SpellForce: The Order of Dawn Review

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Publisher: Encore / JoWood
Developer: Phenomic

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 32 MB video card, 2 GB HD space, DirectX 9, 16x CD ROM

Years ago, a circle of thirteen mages came together to bring about a golden era for all the world. Despite initial good intentions, these mages were overcome by a personal lust for power, shattering the world in an orgy of power unleashed while attempting to ascend to godhood. Former continents are now shattered fragments of islands floating in space. One mage of the circle, Rohan, has attempted to undo the damage. He has created the Order of Dawn to reassemble the broken world, and has linked the diverse world fragments through a series of magical stones. These same mages once relied on powerful warriors and magicians to do their bidding. These creatures were given a form of immortality, but linked forever to runes that preserved their essence. Once again, an entity strives for complete power, at the expense of the rest of the world. Awakened from your rest within a rune, you are a Rune Warrior tasked with preventing this disaster.

Kyle Ackerman

SpellForce: The Order of Dawn (SpellForce) is more than just another attempt to add aspects of a role-playing game (RPG) to a real-time strategy (RTS) title. While SpellForce can't match the best RTSs or battle-heavy RPGs element for element, in combination, SpellForce offers an enjoyable and substantial experience that is more than either genre can achieve alone.

Is it a Role-Playing Game?

While the RPG aspects of SpellForce aren't perfectly polished, they are surprisingly substantial, even compared to battle-heavy RPGs such as Dungeon Siege or Icewind Dale II. Your Rune Warrior has a bevy of abilities and related statistics, increases in experience and level and accumulates a surfeit of equipment. More importantly, there is an extensive skill system that lets you create a warrior proficient in heavy weapons and armor, a healer, a elemental mage with a predilection for ice magic or a necromancer. Just as an effective melee fighter must locate decent equipment and formidable weapons, a mage must find or purchase skill-appropriate spells of power. If the extensive customizability of your character has a weakness, it is primarily the lack of documentation. You only discover attribute minimums and spell functions as you encounter them in the game, and so unlike the simplified hero systems in games such as Warcraft III, it is possible to generate a weak or handicapped character, or spread your skills too thinly in the wrong areas. Unfortunately, because you only learn a skill or two each level, it can be many hours of play before you figure that out. Once you are familiar with the skill system, the choices are varied enough you may find yourself wondering "what would happen if I played through again as a necromantic archer?" Most importantly, it's easier to feel connected to a character when you've had such control over his or her development.

SpellForce is dominated by RTS elements, but there are levels devoted entirely to the travails of your Rune Warrior (and sometimes a few stalwart companions). Certain types of monuments are required as the foundation of an RTS base, and some maps simply don't have them. Instead, these maps will only have a Hero Monument. Hero Monuments will allow you to summon up to five (depending on your level) additional Rune Warriors, and equip them as best you are able. This band can then run around the map much like in Dungeon Siege or the bonus campaign from Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. There are chests to find and open (and sometimes extensive quests and puzzles required to unlock those chests), merchants to visit and bodies to loot. You can even gain temporary allies on a given map, such as an NPC with a vested interest in your quest or just a loyal wolf companion. All the action-heavy RPG mainstay elements are here to be found including dialog trees and countless hours of side-quests. Fetching lost objects, delivering monster parts and defeating epic foes is usually optional, but such quests provide valuable experience and useful items that will make your Rune Warrior (and summoned help) better able to lead armies into battle.

Good Stuff, But More Than One Game Can Accomplish

Of course, the quests will have you running back and forth across every map in the game. Many times you will need to revisit previous locations to complete tasks once you have reached a higher level. Death only results in the loss of some experience, so there is little peril in attempting to defeat difficult monsters, but some creatures will regenerate health faster than you can injure them at low levels (or with a small team of heroes). For the most part, SpellForce's problem is trying to encompass too much. Given it's scope, some of the polish is missing on the finer aspects of the RPG experience. While mostly window dressing, English-speaking gamers will keenly feel the impact of the voice acting, which ranges from mediocre to resembling an abysmal spaghetti western. Also, while you spend a fair amount of time in dialog with characters, there are no special speaking animations. You don't even get the usual arm-waving and mouth movement. Instead, characters stand about and you get a close-up of the usual, ambient animations as the discussion takes place. Not content with an accomplished point-and-click RPG/RTS, the designers allow you to zoom into an over the shoulder view that gives SpellForce a vague semblance of a third-person action game. From this perspective you control the character using the standard "WASD" interface   unfortunately this view is of little use, and the development time would have been better spent polishing other aspects of the title. Unlike other characters, your hero won't attack unless directly damaged. This is inconvenient and requires a lot of micromanagement, particularly during big battles.

The RPG aspects tie in nicely with the RTS portions of SpellForce. Not only is a more powerful hero better able to protect and support armies, but your Rune Warrior needs to collect runes and plans to build armies. To summon workers or soldiers you will need to take control of the Rune Monument for a given race (and there are six different races). You will also need a rune to build workers of that race. While the campaign will typically ensure that you have a worker rune, better runes (for higher level workers) can be found throughout the game or with merchants. You will need to find or purchase the plans for buildings and the ability to summon more advanced units. The game is designed to ensure you have what you need, but more can be found through diligent exploration or the completion of quests. Perhaps the only way in which the RPG aspects detract from the RTS portions of SpellForce is that while you converse with denizens of the world, combat continues. Initiate a dialog just before a surprise attack, and you can be left scrambling to escape an important conversation and deal with the assault on your forces.

