SpellForce 3 Returns to the Mage Wars
Spellforce 3 is where real time strategy and role-playing game meets for an epic adventure. From the first moments of the game our hero finds themselves in the middle of a boiling political cauldron fueled by xenophobia, religious paranoia, and an inexplicable and lethal plague. With past loyalties destroyed by betrayal and cast aside, he sets out to find the answers.
It’s been over ten years since SpellForce 2 was released. For THQ Nordic and Grimlore studios, this is their first title in the series since taking over ownership of the IP a few years ago. This third installment refines the hybrid and focuses more heavily on the narrative and character development. It also tries to blend the strategy elements more seamlessly with the narrative to give gameplay a more natural feel. Grimlore skillfully uses the story to transition between scale and scope ranging from large battles to smaller more personal skirmishes all told through the lens of the story. If you want a different take, we have a review on GameSpace as well.
SpellForce 3 is a bit difficult to unpackage and deconstruct though because, during play, you transition frequently between the RPG and RTS aspects of the design so frequently. So, let’s start off by looking at each aspect and how they’re tied together.
The RPG Stuff
Your main character and other NPC heroes you control throughout the campaign are defined by three skill trees and their character stats – strength, dexterity, constitution, willpower, and intelligence. The skill trees are: Brutality (offensive melee), Discipline (defensive melee), Leadership (infrastructure support), White Magic (defensive support), Black Magic (offensive support), Elemental (offensive magic), Archery (offensive ranged), and Arcane Archery (offensive magic).
Each trait tree has skills or perks (passive bonuses) that are affected by one or more of the character stats. Classes are trait groupings that share 3 common character stats, so they work well together throughout progression. The choice of skill trees affects how you will add to stats which in turn affects what gear you can wear. Gear has stat requirements, so the player needs to consider that when allocating stat points at level up in addition to their skills and perks.
Each character can only have three active skills at a time, but there are three different skill loadouts you can configure and select from. Switching between them has a cooldown though, so you can’t spam skills and a poorly timed switch my keep you from accessing an important skill. You can fire off skills via keyboard shortcuts or through the UI and a skill wheel which slows down time. The trick to using the skill wheel is that it requires targeting the ally or enemy to activate. This is especially challenging because there is no tactical pause in the game. Everything is real time all the time unless you escape to the system menu. This pauses the clock but also prevents access to the game. The lack of tactical pause is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game for me.
The Tactical Stuff
The tactical portion of the game tasks the player with establishing a base, building up resources and infrastructure, and then completing the mission objective which usually involves adding more territory and destroying an enemy stronghold.
The map is broken up into zones with borders delineated by a colored dotted line indicating ownership or the lack of. In each zone there is a designated hotspot where the outpost can be built. This is the objective capture and own the zone. They are usually camped and guarded by a band of enemies or monsters. Once that is established the player can construct other buildings to gather food, wood, stone, and metal. These resources are required for buildings, additional combat units, and research.
Each zone has a finite number of resources, except where farming is concerned. That allows for unlimited food production at a slower rate. The outpost of each zone is staffed with carriers. This lets you transfer resources between zones and buildings. In the early game each zone can only staff so many structures so it’s important to have a build strategy as you conquer.
At first only a the most basic buildings and troops can be produced without them. Blueprints, which are crafting recipes, are required to unlock more advanced options. These can occasionally be looted from the spoils of victory or from chests conveniently located behind some small group of enemies. In the early game I didn’t get to find and use these often.
Combat unit generation and management is a key part of any strategy game. This is where SpellForce 3 stumbles a bit. It’s not one thing. It’s the sum of a few things that pile up and undermine what could be a great experience.
One issue is that units are too weak, and you can burn through them quickly. There is no way to group or control units tactically so ranged units are often right in the middle of melee getting torn to shreds. The difficulty in selecting units is compounded by a lack of tactical pause, something which compounds every problem in the game. On top of that the AI occasionally makes some crazy decisions and pathing choices leading them to run off into other hostile zones to their death
This robs a lot of strategy from the game. There is a lot of fun in the combat, building and unit generation, but the depth of strategy is limited by the constant ticking of the clock and haphazard combat. So many battles become a race to generate units faster to create a bigger zerg force. That might be okay if it wasn’t so much work to pull off for so little satisfaction and no guarantee that the units will behave in any sane manner.
The Story Stuff
Driving all of this is a grand story set in a beautifully detailed world. The Crown has put an end to a rebellion of renegade mages, but that cost of destabilizing entire regions of the civilized world. Elves are pushing treaty boundaries while Orcs are on a mission of conquest. In the midst of this a strange plague has arisen and manifests itself by boiling the blood of its victims. A religious sect known as the “Purity of Light” has proclaimed that mages are heretics to be purged.
You play as a corporal her majesty’s elite Wolfguard force. You’re also the son of the fallen rebel leader who betrayed his father and remained loyal to the Crown. You must choose sides and uncover the source of the plague and clear your name. Oh, did I forget to mention something about betrayal and being wrongly accused treason and being a fugitive on the run? There is that and a few more twists in store.
The richly crafted textures and epic music provide a very immersive atmosphere. The soundtrack, by Bastian Kieslinger, is sold separately and was included in the promo key. It’s 50 tracks of quality music that lasts nearly two hours. If you’re a fan of the game or appreciate well written music, you’ll want to pick this addition up.
The game looks great zoomed all the way in or panned out and at every angle. There is so much detail that sometimes it’s hard to navigate or find chests without zooming in and rotating the camera. This is where the UI started a fight with me. Zooming in and rotating causes clipping and zoom stutter issues which is bad given the lack of tactical pause. Like I said, that aggravates a lot of small issues in the game. Fortunately, much of the UI and camera rotation and panning speeds can be configured in settings.
In addition to some UI frustrations I ran into some performance problems and issues with long load times. The team has been putting out patches every couple of days, if not more frequently, and many of the issues, including the broken multiplayer, have been addressed.
SpellForce 3 is a solid entry in the franchise, and despite a few issues, is worth picking up and playing for anyone that enjoys real time strategy role-playing games. The story alone is worth the time, but the RPG and RTS aspects also offer a lot of replay value as does the multiplayer components.
Note: Our copy was reviewed on Steam with a code provided by PR.
OVERALL SCORE: 7/10
- Beautiful world with an excellent soundtrack
- Interesting storyline
- Good character build customization
- No tactical pause
- Performance issues and long load times
- Hectic frenetic feeling to combat and unit production