Spellforce 3 may Seem weaker Than any of ITS comparisons, but it is instead all ITS own Thing
Bear with us, will you? Immediately blasting you with terms like “Mage Wars” and “Convocation” or obtusely fantastical names like “Eo”, “Nortander” and “Aonir” isn’t going to ease anyone but the previously initiated into what Spellforce 3 has to offer, even if that is the method the game itself chooses. Frankly, it just suffers from tryhard Tolkien syndrome, and while this is an affliction that is unfairly impacted by the regularity with which gamers are forced to wrap their tongues around names with apostrophes and relearn which racial stereotype is warring against which, more could have been done to emphasise the merits of the lore here. It is a prequel, for example, set before the events of the previous games, but you wouldn’t really gain much value for knowing that. It’s a tale well told and has decent enough voice acting to string things along, but it’s all a little on the nose, as though the tropes of fantasy are so ironclad by now that no other suit of armour will fit. Yet the point is that in spite of all this (let’s face it, it’s not a new challenge to struggle through) there’s a good deal worth getting into. The pacing, for example, offers a more plodding approach that is controlled as much by player exploration as the need to control the flow of combat. And that’s important, because one thing you should know about Spellforce 3 – that is if you don’t already – is that it is actually a hybrid between an RTS and an RPG, and, as a result, there are quite a few systems to figure out.
For those who have played the previous games the concept won’t be much different, but this time around the blend between the two modes is far less distinct. There’s no clearly defined moments where you’re playing an RTS or an RPG as was the case previously, which makes for much more fluid gameplay. You’ll control a group of heroes, some unique to the story and others custom created. Much like the majority of
RTS games since Warcraft III, these heroes are the main crutch of your force and will, in fact, be the ones that you’ll want to focus on protecting. Each can have three abilities available at any one time, items to be equipped to enhance their function and their own benefit within the group. They’re easy to make use of – even later in the game when there are more of them available – though admittedly things are made easier thanks to a handy wheel menu that slows down time as commands are selected. At times it might feel like the option to completely pause the game would’ve been appreciated, but then perhaps that would have made things a little too easy when the stakes are higher. Yet while it’s hard to say that these special hero characters are overpowered (this isn’t true since there are significant threats that will need some careful management), once you’ve got a combination set in stone you won’t find much reason to stray from that.
While Grimlore Games has said it’s trying to skew the ratio of RTS to RPG more in favour of the latter – thus the greater emphasis on storytelling and combat – it has inadvertently weakened the former. Basic rank-and-file units can be killed with very little effort on both sides of the battle, and so their purchase seems worth little more than cannon fodder. The construction side of things works pretty well, expanding over time and working essentially autonomously to ensure a steady stream of resources coming in. Watchtowers can be built, too, so there’s no need to sit around blocking off routes with a stack of units that could be better utilised elsewhere. In taking inspiration from Company Of Heroes and its regional system – whereby a command point needs to be under your control to ensure an income of resources – Spellforce 3 manages to tread that line between defence and offence deftly.
What is most interesting is how there’s a much more open world here, an overworld map that can be explored at will and even returned to. With bases set up throughout, it really does feel as though you’re expanding an army rather than organising a battle. With quests and intensely levelled monsters to overcome, it’s likely that you’ll end up heading back and forth between areas over time. That’s something that no RTS, even hybrids like this, has ever done. Typically, each new base is in itself a new base, and rarely will you ever return once you’ve moved on. Admittedly there are quite lengthy load times between these, but it’s a novel idea that we’d like to see expanded on more in the future. It has a feeling of Dragon Age: Inquisition in this regard, albeit with a heavier focus on the RTS aspects. Spellforce 3 combines to create something that is really quite engrossing once all of its intricacies have settled on the brain. Combat doesn’t match the depth of an RPG like Baldur’s Gate, while its RTS fare isn’t capable of standing up to any of the modern-day equivalents. What is clear is that Spellforce 3 isn’t trying to be like any one thing; while it takes its cues from the likes of Dragon Age and Age of Empires, it isn’t trying to crowbar the two different gameplay types together inelegantly. There is still strategy in its economy management, there are still things to consider while battling and while on the surface it may seem weaker than any of its comparisons, it is instead all its own thing.
Below: For as good looking as the game is, it can be a little frustrating to tell units apart in the battlefield. a handy glow appears around the hero characters, though, making them a little easier to spot.
Above: The visuals really are quite impressive, especially the large-scale cities that you explore.
Below: The stronger emphasis on story and campaign scripting means there are a good few moments that, while not exactly scripted, lead to some pretty cool situations.
Below: There’s a good amount of variety in the locales, but little changes as a result.