The first SpellForce title was quickly ignored by the American audience, while it sold fairly well in its native Europe. We at RPGFan dismissed the game as a failure to combine two genres: RPG and RTS. That, and the game was ridden with glitches.
It was no surprise, then, that when I first received SpellForce 2 I had many pre-conceived ideas about the game. First and foremost was that I wouldn’t like it. Second was that it would probably still be filled with glitches and errors. These preconceived notions, I admit, are one reason why I spent so long avoiding the game. My apologies to the readers.
Before I began my run through the game’s campaign mode, I did some quick research to see what others had said. I won’t name names, but I saw a lot of large sites giving the game praise; praise which I thought the game was likely receiving for corporate reasons rather than the game’s actual merits. All this time, however, I had been wrong.
It seems that the developers at Phenomic have learned a lot since they first released SpellForce and its two expansions. While the game is certainly not error-free, the improvements from the first game to this new title are so drastic, I have to begin this review by emphasizing that anyone who chose to avoid this game based on the problems of the first game ought to let go of all previous assumptions and give this new game a chance. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
You are a Shaikan: you carry the blood of a dragon within you. Your people are reviled by all other nations due to your tendency to deceive and betray. This is based on a curse within the bloodline; sometimes the Shaikan lose control of their mind and are possessed by an evil ancestor named Malacay.
The story opens with an attack on your hometown. Normally in an RPG, your hometown would be destroyed, all your friends and family would die, and you’d go off on a quest for revenge. This cliché is fortunately avoided; your blood-sister is slaughtered, but you immediately revive her with some of your blood (a special Shaikan ability that is integral to the plot). After this quick raid, you go on a quest for help.
You soon meet a young dark elf named Nightsong. She too has been attacked by the people who raided your hometown. Your new foes are led by a somewhat psychotic woman with wings named Sorvina. You, your blood-siblings, and Nightsong join forces to put a stop to Sorvina.
That’s the introduction to the plot. It’s not an incredibly strong plot on its own, but Phenomic took great strides in telling the story in an exciting and timely fashion.
The world you live in, named “Eo,” is essentially an island chain. There are about 20 islands, and the waters separating them are so violent that virtually no one can travel by boat. Instead, ancient portals connect one island to the next. This makes it easy to use a standard RTS-style map for each island, as though it were a “stage” or “level” of its own.
The history and mythology behind the world is revealed piece by piece as you talk to various NPCs and unravel the true conflict behind the surface battles that take place. As you do this, a “quest log” keeps track of the main quests and side quests that you have completed, as well as the ones you are currently attempting. I appreciated this system greatly, so that I never got lost in all that was going on.
Certainly, the storyline for SpellForce 2 is not its selling point. Only a few characters are given any depth and development, and that is done primarily through dialogue. However, while drawing on standard D&D style creatures and ideas, SpellForce 2 also has its own share of unique and interesting twists on a fictional realm, sometimes breaking with tradition and definitely breaking down some of the more mundane stereotypes.
My only major dissatisfaction for this game was its extremely non-climactic ending. It ought to be a rule that if you have an opening FMV, you also have a closing FMV. It should also be a rule that an RPG’s ending should take more than 90 seconds to watch. If it weren’t for this last impression haunting my memory, story would have been scored higher. Instead, I’m going with a 70%.
It’s a shame that I don’t have the latest and greatest in PC graphical prowess. If I did, the game would have looked something like the screenshots on JoWooD’s site. Instead, what I saw vaguely resembled the graphics of early PS2 titles, though motion was still choppy for me. I reconfigured the graphical resolution as low as I could so that motion would be smoother, but it didn’t help. Loading times were also fairly bad when changing from one world to another.
Of course, most of this is probably my own problem. However, I also installed the game on a friend’s computer for a graphical test-run; and he runs games such as Oblivion at high resolution with virtually no slow-down. Even his computer struggled a bit to run SpellForce 2 at its highest performance. This same problem apparently existed with the first game, and while I think the problem has been mitigated, Phenomic needs to work harder on graphical compression and better programming to cut down on load times.
Those complaints aside, the graphics in SpellForce 2 are some of the best eye candy I’ve ever seen. In-game RTS graphics are great, and the cutscenes are even better. The opening FMV sequence is glorious. I don’t feel the need to go too in-depth on this point: the graphics are great, you can see that for yourself. Graphical errors were at a minimum, by the way, so that’s a good sign too.
A little work to help us “economical” PC gamers out and I’d have given graphics something much closer to 100%. Instead, I’m going with 87%.
I’m giving high marks all around for the sound. I’ll start with voice acting. Point 1: There’s a lot of it. Point 2: most of it is done without exaggeration on the part of the actors. Point 3: the main character’s lines were all recorded twice, so you can choose to be either a male or female character (unfortunately, a few lines have other characters refer to you as male by default: whoops!). Point 4: some conversations happen mid-battle instead of just in cutscenes, and these are usually well-timed with the action.
Next up are the sound effects. Generally, sound effects can either be fitting for a game, or they can be annoying, or else they can be lacking when there is a clear need for them. In this case, they are fitting. Good job sound team!
