost fully voiced, with all of the important scripted conversations being spoken by professional-sounding voice actors. Emotional sections often sound a bit wooden, but some of the voice actors do manage to get into their characters’ heads well. The narrator, too, is quite well done, introducing almost every new scene while you wait for the (long) loading times, though with all of the speech the spoken words occasionally depart from the written text.
The script is long and sometimes tedious, but pretty standard fantasy fare. It’s very well written, with only a few grammar errors here and there that I suspect stem from translation efforts, but it suffers from a number of plot holes and some occasionally terrible dialogue. There’s also an exceptionally well-made opening cinematic.
The game performs very well even with a ton of action on screen, and there are graphics, sound, and gameplay options aplenty.
The game claims to be a unique mix of RPG and RTS and I tend to agree, though I’m not sure that the developers got the mix quite right; the game can feel rather shallow at times, leading to a feeling of repetitiveness quite early on.
There are effectively two single- and multi-player game modes: campaign and skirmish. I was unable to find any multi-player games to join during the time I spent looking (making me rather annoyed that I had to create a third-party account!), but I did try out skirmish mode against some bots. The rest of this review focuses on playing through the campaign in single-player mode.
The campaign is long: some 30-odd missions. Each one gives you some typical CRPG-style quests, many complete with minimap markers to help you on your way; side quests and dungeon crawling; and, normally, some RTS-style base-building and combat. It’s a typical high-fantasy plot with a number of decision points in the NPC interactions, providing some potential variation for repeat play, but mostly these just change minor details of the story.
You control a small group of heroes in each mission, each of whom have equipment slots, gain experience points, and level up RPG-style, with points to spend on attributes and available skill trees. When you create your protagonist you can choose three of these out of six, providing some variation, but NPC skill trees are set; you just choose where to spend the points. A fourth skill tree is predetermined for each character.
Combat is RTS style, with a little influence from RPGs in the form of the combat action menu, which allows you to select defensive or offensive special abilities, depending on whether you’re targeting an enemy or an ally. Skill trees are small enough that you’ll only end up using two or three of your best abilities for each character most of the time, though.
It mostly boils down to selecting units and right-clicking on a target, like most other RTS games. Once combat begins it’s pretty fast moving and haphazard, and once you’ve used all your special abilities the bigger army usually wins. I’d recommend changing the action menu’s default settings to pause the game rather than use slow motion; that way you don’t get penalized when you want to use an ability.
Given the grind required to progress through the campaign, combat is where it begins to fall apart. There’s no tactical pause to issue orders. AI is weird with some enemies ignoring you, and your own soldiers sometimes ignoring enemies repairing a building to attack the building itself. LoS and pathfinding are erratic, leading to your units following unexpected routes. Ultimately the combat is more frustrating than it should be and the lack of time controls can make resource gathering and base building tedious.
Other issues include long loading and clean-up times when changing scenes, Steam offline issues, achievements not dropping, irrelevant quest rewards, and a number of bugs, though there has been a new patch almost every day since release.
SpellForce 3 isn’t revolutionary, but I think the evolutionary development is mostly in keeping with the core of the series; most fans should not be disappointed. As always with SpellForce, the RPG elements are pretty lacking in depth, and the combat is a bit too haphazard for my liking, but the story is interesting and the gameplay is solid, if not particularly groundbreaking.
The game has a few niggles that make it more frustrating to play than it could be, but if you’re looking for more of that SpellForce combination of RTS and RPG and don’t mind a bit of a change to the old formula, then you should be pretty happy with this new addition. And by golly, it’s nice to look at!