Out of all the many things that make us, as gamers, cringe and moan in the midst of our passion for playing these video games, having one fall short of its archetypal benchmark is probably the worst. Expectations always run high in the genre sects these days (like RPGs, adventure/action, stealth, etc.), and innovation is an even trickier addendum to the development of a game with its feet firmly planted in the dirt of say, the realm of RTSes. Finding a developer that’s able to break through and shine as a leader, or at least a very polished expert, is rare thing indeed.
I’m only being so wordy at the onset because it needs to be understood that SpellForce: The Order of Dawn, developed by the phenoms at Phenomic, should not be overlooked as possibly one of the best examples of meeting the standards of the rigorously critiqued genre of RTSes. True, many RTS control standards and flow patterns show up in SpellForce, but that hardly detracts from the depth in ideas that it has to present. Amongst those ideas is the build-out of the RPG portion of the game, which not only lives up to the functional engrossment it’s designed to elicit, but surpasses other examples of RPG elements amongst RTSes in presentation and interface.
A good story never hurts either, and SpellForce covers the basics with a beautifully rendered, and honestly quite moving, opening cutscene. It tells of a final confrontation between members of a Circle of Mages, bent on the power over, and control of the world through the evil workings of an enchanted rite called the Convocation. Quashing the 13 mages once, did not dissipate the evil that again threatens to tear the world apart. It’s up to you, a prophesied Rune Warrior, to realize your place in this overwhelming story, and fulfill your destiny as an envoy of salvation for all the races of the world. The specifics get lost in the complexity of the characters and their missions, but the tidal impetus of good against evil – and the complexities of allegiance and double-cross – is no less palpable here. I found that it’s easiest just to let the story flow around me and carry me where it will.
The gameplay centers on the genre standards. You start with your hero and a centerpiece monument from which all your units (workers, fighters, scouts, clerics, etc.) can be produced. Workers are set to collect any of six different resources, from the basics like wood and stone, to more specialized stock like aria and moonsilver. There is an elementary set of buildings that you can construct from the beginning, and some of them will determine the units you may produce. This is all common knowledge to anyone who knows the ways of the RTS, but SpellForce does an excellent job of keeping it all very simple and easy to manage; a warranted counter-balance for some other game features.
SpellForce controls the power of your tactical groupings by limiting you to certain unit types based on runes you’ve collected. Once in the possession of your hero, the runes can be used at the monument to summon more diversely useful and proportionately complex units. This is an excellent way to minimize the middle-work in advancing through a tech tree to a stronger force. Acquiring these runes might seem a bit arbitrary at the beginning, but it soon becomes a natural extension of the world you’re exploring.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the game (aside from the captivating, almost-sentient graphical environment) is the ease in which your hero can be managed and augmented. From the equipment on his/her body to the D&D-esque character attributes, one screen combined with an easily deciphered layout of adjoining buttons can take you through an item listing, rune possession, character upgrades, equipment, and quest log, along with a couple other management nooks which are all available at the touch of a key. It’s a tricky business, fusing RPG intricacies into any game and Phenomic has, in my opinion, done an excellent job of presenting the fine craft of character building and developmental nuance so important to those who enjoy the process. No matter what anyone says, there is a special joy in increasing your strength by 1, or actually seeing a new sword in the hands of your hero.
Battle dynamics are about what you’d expect. Selected/grouped troops, along with your hero(s) armed with spells and augmented weaponry and armor, can be sent headlong into an enemy, and will do a pretty good job of meeting the battle and fighting the nearest foe. I noticed that the unit types did a very good job of positioning themselves for battle, avoiding the inconvenience of a ranged fighter in the midst of a melee. The pathfinding AI, though effective and relatively efficient, was a bit simplistic. When a group of units rounded a corner, they clung to the border of the obstacle in single file instead of spacing themselves and finding some middle ground on the curved path. This could certainly be a tactical detriment if your soldiers were filed one my one in to the enemy onslaught, instead of charging as a group.
As mentioned earlier, the graphical beauty of SpellForce is more than abundant, and easily creates one of the more immersive fantasy worlds in an RTS. Simple things, like the random grazing of wild fauna, or the real-time shadows cast on the land in the early morning and late evening hours, do much to bring an already vivid arena of sight and sound to life. There’s an appreciable dark realism to the art style of SpellForce; the gritty turbulence and rustic idealism of a Dark Age comes through in the muted, shadowed colors of everything from parapets to pantaloons. Similarly, sounds are not overdone, and create an ambient background that further perpetuates the world you’re in. The musical score is effectively boisterous, combining a heavy brass orchestra with the harmonized pounding chant of a hundred human voices. Nothing riles the blood to war glory like this. The rise and fall of this battle hymn in the game is a bit jolting, but still serves as an excellent soundtrack for sword-swingin’ action. There are a couple of faltering issues in SpellForce’s superficialities. As a consequence of the illustrative complexity of the game, there is a bit of framerate slowdown in areas where a good number of units or activities are converging. Sometimes this can make targeting or simple team direction a difficult task if you’re trying to be at all precise. Sadly, the voice over work is also a bit inconsistent, featuring believable and spirited character voices followed by the monotone, stilted cadence of a novice voice actor. SpellForce does suffer from this, as the frequent amateur script reading instantly removes you from the game until the scene is finished.
More can be said of SpellForce’s triumphs in a summary. Its success at blending all of its parts together into a smoothly flowing, finely-crafted whole are more than just the final word in the development of the game; it’s a testament to the thought that went into blending the best features of two of the most complex genres in gaming, and creating an interface that’s easily accessible and suitably detailed. There are some rough edges, but the overall feel of SpellForce promotes ease of play, depth in character and story development, and brilliance in execution. I haven’t played a new RTS as worthy of my attention in a long time, and SpellForce exceeded my expectations and filled the hours of play with good old-fashioned fun.