Finally, music. Starting with the bad: there isn’t a lot of music. For as long as the game was, I could have used a bigger soundtrack. However, for what is there, it’s all great quality. The opening/menu music, with the female vocalist, is really brilliant. All the rest of the music fits the game well, with intense battle themes and more calm themes when exploring towns and open areas. I was very pleased with the music department. I’d say the audio was probably the most consistently enjoyable part of the game. Thus, it gets a 90%.
The real meat of this game is in the action of the gameplay. As a blend between RTS, action RPG, and strategy RPG, the title is certainly unique. My best way of understanding it is this: take the gameplay mechanics of a standard RTS (say, Warcraft 2 or 3, as they did set the standard), include a quest system and spells/abilities for heroes somewhat akin to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and you have the gameplay for SpellForce.
The only character who receives experience points is your main character (for whom you must choose both name and gender). Based on your main character’s level, the other “heroes” will be leveled accordingly, but somewhat lower. Lower still will be the troops that you can raise in typical RTS fashion.
As your character levels, you assign points to two different skill trees: one in combat, and one in magic. The tree breaks combat down into heavy and light, and then subcategories from there. Magic breaks down accordingly as well. With each level, you can assign one point to one specific slot. To move further down the tree into more advanced levels, you have to have a certain number of points allocated to each spot above it. I didn’t quite understand the system, but after my character hit 30 (which was apparently the level cap), I was able to reach the highest level of skill in both longbow and fastbow, the furthest down the tree from “ranged combat.”
The balancing factor in gameplay, for me, was the mix of standard RTS-style missions and more RPG-like “solo” missions, along with a few in-depth puzzles near the end of the game. You choose a difficulty level when you begin the campaign, and while I chose easy, I died many times and struggled to complete a number of different missions. Nothing was “cheap” about the game; I’m just not very good at RTS games. I usually did better on the “solo” missions, where you control your heroes and the game feels a lot more like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and other similar Action RPGs.
The game’s box boasts 60+ hours of gameplay. They aren’t lying. The game has plenty of side quests to do, and I only did the ones that were conveniently do-able while continuing the main quest. While the game’s saves don’t track your hours, I’d estimate I put 70 hours into the game. The campaign is long. I enjoyed the entire ride.
Of course, since the game is largely an RTS, multiplayer is available, as are single battles against the computer in a non-campaign setting.
The only major complaints I can manage to make against the game are more control-related, and we’re about to cover that. Before we do, I’d like to reiterate that this game was a lot of fun, and this time around, the “hybrid” of RPG and RTS worked a lot better than expected. The control issues bog down the gameplay however, so I’m giving the subscore of 83% for gameplay.
Control…was a problem. I’m going to need to use the term “user interface” a lot during this section, so forgive me for using the abbreviation “UI” a dozen times in the next few paragraphs.
The UI in SpellForce 2 needed serious revision. The game relied heavily on mouse work, yet it was oftentimes difficult to simply click on a unit (especially enemy units; I’m not sure why this was). Highlighting troops was sometimes difficult, and I’d find myself highlighting groups that I didn’t want. I did appreciate the “auto-group” setting, which is another standard for RTS titles these days. The touted “click ‘n’ fight” system allowed you to click on an enemy, then have any of your heroes and pre-selected groups attack by clicking attack icons, and heroes could also choose to use special spells/abilities on that enemy target. Again, that’s a great system, unless the enemy is standing near an obstruction and, no matter how you change the camera angle, the game won’t allow you to select the target.
Another mouse-related UI problem was scrolling around the map. It simply moved too far. A feature existed to hold the right mouse button down to slow it down. Even this was too fast for me. Yuck.
Various keyboard shortcuts, “hotkeys” if you will, did exist. I eventually learned to use them, but again, much of the gameplay left you to rely on the mouse, which was problematic, at least for me.
Another UI issue is the menu, specifically the inventory. You quickly build up quite the extensive collection of weapons and armor, and even with sorting, there’s a lot of information to present in a small amount of space. An optional full-screen inventory would have been helpful. Also, again, there were minor frustrations I had when trying to equip and un-equip armor. Sometimes, I’d click but the armor wouldn’t change. It’s the little things that make me mad.
There were more problems; specific instances where I’d do too much with the keyboard and the mouse, and the game would freeze or crash, other things of this nature. I’m lumping all of that with “control” and handing out a generous, barely-passing 60%.
But let’s not end on a bad note. For Phenomic, SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars is a massive achievement, because they bounced back from a very bad game and made a fairly good game. The title has won awards from a number of well-known companies, and if RPGFan had a “most improved” award to give to a company, I’d give it to Phenomic for SpellForce 2. The difference from the first game to the second, in my experience, is like the difference between cheap pan-Asian food sold in a mall and an expensive Japanese sushi restaurant. No more greasy egg rolls: it’s time for some blue-fin tuna…except, it’s from Europe.
However, just because it’s a major improvement doesn’t mean it’s the world’s greatest game. It’s a unique attempt at merging videogame genres, and it held my attention fairly well. Considering I’m a somewhat jaded gamer, that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve played better games, even better PC games (and as I said, I don’t play many PC games). Don’t dismiss this game, even when I give it a 78%. That’s not a bad score; it’s still a little above average! If you like the screenshots, and you have a high-end gaming PC, give this game a chance. You’ll be glad you did.