Fantasy games often conjure up the typical geek image, most people are afraid to say: Yeah, I play Dungeons and Dragons and yeah I enjoy it. If you're the slightest bit alternative in this world, you're met by scorn and derision from those people who dare to call themselves - your peers. So it was, being a bit of a fan of D&D myself and daring to be different from the masses of suit-wearing nine-to-five mostly mundane types out there, that I got in contact with Big Ben Interactive and warbled to them about the game: Spellforce - Order of Dawn.
I'd heard about this game before you see and it got my interest, because it promised to combine the RPG with the RTS, something that no game has quite yet managed until now. Yes that's right, I believe we have arrived a moment of RPG/RTS nirvana for a while at least. JoWood are known to have had a few hit and miss titles over the time, but I can say that Spellforce is one of their hits.
Eo was a world that was nice, green and verdant at one time, until thirteen of the most powerful mages caused it to break - to tumble into chaos and destruction. Oops would be a good word, they broke the world...
And it's up to you to quest through the various lands of Eo's now broken world, to put things right, or at least try and help in the fight against darkness. I quite like the plot because it's not in the usual cliché of boy meets girl, meets large artefact, meets horrible bad guy - spawns crappy sequel vein at all.
No game that claims to be a RPG as well as a RTS can be considered complete without a decent way to create your avatar. This is the most important part of your process; it defines who you are and what you can do. Thankfully, the developers Phenomic have not stinted us at all here. There are a number of options, male and female, pre-designed characters and all waiting to be explored. Tailoring your look and also your characters skills, as you embark upon your quests across the shattered lands of Eo.
This is what you're really interested in right? The meat and bones of the game, how it all comes together and how easy is it to play? Before I even start on this, I have to mention that Spellforce has one of the most in-depth and immersive tutorials for a game I have ever seen, it teaches you every aspect and you are advised to spend time at this first tutorial level to pick up the techniques you'll need to stay alive and progress further. The tutorial takes you from the basics of movement, the camera and combat, through an actual mini-quest, even going so far as to show you how the RTS element of the game comes together - seamlessly with the RPG action and battles.
I haven't been this excited about a concept since I heard that Peter Jackson was at the helm of the 3 movies that comprise the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien who we really have to thank for all these wonderful attempts at making fantasy come to life on our beloved machines.
I often say that he was the Grandfather of modern fantasy and it's easy to see that his grand tales and sense of beautiful open vistas likewise inspired Phenomic. Anyways, before I ramble on too much like an Ent at Orthanc I'll get back to my previous point, Gameplay.
Spellforce isn't a RTS and it isn't a RPG, it's like a glorious hybrid of the best bits of Command and Conquer, Warcraft 3, Neverwinter Nights and Dungeon Siege - all mixed up in the box of inventive and innovative delights.
It's a bold attempt to mix two different genres, but if you look at it for a moment, you can see they're perfect for the kind of grand scale many Fantasy games try and achieve. So without further ado, let's take the two styles apart and see how the heck they mesh into one.
You have an Avatar, we mentioned this previously and this particular incarnation of you in the world of Eo, has a number of skills, an inventory, spells and so forth that transform them from a hero to a RPG style hero. They can have up to 5 other minor heroes at their command, summoned by hero runes, small chunks of rock imbued with the life force of old heroic types. Once you have a hero monument under your command and a hero rune, you may bring forth these heroes to aid you, the higher your level - the more you can do in the game, it's that simple. By doing various quests for any of the 100 or so characters that you can interact with, you can raise your experience counter and gain extra levels. Extra levels mean more skills, spells and powers at your command - you can choose where you put your level up points and define the character that /you/ want.
As a point of note, the minor heroes can also be equipped by you and often come with no spare equipment of their own. You must buy everything for them, but thankfully the places you visit are full of shops and other sundry stalls where you can get some good items.
Now add to this the camera of Spellforce and you're onto a winner, because not only can it do the bird's eye view of the scene, it can also snap right down into 3rd person, suspended just behind the and above your Avatar. In this mode you can use the WASD keys to wander around the world of Eo and view the game through the perspective of your character.
With day/night cycles and so forth, you can get some utterly fantastic views if you hang around long enough to watch the sun set and rise.
And now I mention this, it's time for me to detail another nice little trick that Spellforce has over the competition: The Click and Fight system. Remember that Spellforce combines RTS/RPG right? This little system allows you to select your men, and click on a foe, and then it lists up a complete set of actions that can be performed on your chosen target. These range from beating it to a pulp, to sicking magical doo-dadness of doom upon it.
So Click and Fight comes in very useful when you have a large army of units at your command, you drop into 3rd person and want to stomp over say...an Orc encampment, you can single out buildings and tough monsters for some royal ass kicking, and then order your group to go and attack that particular creature/target. Told you it blended RTS into the RPG.
There are enough Quests and Side Quests to appease most of the hardened RTS fans out there, and you can usually go from level to level, findings things that you need later on and taking them back to a previous person on another level. And on your travels you will come across a number of Cities, Towns and small communities, many of the locations have something called a Bind Stone which allows you to link your life force to it. Die, you return to the last Bind Stone, minus a small amount of XP - now that's what I call useful.
But that's enough of the RPG side of the game for now; suffice it to say that it's done with a flair and style that I wasn't expecting.
Eventually you'll come across a Monument that you can connect your essence to, and from that moment on, it will be like a beacon to every evil force on the map. At first they'll send out sniffing scouts who'll run to warn more creatures if they find you there, your only option is to build a base of operations and fight!