Is it a Real-Time Strategy Game?

Just as the RPG portions of SpellForce aren't quite up to the standards of top combat RPGs, the RTS sections are good, but imperfect. Fortunately, the biggest problems with the RTS aspects of SpellForce have to do with difficulty and balance. The various units and six sides are imperfectly balanced, and the difficulty is low for hard-core RTS fans (a harder difficulty level was added in a recent patch). Fortunately, the audience that appreciates the RPG elements of SpellForce is often the same group that appreciates a more casual difficulty level of RTS. Most maps that contain an RTS challenge in SpellForce can be bested with a little patience and planning. Once you have built a large army with some healers, very little can stand in your way to prevent you from mopping clean the map of opposition. The difficulty is that most maps are full of spawn points that gradually add more and more enemies to the mix. So, if you don't move quickly enough, you will be overwhelmed by waves of newly spawned enemies and may never eliminate the spawn points. As such, most levels involve using your Rune Warrior, a few units and some defensive structures to stave off the enemy long enough to build a killer army. Skilled RTS players will quickly conquer a map, even more easily than those who make careful, plodding progress. The ability to manage a base while micromanaging a hero or small group will allow the RTS veteran to wipe out small encampments before they become threatening.

Because you can only build a base once you have access to a Rune Monument, the game clearly lets you know when to build a base, and controls where that will happen and which races you will have access to. No matter how many Rune Monuments you control, your forces are limited to a certain number of units. That limit can be increased a few times through food production, but there is little that a force of thirty to forty diverse units (accompanied by a Rune Warrior) can't accomplish. You will often find additional Rune Monuments, but these will typically serve as forward spawn points for troops rather than new bases.

More Races and Resources Than You Can Shake a Dead Goblin At

While other RTS games are trending towards fewer resources to manage, SpellForce gives you seven resources: wood, stone, iron, moonsilver (a magical metal), aria (magical water), lenya (a mystical plant) and food. Moreover, you have six playable races (and can control up to three races simultaneously). Each race has different strengths and uses different resources. For example, Elves and Orcs need lenya to build certain units, while Dwarves and Dark Elves forge weapons from moonsilver. Each race also relies on different food sources that need to be harvested, hunted, fished or built. The races are nicely interdependent, making them most potent in combination. For the Elves, wood is a renewable resource, as they can plant trees while harvesting others. At the same time, construction of powerful Elven units requires iron, which they cannot harvest. Also, once you control bases from multiple races, you can build extremely powerful armies that suit your play style.

Most of all, SpellForce just provides an enormous game. There are six playable races, and you can play for many hours before you add Elvish armies to your human command. Hours (or days of play) after that you will begin to add Dwarves to your repertoire. That doesn't even get you to the Orcs, Dark Elves or Trolls. While more could have been done to differentiate the functions and abilities of the different races, they do have unique voices and appearances. Besides, creating six completely distinct, but balanced, sides is a development task for decades, not months or years. Each side does have a unique titan that can be built once on a given map. They aren't necessarily ultra-powerful while alone, but in addition to raw strength, titans enhance any troops that accompany them.

Other, smaller elements stand out as nicely implemented besides the different races. Formations work well and are useful. Enemies seem to communicate in a minimal but meaningful way. As such, you can rarely pull a single creature from the edge of a group out, eliminating armies one unit at a time. Usually, once one enemy notices you, the rest come running. Better yet, many maps have scouts. Let a scout escape after noticing your hero or army, and it will return with a much larger force. There are also very useful tooltips that will help you throughout the game. The tooltips are critical, as the manual is short on explanations. Lastly, the death of your hero may be inconsequential during adventuring portions of the game, but it can be fatal during RTS moments. When you die, two minutes of game time pass before you are resurrected. When building up a base or managing an army, you can return after two minutes to discover your base in flames. This lends an appropriate sense of import to your Rune Warrior's life, without always making it a situation of game reloading import.

Not Much Multiplayer, But Plenty of Single Player Play

So, there's an extensive RTS accompanied by a lot of RPG elements. That didn't stop the development team from trying to incorporate every bullet-point feature they could conceive of, and most are well done. There is even a day and night cycle that impacts on certain forces and controls the behavior of some characters and monsters. The change in lighting can be startlingly abrupt, but it's nice to have. Likewise, there is an extensive tutorial that will take you through most essential game functions. It's a bit plodding and overbearing, but it can be skipped. The graphics are nicely executed, looking particularly good at medium to long-range views, and only blocky at the highest levels of zoom. When you click on a spot of ground, there is even a nice puff of dust as if flicked by your ethereal cursor. Areas with dangerous monsters are littered with bones and there's a lot of variety in the creatures and enemies you encounter.

One might expect that the imperfect balancing of units for the six sides would hurt the multiplayer scene, but there really isn't much of a multiplayer scene to speak of. Despite the ability to play multiplayer games over the internet, you'll be hard pressed to find other players unless you've arranged a meeting with friends. Still, the single player game provides more than enough meat to keep players interested for a long time.

Most of all, SpellForce offers more game than you could possibly expect. It is neither the best RTS nor the best RPG out there. However, SpellForce offers enough of a quality experience in both genres, packaged in a pretty environment that you could spend dozens of hours exploring as a Warrior of the Rune. If you are a cash-strapped gamer who purchases a limited number of games (but has a system sufficient to power SpellForce), this game should satisfy the same urge that might otherwise send you out to purchase three or four other titles.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 2, 2004 3:17 PM.

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