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SpellForce 3 hands-on – Company of Heroes with a fantasy vibe

SpellForce 3 Preview

Game PreviewSep 26, 2016 at 5:30a PSTby Adam Zechenter

SpellForce 3 hands-on – Company of Heroes with a fantasy vibe

After ten years of absence, the acclaimed mix of RPG and RTS makes a comeback, bringing many changes to the proven formula. Is the magic of Spellforce 3 going to be as powerful as it was a decade ago?

SPELLFORCE 3 IN A NUTSHELL:
  1. A unique blend of strategy and RPG;
  2. First installment made by a new developer;
  3. Over 30 hours of main plot;
  4. Delightful graphics based on an in-house engine;
  5. Simplified economy (Company of Heroes-style sector system);
  6. Multiplayer mode (co-op or PvP);
  7. Five different types of environments (desert, forest, winter, etc.);
  8. Mod support.

RTS and adventure games are only two of the now-forgotten genres that dominated the whole industry years ago. WarCraft, The Secret of Monkey Island or Red Alert – every player who’s been into games for longer than just the last couple of years remembers the times when these titles were on everyone’s lips, and every store’s shelves were bending under the weight of classic RPGs and strategies (“For games were purchased in stores back then”, said the gray-bearded man). Those who look back to these times with tears in their old, bleary eyes eventually became a minority; or at least that’s what the triple-A publishers seem to have assumed, since they’re more interested in releasing trendy sandbox action games and multi-platform smash hits. Fortunately, not everyone has forgotten about the hardcore PC community – in the last couple of years we’ve seen a constant influx of old-school titles; let’s just mention Pillars of Eternity, or the upcoming Planet Coaster. THQ Nordic, a publisher from Sweden, aims to cater to that specific community by refreshing the SpellForce franchise. We have seen the third part of the series in action and without a doubt there’s a ton of changes coming to this otherwise not-so-young formula. But will the old spells manage to enchant the players once again?

Back to Eo

The developers of SpellForce 3 have recently announced that the game will launch in 2017. Let’s bear in mind, though, that the release date has already been postponed multiple times: first, the game was supposed to be out in 2015; not so long ago, we were still expecting it to be out in 2016. Let’s hope that this is due to “when it’s done it’s done” policy and not actual issues with development.

Mixing game genres and synthesizing them into digestible blends is a challenging task – it’s much easier to flop than to create a memorable game. Many players feel that SpellForce: The Order of Dawn (2004) was the first successful mix of RTS and RPG. For the sake of convenience, the game was described as WarCraft III meeting Dungeon Siege – this uncommon concoction managed to draw the attention of fans of both genres. SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars reaped decent reviews, and received three DLCs in total, of which the last one was published... just two years ago. Such continuous support for the game is the best proof that there’s a vast community gathered around the series. As we’re getting closer to the release of SpellForce 3, let’s take a look back at its gameworld.

Nordic resurrects the classics

Death is not the end, it seems. In 2011, JoWooD Entertainment, the publisher of such venerable franchises as Gothic, The Guild, and SpellForce itself, went bankrupt. Fortunately, the new owner of the two latter series, namely THQ Nordic, decided to refresh the strategic titles to many fans’ delight. In both cases, new studios are taking care of the development (SpellForce 3 is in the hands of Grimlore Games), but the veterans who had worked on both of these games are also part of the development process.

In the upcoming installment of the SpellForce series, the players will revisit the land of Eo, this time uncovering its past. If you had played the previous parts, you will remember that after the tragic ritual of convocation, Eo was divided into small islands, which came out untouched only thanks to the power of the main god of the land. He created great columns, in his honor called the stones of Aonir, thanks to which the chunks of land surrounding these shrines made it through the catastrophe. In SpellForce 3, we will visit Eo before this cataclysm and learn more about the events that led to it.

The game is really easy on the eye. - 2016-09-26
The game is really easy on the eye.

We know where the action takes place, and we also know who the antagonist is going to be. In the third SpellForce, the players’ nemesis will be the mysterious faction of Arcane. But these are about the only things we know about the story. That, plus the fact that finishing the whole thing will take around 30 hours. However, the developers emphasized that this is only counting the time required for finishing the main storyline – additionally, the game will offer, among others, combat against AI or other players online. It’s hard to tell what the end result will be – the developers spoke of co-op dungeon raids and complex social mechanics modeled on Battle.net, but their words seem to suggest that they exaggerated a bit announcing this mode with such a flair.

Maps will be really extensive and multi-leveled. - 2016-09-26
Maps will be really extensive and multi-leveled.

Use the (spell)force, Rohen

Rohen was among the Circle’s most powerful Mages; he was the one responsible for the tragic ritual of convocation that destroyed the world of Eo. In the first SpellForce, Rohen summons the Rune Warrior, i.e. the protagonist. Interestingly enough, the powerful mage kills himself in the end, after entering a time-loop. Who knows, maybe we’ll learn a little bit more about this in the third game?

