SpellForce: The Order of Dawn


Review by · March 4, 2004

Typically I like to open reviews by setting a mood similar to that which is found in the game. I give a bit of the historical background of the plot and give subtle hints as to where things may be going. I like to write the introduction with a dark tone to mirror the style of mystical games, while also using a bright and cheery approach to reflect the execution of a more upbeat title. I do this in order to allow the readers to sink into not only my review, but into the game I am reviewing as well. I like readers to feel as if they have a grasp of what I am talking about by truly feeling as I did when I played the game. I want to construct the atmosphere that I feel represents the game most accurately.

Clearly, this is not my direction with SpellForce. The reason for this difference is because if I were to project the attitude that I felt while playing the game, you would be immediately turned away from reading. I have played a lot of bad games as both a gamer and a reviewer, but very few touch me in such a way as SpellForce did. And while it would be easier to present my feelings with a list of the faults present in the game, I will do my best to give my overall presentation without simply constructing a grid of errors.

SpellForce takes a big risk by not catering to a specific niche of gamers. Rather than focusing on those who enjoy Role-Playing Games or on those who enjoy Real-Time Simulation, SpellForce is the product of an attempt to combine both genres. As a fan of both RPGs and RTSs, I was hoping to find an enjoyable hybrid in SpellForce. Unfortunately, there seems to be a disparity in the amount of time spent creating the RPG portion versus the amount of time the player spends on the RTS portion. Allow me to explain.

SpellForce is broken into a series of missions. On certain missions, you find yourself – a hero created in your own view who can be a number of different classes with different skills – alone and fighting against demons or other foes. Occasionally there will be party members who aid you in these individual quests. Other missions severely downplay the role of the avatar and allow you to build a town from which you may spawn units to fight battles. It is clear to see that individual campaigns feel more like a typical PC RPG, while the others feel distinctly like an RTS with a story. And while I enjoyed the first few individual campaigns, the digression into RTS seemed to severely injure SpellForce’s execution.

Suffering from a flaw present in many sub par RTSs, SpellForce features an array of different units to build with none being recognizably different. There are some units with offensive magic, others that can heal, and of course the typical melee and archer units, but none feature anything that makes their existence critical to success. Thus, strategy in army building is replacement by a flood mentality. Furthermore, while there are different races that become available as you progress further in the game, the units that they offer are boringly similar to what was already present in the previous race. To me, this felt like the game continuously made me too strong only to gimp me later in order to continue to offer something other than annoyingly easy gameplay.

Also, because it was disappointingly easy to simply amass a huge army to send against your opponents leaving them as little more than bloody carcasses and flaming wreckage, ‘cheap’ tactics had to be implemented. A certain mission with far too many cascading towers comes to mind. And with a shocking lack of any siege units and the amazingly unbalanced strength of towers, fighting your way through the barrage of units with towers raining hell down upon you became cheaply annoying. Fortunately, sending continual waves of troops was quite possible, but frustrating, long, and pointless nonetheless. In my effort to play through the entire game, I found myself occasionally needing to exploit bugs and cheats in order to conquer certain areas without spending too much time on boring activities.

My whole experience was made worse by the pitiful control scheme. It should be elementary knowledge than any RTS must have good control in order to succeed. Thanks to a lack of unit formations, a pitiful follow AI, the inability to select a specific group of units – this becomes especially fun since villagers and combat units are created from the same building thus resulting in constant selection of both types of units when attempting a certain task – and the massive oversight of queue points, I found myself dealing with the almost constant frustration of having to move units individually in order to accomplish anything. Even worse, some units would perform inexplicably stupid actions in battle, such as when archers frequently walk to within steps of enemy melee units before opening fire, or when every unit cleric spends the entirety of their mana to cure a single unit rather than spreading their prowess over the full army. I soon overcame my frustrations when I learned that ones avatar was made too insanely powerful to ever lose and forewent the creation of my own pitiful units in favor of letting my avatar wreak havoc on the battlefield himself.

And if all of these elements were not already frustrating enough, I was forced to endure the fact that SpellForce for some odd reason requires a behemoth of a system to run smoothly. As an avid PC gamer, I like to ensure that my hardware is up-to-date. After having never had a problem with a single other PC game, including monsters like Morrowind and Final Fantasy XI, I was shocked at the amount of lag I experienced with SpellForce. Any other game with options turned to the maximum settings my card allows runs quite smoothly. SpellForce, on the other hand, even with settings at the lowest possible would still jump, lag, and outright freeze if too many units were in action at once. And ‘too many’ does not in this case mean epic battles found only in the later missions of the game. As early as the fourth mission was I met with pain and frustration as my system slowed to a crawl as a pitifully small amount of units were engaged in warfare. And for a game with graphics that are decent but lack the polish of other visually dazzling titles of the PC, this is simply unacceptable. Perhaps it is due to the fact that SpellForce boasts a camera that could enter a 3D chase mode and switch back to an overhead view typical among other RTSs – a feature which I found interesting, but wholly useless throughout my entire time with the game – but there is simply no feature worth making the game unplayable for anyone without a top-of-the-line desktop PC. Even if you far exceed the recommended requirements and have had no other problem with any game prior to SpellForce, you may still encounter loads of visual lag.

The voice acting and dialogue perfectly top off what I saw as one of the biggest disappointments in PC gaming. With lines seemingly pulled straight from a children’s book, SpellForce literally floored me with some of things that were said. As I struggle to think of examples, I am disappointed that I can make no direct quotes. However a certain instance that resulted in a regal town guard referring to another group as ‘snot monkeys’ comes to mind. Suffice it to say, you would not believe me if I presented you with some actual quotes from the game. Moments are unintentionally funny due to the absurd dialogue. I have played plenty of point-and-click adventures where wacky dialogue is a welcome treat, but SpellForce is something different entirely.

Naturally, such idiotic dialogue would not be complete with the poorest example of voice acting in recent memory. It is extremely unfortunate that the main character suffers from the worst-sounding voice and the most pitiful execution that I think I have ever experienced. Many have written pages making fun of Keanu Reeve’s acting style, and it truly seems as if several SpellForce characters were voiced by one of Reeve’s less-talented relatives. Imagine that.

I wish it were possible to forego all fancy explanation and justification and simply tell readers to trust me and spend their money elsewhere. Unfortunately, unless I explain my opinion it will be impossible for what I say to have merit. I sincerely wish that my time with SpellForce was spent doing something other than struggling through what I found to be one of the most frustrating and annoying experience of my PC gaming career. Hour-long breaks due to aggravation and having to force myself to load the game even on the most boring of nights proved to me that this game was not worth the attention of anyone who knows better. If you are looking for a good RPG, there are many that are better. If you are looking for a good RTS, play an actual RTS. Ketchup and chocolate syrup may be tasty separate, but combining them and stirring them with a gasoline-soaked spoon is not the answer for those seeking a new taste.

Overall Score 53
For information on our scoring systems, see our scoring systems overview. Learn more about our general policies on our ethics & policies page.
Brian Cavner

Brian Cavner

Brian was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2002-2004. During his tenure, Brian bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs. Being a critic can be tough work sometimes, but his steadfast work helped maintain the quality of reviews RPGFan is known for.