The eagerly anticipated SpellForce 3 has come out, just in time for me to sink dozens of hours into it over the holidays. Currently a PC exclusive, we tested it through Steam.
We’ve had our eye on SpellForce 3 for quite a while now, and saw it in action during several trade shows over the past year and a half or so. In the summer of 2016 it was part of a THQ Nordic showcase alongside The Guild 3, Elex and Battle Chasers: Nightwar, with 15 minutes reserved for each title. The SpellForce developer present expressed that there was tons more he wanted to show, but didn’t have time for on that occasion. What we did see, however, was good enough to make sure we jumped on every opportunity to see the game after that day. And after a recent free pre-release weekend on GOG, the final game is now here.
The SpellForce brand stands for a hybrid of the RPG and RTS genres, but it isn’t quite the household name that Command & Conquer or Baldur’s Gate is. This is a shame, because the previous SpellForce games (and their expansions) have all been quality products that stand out from the norm. There are other crossover products (like Dungeons, which blends dungeon building with RTS), but none that I’ve enjoyed as much as SpellForce. Its RPG portion may not have the depth that you’d want if you’re a Pillars of Eternity or Tyranny player, but I’ve always loved the RTS side of the game – a great classic RTS feel within a fantasy setting. Luckily, SpellForce 3 doesn’t change up this formula – and it presents a huge leap forward in the audiovisual sense.
In the sense of the story behind it, SpellForce 3 plays out as a prequel to the original SpellForce. I’ve played SpellForce extensively, but it’s my opinion that this new entry can also easily be enjoyed by those who never laid eyes on the first two games. The narrative (nicely voiced) does a great job at painting the backdrops to the action – where your RPG adventures often precede the RTS portions.
This works narratively as well as from a gameplay perspective. Playing in RPG mode, it’s much easier to converse and find out more about the plot and the lore of the world – as you’ll be focused on base building, resources and your defensive and offensive strategies once you engage in real time strategy battles. This mode is enhanced through your RPG exploits because you get to explore the map prior to the battle, allowing you to spot valuable resources as well as strategic points you’ll want to defend or conquer.
Heroes that you create (which is a very RPG-like experience, much deeper than in any RTS) can also be used in battle, but you risk losing them when they fall. There is the option to revive them, but in the heat of battle you might not be able to get to them in time. When there’s a giant dragon in your way, time can become a bigger problem than that dragon poses. As you develop your characters by leveling, you also unlock new abilities that are useful in battle – but losing a hero becomes increasingly painful. This is where SpellForce’s RTS/RPG hybrid really shines, as most units in an RTS title feel expendable and this isn’t the case with SpellForce.
It’s this sweet spot, where RPG meets RTS, where SpellForce shines most of all. Its RPG portion by itself is perfectly functional, but doesn’t excel. For me it’s the RTS battles that are the best part of the game, and the most fun I’ve had with a classic fantasy RTS since Battle for Middle Earth, which feel like ages ago at this point. Playing around with enormous dragons in a wonderfully designed fantasy environment feels great, and SpellForce’s units nail the fantasy vibe very well.
I’ve called this a classic RTS a few times now, and that’s something that doesn’t come without its downsides. I wouldn’t expect a console version of SpellForce any time soon, because its interface (with a lot of panels to explore and watch) is very much geared towards PC users who play with a mouse and keyboard combination. Not something I personally mind, but possibly off putting to those who are more used to recent titles that use an interface that easily translates to a gamepad as well.
Built on a new engine, SpellForce 3 is a major leap forward visually. It may not shine as much as Dawn of War III did, but outside of the sci-fi genre I’d be hard pressed to name better looking RTS titles – the main differences that stand out being in the subtle details in buildings and scenery. I wasn’t as impressed with the RPG portion as it plays out like several similar games, but found the RTS portion gorgeous.
SpellForce 3 isn’t a perfect game and genre purists will find a lot of things to fault. The RPG systems aren’t as intricate as those in an Obsidian game and the enemy AI in combat isn’t as crafty and deep as it is in RTS games like Company of Heroes, but SpellForce 3 does find a sweet spot in how it blends RPG and RTS. For those who enjoy both genres, there’s a lot to love here.