Coming back to any series after so many years must yield significant changes. In the past decade, a lot happened in the industry. The second SpellForce had all the clunkiness typical for the games of that era (remember that it was possible to lose the tutorial mission?). During the showcase, the developers focused mainly on the heroes – every important character will be fully voiced over, and each will choose among the three complex skill trees. The whole system is supposedly pretty flexible.

For example, an archer can also become a healer, and the player will then be able to develop their willpower in order to strengthen their healing spells. Types of damage will also be of importance – every weapon will deal different damage (slash, strike, thrust, etc). Choosing the right weapon will make certain fights much easier, and will save a lot of trouble and… potions. The opponents will be difficult, forcing the players to exploit their weak spots and use all available skills. The rule will particularly apply to bosses, who are able to mow down many regular units.

I also like the authors’ approach to items. They stated that the goal is to create weapons and armor so as to make them really significant for the players. There will therefore be no torrent of useless junk; instead, the team designs powerful gear that will be hard to obtain (requiring finishing a line of side quests, for example), but will compensate these hardships with unique features and a sense of accomplishment.

Why so hostile?

During the presentation, the developers also said that they want the characters to be memorable, full-blooded people. One way of achieving that, they say, is the introduction of quarrels between the heroes. This brings Baldur’s Gate II to mind, but I wouldn’t expect anything equally complex in SpellForce 3.

The foundation of SpellForce are the RTS mechanics, and that’s where you should expect the most substantial changes. Managing the base and workers is supposed to be significantly simplified. To quote the developers, “The players need to be able to focus on the dialogues while making economic decisions”. How will that be achieved? By giving the players the “fantasy version of Company of Heroes” of sorts. There will be a system based on sectors, which the player can seize by building an outpost there. Some micromanagement, although limited, will make an appearance as well – the workers assigned to a given sector will make themselves busy, leaving the player only with the task of increasing their number. The role of heroes during combat will be of key importance, since they will be able to heal the player’s troops. Not only that – they will also make some useful tactical maneuvers possible. For instance, the white mage will be able to teleport himself and the troops surrounding him to a given location. This move (resembling the mechanics of the Mothership Core from StarCraft II a little bit) will come in handy when exploring the inaccessible parts of the map, or getting your army to a strategically important sector.

The statues immediately reminded me of Argonath statues in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. - 2016-09-26
The statues immediately reminded me of Argonath statues in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Do the old spells still work?

Let’s now focus on the visuals of SpellForce 3. The game is powered by a proprietary engine, but the graphics don’t suffer from that; actually, quite the contrary. The materials published so far – movies, screenshots, and the stuff from gamescom – indicate that the graphics are detailed, and the mood is that of serious fantasy, inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (an impression evoked by the monumental statues seen here and there) rather than by WarCraft, for example. I’ve only seen the forest and desert areas, but the devs promise the maps will be based on five different bioms (deserts, forests, wintry landscapes, etc), so the vistas shouldn’t become boring. Let’s not forget, though, that graphics are of secondary importance in an RTS – it’s much more vital that the combat mechanics and character controls are thought out and allow different tactics. As to this, some fans are concerned.

Buildings in SpellForce 3 can be expanded throughout the game. At first, some basic resources will be needed (wood, stone, etc.), later replaced by the more valuable iron.

Fans have voiced certain doubts regarding SpellForce 3 for quite a while now. Once a considerable portion of details was revealed at gamescom, the forums were filled with negative feedback. Fans were concerned that the game has been oversimplified, the gameworld is dull (generic fantasy, they say), and the races are too few (elves, humans, and orcs). The fact that the developers bailed out on many of their promises is not helping. For example, there will be no stronghold management (but there will be a city in the game); the Battle.net-like system I mentioned will probably be limited to… choosing opponents for skirmishes. Also, until recently, the developers spoke of eight different character classes, and now we’re left with only two (mage and warrior), but they will be much more complex instead. Personally, I wouldn’t panic – all those changes and restrains put on too ambitious (?) plans aren’t necessarily bad things. “Simple but not simplistic” is the prominent feature of many great games.

Just as the title suggests, magic will play an important role in SpellForce 3. - 2016-09-26
Just as the title suggests, magic will play an important role in SpellForce 3.

Have more trust

Nowadays, when almost every game has some RPG elements, SpellForce doesn’t stand out as much as it used to. This comeback, as well as the plan to win the hearts and minds of thousands of players, has to be well thought out. I hope that this is what stands behind postponing the release date – I figure that since there aren’t too many RTSs on the market, there will be enough room for one distinguished series to come back. I encourage you to have more faith in the devs – for a couple of reasons. Starting from the spectacular graphics, through the sector management system in the vein of Company of Heroes, to complex abilities of the characters. I love the fact that the team decided to leave the realm of somewhat tacky heroic fantasy, and turned to more mature aesthetics. The developers from Grimlore Games have to find a little bit more magic in themselves – if they succeed, the old spells in new form will thrill the players once again, just like they did ten years ago in the first two installments of the series