by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Spellforce: The Order of Dawn is one of those games that people have never really stopped playing. Out for well over a decade, it has been patched up a few times and its platinum edition is very playable despite an aging engine. Spellforce 2 did not reach the same heights but was a worthy addition to the series nonetheless. For Spellforce 3, fans only wanted one thing, and that was more of the same.
They got exactly that.
A good Spellforce game is one part RPG, one part RTS and one part story. Few games have married these ingredients well but Spellforce pulls it off every time. This time is no exception.
Pat on the back
In Spellforce 3, the RPG part plays much like one of the old Infinity Engine games but with a bit less control over the actions of your characters. Your heroes level up as they gain experience and most newly gained abilities feel like they actually bring something new and fresh to the combat table. Summoning a bunch of undead is a useful perk, magical shields are a true lifeline and healing is, of course, critical to your success. While about half your battles will feel like you’re simply going through the motions, the other half are challenging and occasionally hard enough to make you work up a sweat. Fights in that last category are satisfying affairs where you walk out patting yourself on the back for giving the commands that made victory possible. Should one of your heroes fall in battle, there is a short window in which you can revive them. The sense of urgency surrounding this is thrilling, especially the first few times, and it remains so throughout the game whenever a comrade goes down with the odds stacked against you.
Questing isn’t particularly hard and perhaps a bit of a miss but it serves well as a vehicle to outline why you are on the map, and what you are about to get your hands dirty for in the RTS mode that follows. This works well every time, and not in the least because it is supported by competent voice acting. Thankfully, the acting stays clear of being overly dramatic. Don’t get me wrong, there’s emotion, depth, urgency and warmth throughout but there’s nothing that would suit better in a Shakespearean theatre production that a game. Refreshing.
Lay of the land
The RTS part does not kick in on every map that you enter but when it does, it is only after you’ve done some scouting and questing in RPG mode. This is a great way to discover the lay of the land so to speak. Figure out where you enemies are, find potential allies and perhaps a bit of loot stashed away in some far off corner. Most of these things you can do in the RTS mode as well but there is a lot less time for it. You’ll be too busy conquering sectors, setting up your economy and keeping the enemy from invading your territory.
I feel the game could have done a bit more with its RPG mode though. The AI loves to stir up your defenses, and not necessarily at the same location each time, but it’s not particularly great at staging attacks that I’d consider a real threat. It fares a bit better when it is defending but not remarkably so. And as you conquer more sectors it becomes harder to manage them. That’s only natural, but the game isn’t very forthcoming with things that would aid you. Before long, the entire mini map is filled with blue squares indicating a building of some kind, but there’s really only one in each sector that you’re particularly interested in - the frontier post that is the main hub. Having these in a lighter blue would have made things a lot easier.
This ties into other aspects of the interface. It’s a bit old fashioned with panels filled with fidgety graphical distractions that make it a bit unclear at times. It took me 5 frustrating minutes to find out how much lumber was still left in a sector for instance, and then my eye accidentally fell upon it. And in a game where you are constantly rotating the map, you would think you would be allowed to configure the mouse scroll wheel as the activator, but you’ll be stuck with the CTRL key on your keyboard instead.
On the positive side, all that rotating does mean you’re taking in some of the most breathtaking sceneries to ever grace an RTS. In this area, the game compares favourably to RPGs. The quality, detail and design of the maps is almost up to par with those found in Pillars of Eternity and invokes similar awe inspiring moments. And that level of care can be found throughout the campaign. Spellforce 3’s well written story brings you to a variety of locales and has a rather wonderful tendency to switch you to another mode of play at exactly the right moment.
Spellforce 3 is one of the best blends between RTS and RPG in gaming. Staying true to its roots, the game is - first and foremost - made for its fans but it is welcoming to those who are new to the series. A well fleshed out campaign, excellent writing, and satisfying combat are the hallmark of any great RPG. Spellforce 3 adds conquest, base building and RTS battles - what’s not to love.
Great story, satisfying combat, solid campaign
Controls can be a bit wonky, weakish AI