by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Spellforce 3 is a curious blend of RTS and ARPG elements. When they work, it creates a fluid, brilliant game – but it doesn’t always work so well. It’s a game that feels as if it’s fighting against itself, trying to create something wonderful but tripping on its own heels. The RPG elements and storytelling are mostly well thought out. You play as the son of the evil Isamo Tahar (who you play against in the tutorial), and this taught me a valuable lesson about Spellforce 3: do not get attached to a character that isn’t your main character. Not ever. So many times my choices led to disaster. I could not tell if it was because they’re always scripted to leave or fight me, or if it was by my own actions. The idea is wonderful, and the story, though a bit stale, is still presented quite well. The idea of a sudden magical curse or plague felt as if I had heard it more than once. But I love the presentation of the characters, and how they interact with one another.
While the story is completed voice-acted, one of the major drawbacks to it is that lines run together a bunch. You’ll be listening to someone say something, and as soon as their line was finished, the next person starts speaking with no gap between them. It doesn’t hurt the game in any way, but it does hurt the immersion experience plenty. Between that and the on-again-off-again swearing . . . is “heck” a swear word in this game? Because for the first several hours, I only heard heck, until a pivotal, spoiler moment in the game, where there’s a barrage of f-bombs, just . . . over and over again! So it was confusing, and I won’t lie that I laughed quite hard at these serious, gritty, world-weary soldiers using the word “heck” in a serious moment. It was so bizarre. This is a tale of heartache, and how cruel the world is. This is not a world that appreciates magic users, thanks to the Mage Wars. So the story is solid and interesting, but there are simply choices that make it awkward and clumsy. But how’s the actual gameplay?
So, you have parts of the game that are an ARPG, where you have a small party that goes exploring on a map or dungeon, using abilities on hotkeys, moving the map with cursor, and rotating the map with Page Up/Page Down. This is the strangest design choice for me because you have to move the map a lot. These maps always have a lot of clutter: large outcroppings, buildings, deep ravines, mountains, anything to visually get in your way. The default movement speed for the mouse and the rotation is very (very) slow, and until I upped it, this drove me mental. You can customize these characters in a variety of ways though, using White and Black Magic despite mages being hated (you’re a state-sponsored mage, so I guess it’s okay), equip armor and weapons, powerful talismans that can bring you back to life, or alter your abilities to create fun, powerful combos. Your powers that you unlock via a skill tree are assigned to various hotkeys, and this actually worked well for me.
These ARPG stages feel kind of slow moving, but the action is solid. There are a nice variety of enemies to fight, from regular animals, big creepy bugs, other humans, orcs, elves, et cetera. A nice motley of fantasy things to murder and loot. It’s not always clear where you need to go though, and you can’t pull the map out easily at all (that I found). The mini-map is pretty frustrating to use. If you aren’t immediately in an area, the fog of war covers the land, unless you’re in an RTS section, and even then, you can only see areas with your settlements on them. The maps don’t always show you where you’re supposed to go Quest-wise, and I found quite a few quests that simply didn’t work. Thankfully, most of them were side-quests, so I did miss out on experience and valuable rewards as they simply wouldn’t work (for instance, enemies didn’t trigger). I am not the only one who has found a bunch of bugs like this, but I will give them credit where it’s due: they are updating the game quite frequently. I do feel like a longer time in development and testing could have routed a lot of this. There were enough bugs to make me think the game simply was not ready to go live, despite how pretty it is.
The RTS sections of the game were kind of lacking if I can be frank. There are plenty of buildings to unlock, and by killing enemies you can unlock more blueprints (I unlocked an epic Elven Ranger blueprint for example, but couldn’t use it because I didn’t have the building requirements) but the problem for me is that the units are simply incredibly weak. They all move incredibly slow, I had buildings that were losing HP for seemingly no reason, and the only real recourse I had to was to simply zerg rush every encounter. It did not feel like I used any actual strategy. Instead, I built tons and tons of units, getting to the cap, and running slowly as a mob to the encounter I needed. You can build lots of settlements on these maps to increase your resources, but I encountered a new problem at this point. I was surrounded by wooded areas, with plenty of fish in the water and boars to hunt in the wilderness. I had people assigned to the building, but more often than not, they stood around and did nothing. I got very tired of hearing “We need more lumber!” when we were literally surrounded by it. You can’t click the peasants and send them into the woods like you can in Warcraft, Starcraft, et cetera. I would have been much happier if this had simply been an ARPG where you manage a party and defeat things and level up. That part of the game, outside of camera rotating, was very polished and left me with a good feeling. The RTS sections were a chore.
There’s a distinct lack of formation for such a heavy military game. You just grab everyone and run in a clump. A very, very slow clump. There’s no speed-up, they all just take their time, casually meandering from place to place. And if you don’t have at least one character with a heal ability, expect those units to die kind of fast unless you seriously outnumber the other force. I did not get much of a chance to explore the multiplayer, however. Almost every instance was “server too old,” meaning I can’t join; otherwise they were protected, or I would wait for 20 minutes for people to make up their minds on what team they wanted to be on and what they wanted to do. I like that you can do campaign co-op, allow alliances, play as Orcs, Elves, Human or Random. If you want to explore maps in a skirmish format, you can do that as well, picking one of six maps, changing the number of heroes, and the abundance of resources. This made me think of the games of old, playing against NPCs in a pitched RTS setting. It felt better here than it did in the actual game.
It Is Your Destiny: Good (3/5)
Honestly, this game is not bad. There are a number of things wrong, but the story is compelling, the voice acting is solid (even though lines ran together). I don’t feel like it will have a lot of replay value though, with the exception of the multiplayer, which I had a very rough time getting into. It’s a little frustrating to build a huge army up, only to find out that you’re going into an area where they can’t follow you because it’s an ARPG-style dungeon crawl section of the game.
Fans of the franchise will likely think differently and absolutely love it, and to their credit, there were anywhere from 50-100 matches going at one time, which says a lot to me. The units look so small and can be very hard to see in the large maps. It’s hard to tell when I’m hitting things, and when you have 75 units in your clump, it’s exceptionally frustrating to click on lootable items. I feel like Grimlore and THQ Nordic were trying to do something really unique here. Ultimately, it feels more like a prettier Warcraft 3, moving away from the RPG with strategy elements that made Spellforce famous and moving towards RTS with some RPG elements. There are some genuinely annoying things about it, but I’ve loved watching the story unfold, and basking in a visually stunning RTS. I think they should pick a direction and go in it, instead of waffling somewhere in the middle.
Note: A game key was provided for review purposes.