I became totally addicted to Spellforce: The Order of Dawn, so was delighted to get the add-on, Breath of Winter, to review. I recommend anyone who hasn't played the original game to read the review of it on this site (Wolf's Review) I don't want to have to go through all the minutiae of how the game works, when it's already been adequately covered in the original review.
Spellforce converted me to both RTS and RPG, as before that I'd mainly gone for turn-based strategy games. One thing that had always put me off RPG was all the yackety-yack with characters you met in the landscape. I wanted to play - explore, go on quests and fight - not read reams of stuff. However, Spellforce hit the right balance, with enough talk to create a good story-line but not too much to annoy. The storyline and sub-quests also took it above the average RTS. I loved the whole look of the game, and the details of the different races you deploy. The animation was great, and the music really amazing: I would happily have bought a CD of the soundtrack if there'd been one available.
One of the most welcome innovations in this add-on is the opportunity for multi-play over a LAN or the Internet, and also something called freeplay game mode. But first I'll talk about the campaign.
As in TOoD, the music and the look of the game are superb, and the maps are bigger and better than ever before. The landscapes - at least for the first five levels I've played so far - are muddy swamps and frozen wastes. There are new monsters to fight, and new Rune Warriors to recruit. You are plunged straight into the action of the new story line, involving the abduction of an ice elf queen by the Crimson Imperials; baddies to conjure dread as much as the fearsome Blades from TOoD. (Interestingly, some of the new rune warriors you can recruit - if you find and collect the right bits to make them - are Blades.) To begin with, your avatar has two companions, Grim and Lena, who fight with you. These are sometimes helpful and sometimes annoying, since they plunge in and fight even when you'd prefer them to run away from enemies! They have called you forth from the rune monument to help a resistance movement against slavers. It's only later you discover about the abducted elf queen, and a deal the ice elves made with Aryn, a monstrous dragon who unless controlled would plunge the world into endless winter. Let's just say that initially the story seems to be going one way, but then there's a twist. I won't say too much about that, since it would be a plot spoiler.
You do not begin play with one set of worker runes and plans for a particular race; you start with basic runes and a few plans for all six races. There's no gradual build up, getting to know each race individually and systematically, presumably because anyone who plays the game will have already finished TOoD at least once, so knows their way around the territory, as it were. In the original, of course, you started play with human units, and on subsequent levels advanced through elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls and dark elves, each race becoming progressively tougher as the enemies became stronger too. In BoW, enemies are pretty tough from the start. Unfortunately, your avatar isn't. The add on seems to me to continue, difficulty wise, from the end of the original, and it would have made sense if you could have imported an avatar from that to play this incredibly challenging game. I know it's a fine line between having a game that's too easy, so you get bored, and one that's too difficult, so you get bored, but I think that BoW teeters just a bit too much towards the difficult side. Admittedly, a lot of it is down to personal preference, and some players might well prefer this demanding challenge. Perhaps I'm too impatient, but it's not doing much for my temper when my weakling avatar keeps getting mashed! I started one campaign with a magic specialist, who was far too fond of dying, so have restarted with a warrior type, which is slightly less frustrating.
There is less settlement building in the initial stages of BoW than there was in TOoD. Often, you'll just take over an existing settlement, with hardly any time to build it up, before a horde of enemies seethe over the horizon and you have to leg it to the next level with your skin intact, leaving your poor units to die horribly. As I'm not that far into the game, I suspect that later the avatar will be able to return to earlier levels to wipe out remaining enemies and reclaim territory.
In TOoD, one of the tricks that many players learned to outwit the AI was that you could tank round the map just with your avatar, without activating any rune monuments, to take out enemy camps close to home. Enemy camps didn't begin to spawn new creatures until you'd activated your monument, which meant it was feasible to run up to them, entice a few enemies away to fight them, then go back to entice a few more, until you'd wiped them out and could destroy their buildings. This was useful when you'd got enemies in several different directions, who would otherwise descend like locusts on your fledgling settlement before you could get it off the ground properly. The developers have obviously become wise to this ploy, since many enemy camps (but not all, strangely) now spawn regardless of whether you've activated a monument or not. So, in the earlier levels at least, it's extremely difficult to do this with a low level avatar. I did find this frustrating when I found myself defending a settlement that was being invaded from three different directions at once, by superior creatures to my units. This left me powerless to go and take out any single attacker with my army, which was roundly thrashed on every occasion. In the end, I just had to restart the level and take my feeble avatar out to destroy two of the camps before activating a monument - and it took ages, not to mention one heck of a lot of patience! Another added difficulty in the early stages of the game is that you don't have the capability to build any defensive towers for your settlements, so the big burly baddies can just lumber in and start laying waste.
Although the early levels of BoW are far tougher to play than early TOoD, I really like the story line and many of the other new aspects. Let's just say it's not so difficult that I don't want to carry on playing, but I think if you could only play with an avatar imported from the end of TOoD, it would have been so much better. I checked out the Spellforce forum and it seems likely that in a subsequent add on, you'll be able to import tougher avatars from both TOoD and BoW. Hopefully, this will come about.
One thing that the developers should get fixed is that after playing for a while, all the linking scenes with NPC's suddenly start flashing past your eyes, and there's no sound, so you lose track of the story. I noticed on the Spellforce forum that other players have pointed this out. You do have your quest log to help you with the main details of what might have been said, but of course you lose some of the story aspect. The fault can be remedied by saving and exiting the game, then restarting it, but as BoW takes quite a long time to load, this is a tad annoying when you're in the thick of the action and want to keep fighting!
I've had one go at playing multiplayer BoW over a LAN, and it seems to work pretty well, if a little slowly. You can't play the campaign this way, so you don't have a storyline to follow, but there is a big selection of separate scenarios to work through. This also applies to the freeplay game mode, (which is for people playing alone), and one thing I especially like about that is that you can import your avatar into different scenarios, so feasibly could build her/him up quite well, revisiting earlier levels, and so on. The scenarios get progressively more difficult. In some, you'll activate rune monuments and build up settlements, while in others you'll just activate a hero monument and play the level with your rune warriors. I think this works really well, and hope there'll be other scenarios to download at a later stage. It really prolongs the playing life of a game when new scenarios are continually available.
Despite a few minor gripes with the campaign, I do think this add-on is great, and have no reservations in recommending it. If you loved TOoD, you'll love BoW; simple as that. Go buy it at once!