SpellForce is a famous series of games that managed to intricately blend the depth of RPG with the epic scale of grand RTS in a high-fantasy world filled with elves, orcs, dragons, magic and so much more. The last we heard of it was back in 2007, when Phemonic released SpellForce: Universe that offered all of the previous games and expansions of the series from the developer. The silence lasted ten long years, with future of the series looking grim when the developer studio had been closed in July 2013, until THQ Nordic brought forth the long-awaited sequel (or, technically, prequel). This is our SpellForce 3 review.
Be sure to check out our 5 tips we think you need to know before starting to play SpellForce 3 to make it as easy as possible.
SpellForce 3: The RPG
The events of the game take place before those of SpellForce: The Order of Dawn (the first game in the series). The game aims to explore the conflict and the events that lead to the creation of the Circle of Mages that would later forever change the world of Eo through the ritual of Convocation. As such, you will see some faces you might be familiar with if you have played other games in the series, and your character, Child of the Betrayer Tahar, will be at the center of this story. Following a short tutorial that, admittedly, does not present the game very well, especially to a new player, you get to create your protagonist. The given options and toggles are fitting most “pure” RPGs out there: while locked to a human race, players can choose gender, appearance, avatar, stats and three specializations to progress through before being unceremoniously tossed into the world.
Through the brief tour around the majestic city, you can get your first taste of the conflict you know is brewing in the background. With the destructive Mage Wars barely over, a cult known as the Purity of Light grows in strength and numbers. Its belief revolves around magic being a divine gift and, while there is nothing sinful in just having it, using it makes one a “Defiler” – someone, who encroached on the godly place and therefore has to be punished, preferably with a painful death. The usage of magic is only tolerated while it is being done for the Crown and within the ranks of the kingdom’s army, and even that is referred to as necessary evil. At the same time, a mysterious plague known as the Bloodburn wipes out entire villages, and no one knows how to stop it. This task will have your character visit distant corners of the world to find unlikely allies and unexpected foes and go through many story twists and side-quests before you manage to get to the heart of the matter.
Nevertheless, let us leave what the game is about for your own playthrough and instead discuss what it actually plays like. Players will be able to control up to three chosen companions alongside the protagonist. Each character has their own progression tree that consists of abilities and characteristics that can be upgraded as the characters level. Characters have a good amount of choice between Archery, Arcane Archery, Double-Wielding, using two-handers, sword & board and multitude of spells divided into different categories of magic (white, black, elemental, shapeshifting, etc.) Thankfully, the experience shares across the entire party so there will be no outliers in strength. While the game allows you to learn many active abilities at once, only three can be used per hero at a time. However, SF3 also allows setting up profiles for skills and gear that you can swap around according to the situation.
The game offers two distinct control schemes:
- Control Scheme A makes the game play more like a MOBA with Q, W, E, R and so on being key-bound to the characters’ abilities and serve as hot-keys for certain buildings in the construction mode.
- Control Scheme B uses W, A, S, D keys for camera control without key-binding abilities to anything and leaving you to use them with the mouse clicking or via the action wheel (defaults to left ALT). Construction mode instead uses Num 1 to 9.
Frankly, both control schemes felt awkward to me and I found myself swapping a lot between them depending on whether I was currently in an RTS mode or an RPG mode, until I finally re-bound everything that I found suited me. I hope it works out better for you!
SpellForce 3: The RTS
When I ventured into SpellForce 3, I expected to find a classic RTS system – the likes of WarCraft 3 or Age of Empires 2, you know? However, this is not what the game has in store. At first, I was mildly annoyed at the new system but quickly got into it once I figured how it all works.
For starters, SF3 has a unique territory & workers mechanic that I found somewhat alike to Northgard. The map is split into sections that are connected in a linear fashion. After wiping out all signs of resistance and building an outpost in the zone, you get control over the territory and resources it has to offer. That will allow construction of buildings in the adjoined territory that require workers to function and keep the resources flowing. Upgrading the outpost adds additional workers, which in turn allows you to have more buildings running at top performance.
Alternatively, it might be easier and cheaper to simply build another outpost and expand to a new territory than to keep upgrading the old one. After all, the resources are finite and the workers won’t move into the new zone.
Each zone has its own set of resources. Yes, you read that right. Even though you, as a player, have access to the total stockpile, each territory stores its own resources. So how does it work if you need, say, stone to construct a building in a zone that doesn’t mine it? This is why the linear connection between the zones is so important: automated caravans bring required resources from one zone into another. This allows for in-depth management and some cunning strategies in multiplayer or even scenarios against the AI: if you break the chain of outposts, destroying one and thus breaking the line, the caravans would not be able to reach their destination.
In addition to all of the above, SpellForce 3 gives players access to a wide variety of units varying from militia to arsonists to heavy cavalry that has their own strengths and weaknesses against each other. All of that tied together gives meaningful gameplay that revolves around economical complexity and deep strategic experience. Add heroes to the equation and the mix becomes something unique.
SpellForce 3: Real-Time Role-Playing Strategy
As an RPG, SF3 is a solid game with an interesting over-arching story, believable characters, a lot of lore and deep systems. As an RTS, it is a unique if at times frustrating tactical game focused on a clever use of a limited number of resources and building a working infrastructure. While each one of its parts might not hold out against a “pure” game of the respective genre, the mix makes the game something uniquely fulfilling.
The story seemed like there was supposed to be a book or something I didn’t do prior to it, as it wanted me to care about characters and events while not really describing them. Maybe it will change as you progress further and have a dive into your protagonist’s past, but at 15 hours in a big part of the overarching plot feels hollow.
SpellForce 3 is an aesthetically gorgeous game, with locations varying from an ancient city to dungeons to jungles to deserts, cloud shadows, day/night cycle and so much more, although its visual flair tends to obscure important information in RTS mode and add to the clutter of abilities, crowds of units and already hard to distinguish heroes.
While not game breaking, there are some bugs and problems with selecting units and issuing orders where the game seems to hic-up and not “take” it. Heroes’ abilities often fail to trigger which can lead to quite dangerous situations on the battlefield. Sometimes it is necessary to place the protagonist practically on top of an interactable object for it to work.
The thing that almost killed my wish to play was a Zerg-like behavior that AI has shown during a couple of quests that would require you plunge into RTS mode. If you do not charge out at point blank to wipe the NPC faction out or at least severely cripple it, in about 15 to 20 minutes you would get attacked by dozens of units from all sides at once, and the second you suffer a setback is the second you cross a point of no return.
While playing in the “RPG mode” you feel like you are competent and can take on almost anything the game throws at you. However, the moment you start in the “RTS mode”, you feel like you are already behind and the first part of your construction would be catching up to the enemy that seems to not have such problems. To expand, you need resources. To have more resources, you need to expand. All of that while continuously under attack by the Zerg-AI and without an opportunity to replenish your own forces.
Altogether, 15 hours in SpellForce 3 left me with mixed feelings. The game is far above the average, but with little things like control issues, bugs and AI behavior met frequently enough to sour the impression.
A game code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.