Thanks to the intuitive system and the very simple/effective GUI the game is a joy to play, at least, I found it so. By now, you have at least one Worker rune and can now summon workers from the Monument, so get cracking and start harvesting the basic resources - stone, wood, ore...to build up your settlement quickly and effectively. Get the basic buildings out, build a mine or two, get your workers into the buildings - they can hold up to five and they start becoming masters of that trade, their costume and equipment changes to reflect this.
You want an army, you're going to need to get that food in to fill your soldiers bellies, so you'll need to build a couple of hunting lodges. Your workers then will go and hunt the roaming animals as they dance around the settlement, the animals that is, not the workers. For many of us, this is the meat and two veg of a great RTS, the management of a successful military and economic production system is a must, and in Spellforce you can really go to town.
After a few attempts and poking your defences, the AI will start to get worried, send out larger raiding parties. Get Watchtowers up and running fast, start to build a small defence force and make sure your people are protected. Kill any scouts you see and hunt around the large maps, there are bonus items galore and some really cool stuff you can find.
You might start off with only a few limited buildings and other units, but certain objectives will reward you with blueprints for new things, new buildings and units. So now you can start to build even more grand settlements, but that's not all, you can also summon any of the workers from the various races in the game if you have the right rune. There are 3 on the light side and 3 on the dark side, such as Humans on the light side and Dark elves on the dark side, these have their own buildings and units, and you can mix and match to your hearts content to make the ultimate defence or offence force.
You can also hop into 3rd person at any time remember, so you can tour your settlement and watch the action and work going on around you. Day and night passes at a reasonable rate, and the game reflects these changes with a glorious element of visual wonder. It's all a zoom button or mouse wheel rotation away.
So you have a fully functioning RTS element with formations and the usual tried and tested resource gathering, all lovingly wrapped up with the RPG style, set in very expansive and gorgeously created environments that are absolutely great to sit and watch over time, as the game progresses, not to mention the battles as they happen in real time with a great number of units slogging it out and casting spells.
Graphics, Models and Animations
Spellforce doesn't stint on the graphics as mentioned previously, they're not the best models in the world and the animations can seem a little clunky, but at least Phenomic have added a good number of them and each unit has their own individual character to it, not to mention style and look. Each of the six races has their own unit look, style and building style too. So there's a lot of graphical goodness to be had, some of the elven buildings are downright gorgeous and because you can enter 3rd person at any time, the whole thing comes alive before your eyes - especially at night. I can't fault them on the graphics and especially those of the landscape, the hills and valleys are expertly created by their engine and rich in vibrant colour, full of life and have almost a 'Tolkienesque' feel to them, a big plus in my book.
It's hard to actually put into words the level design in this game, because it's not the traditional style we've come to expect from most games, this is like combining Dungeon Siege and upping the style and quality of the levels by a significant amount. The Cities are large and the settlements are fairly well laid out, scattered with ancient ruins and hidden treasures for the diligent gamer to find. There are a number of stunning vistas and extremely well crafted expanses of land to wander around, and the sense of scale is well preserved, all in all - it gets my vote.
The Camera is a joy to use, easy to control and allows you to slip between 3rd person and isometric views without a problem. I haven't yet seen any glitches that I can bring to your attention, nor as it ever been placed in a position that was annoying during a transition or cut-scene.
These are sparse, but when they happen they have a good deal of life to them, bringing the world from imagination into the reality of the game environment. They show a certain directional flair and imagination rarely used these days by anyone other than the big studios and companies. All of them use the in game engine, and there's no lip synching etc, which is a little bit of a let down, but then again there was nothing like that in WC3 so I can't complain. One major point, the opening AVI is however pretty stunning and gives the likes of Squaresoft a run for their money.
Music and Sound
Teeming with life, each area has good unique spot sounds that change between day and night; brooks babble and rivers flow with a thirsty rush towards their final destination. Swords clash and spells sizzle with adequate rings, hisses and crunches, impacts come with a variety of blood curdling noises - works for me. The Music is uplifting, although sparse, when it kicks in you are taken on an auditory journey of a grand scale - nicely crafted and certainly worthy of a CD release.
It could be described as cheesy and awfully lifeless in places, some of the voice actors need to put a little more soul into their job, but then again, if you've been recording the same lines time and time again...you're probably wanting to go home and have a nice cuppa, sit back and relax with a bout of mindless violence against something. Yet it doesn't spoil the game and some of the performances are quite good, nothing however compared to some of the games out there - again, it gets my vote though because they tried.
Yes it does have it, but sadly there's no Skirmish mode and no way to team up with a friend VS the Computer. Hopefully in a patch or later on, Phenomic will fix this and apart from that, the recent patches have made the game pretty stable and fun as you vie for control on the various maps provided with the retail. Again though, there wasn't a whole lot that kept me in this mode, I was far too interested in Singleplayer.
Spellforce hasn't got the most mind-numbingly intelligent AI but the AI it does have is adequate on both sides, for what it does, sometimes your troops need to have their aggression factors toned down a little, by dragging them back from a battle where they decide to take on superior numbers, but apart from that there's not all that much to complain about, you die, you return to your last Bind Stone with a tiny loss in XP - it's not all that bad, at least you don't fail the mission.
So there it is in a nutshell, Spellforce is one of those games you're going to love or hate depending on if you're a fan of the two genres or not. The combination of stunning visual images and design is worthy of a bigger studio, but I'm happy that it's Phenomic who have pulled this off, it proves to me that you have to keep a wary eye on these small guys, because you can be pleasantly surprised - I know I was, but since I'm going to see the first showing of the Return of the King tomorrow, I felt it was needed to do this review right away, so I don't end up wrapped in that particular euphoria for the rest of the week and can only write the words: Meep.
Until next time, keep a sharp eye.