Spellforce: The Order of Dawn


Genre:   Role-Playing Game - Real-Time Strategy game

Developer:    Phenomic Game Development

Publisher:    JoWooD Productions Software AG

Released:  2003

PC Requirements:   Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, Pentium III 1.0 GHz, 256MB RAM, 3D graphic card with 32MB RAM GeForce2 or better, DirectX 9.0a or higher, 2GB free hard disk space, Keyboard, Mouse




by Drizzt


Spellforce: The Order of Dawn

The birth of a genre?

So we have all been wet-behind-the-ears adventurers in numerous games.  We started as a young brat, working our way towards becoming the saviour, hero, conqueror or villain, escaping bounty hunters, crawling through dark dungeons and dispatching creatures of godly might....

Thinking back on it, would it not have been quite a nice touch to have an army at your back to send forth, as your opponents always do? I mean, instead of letting your lovely Paladin have his eyebrows scorched, you could be sending in a contingent of battle-hardened soldiers, who take the brunt of the damage for you.  And then you could walk in and clean up the rest.

Apparently, the good folks at JoWood have had these same thoughts, and decided to satisfy our thirst for fantasy battles a bit more ambitious than the normal “Me and my Friend against this Orc Clan” (usually Black Fist, or Malevolent Hand, or something ominous).

At first glance, judging from screenshots and trailers I had seen when eagerly awaiting Spellforce, I thought it to be a mere clone of Warcraft II. Sure enough, there are Orcs and Humans in the game...and you can play both. And the Orcs are still as hideous as before, but that is where the similarity ends.

Whereas Warcraft II did not focus on a single character or have much of a story, Spellforce has taken these things and has attempted to shape them into something better, something more varied and exciting than just the “build-gather-resources-attack” idea.   Spellforce is, quite simply, a mixture of an RPG (Role-Playing Game) and an RTS (Real-Time Strategy game).

How does this work? It is not that hard, actually...imagine you have a (rather large) map with resources -- yes, resources are still a big part of the game -- roads, cliffs, water holes and trees. Throw in a protagonist at the center of the story, and give him the ability to develop his skills.  Then toss in other aspects that make the whole thing resemble something out of a traditional RPG: towns, people to talk to, side quests, items that can be picked up, mountains, merchants and, of course, monsters of all kinds.

And through all this our Hero, known only as the Rune Warrior, must make his path, constantly fighting, raising armies, and awakening other warriors to his aid. This is how things are accomplished in the mesmerizing world of Spellforce.

And like all stories, also this one has a beginning...

The story in Spellforce attempts to be of an epic magnitude...and in the introduction to the game, it succeeds.  Grand music blares out of your speakers as a magnificent battle between humans and orcs fills the screen, the ground rends apart, huge cracks in the earth open up, and the fighting seems to be all that exists in this world....

The journey begins when you, the Rune Warrior, are awakened by your old master, Rohen, who releases you from slavery.  He and the Order of Dawn, the main organization you “work” for during the game (think of them as paladins, or protectors of all that is good), desperately need your help.  They ask you to make your way to the Order of Dawn Headquarters in the nearby city of Greyfell, where your quest will truly begin.

In Spellforce, you do not have to undertake your quests alone.  At times, you will have an army at your back.  At other times, you will have Heroes to accompany you.  From different people and quests in the game, you will acquire runes with which you can summon Heroes. Heroes can be of all kinds, classes and strengths. The ones you get early on in the adventure are little more than teenagers with an attitude problem and a toothpick (if they are fighters, that is), while the ones later in the game – even though always a few steps behind you – are big, burly, and tough.

Beauty for the eye, a trap for the unwary soul

Even at this, your first map, you will have to test your skills at managing resources, constructing buildings, and defending as well as attacking. It is an extremely easy map, however, and much more effective than a tedious tutorial (which exists, but thankfully is entirely optional). This way, you learn the ways of the game rather quickly and easily, while at the same time proceeding further into the game.

You cannot build any structures without first acquiring a plan for that building.  Each building requires you to find and then insert its plan into your “plans book”, where you also insert “plans” for different military fighting units.

Click on anything in the game, be it man, monster or animal, and you will see the creature’s portrait and their health, as well as (if they are hostile) their level. This is yet another indication of how much work has been put into the details of the worlds in Spellforce.

The world you are in consists of a number of Islands, with portals to and from each world.  The Islands all have their personal “theme”, be it Forest, Desert, Lava, Mountains or Ice.  It adds a special touch, and the music for each is well-suited to the environment. You can only access a particular Island at certain points in the story.  Spellforce is a very linear game, but in a good way. To do otherwise would have been much too confusing in an already complex game.

Apart from the portals, there are also “bindstones” at every map, which help you avoid time-consuming trekking through the various lands.  Your Rune Warrior avatar is immortal, and each time she dies, she returns to the bindstone she last activated. But your avatar loses a small portion of experience when this happens, so I would not recommend making dying a habit.

Things to do...as usual

The game is structured the same way pretty much throughout. When you arrive on an Island, you will have a specific objective for that Island, plus there are usually a number of side quests you can perform.  Some side quests only become available after you have reached a certain point in the game. Although you might think this would make the side quests easy to miss, in fact you return to the places where they are issued several times in the game, so it is quite hard to miss them (except for the “Sick Hermit” quest).

Unfortunately, the side quests are not always sufficiently engaging. Most of the time, quests involve finding something special for a person, or simply running errands. This is a sad thing, when you think what could have been.  In some of these quests, what you seek is several maps away (in particular the “Delicate Fabric” quest, which has you running around at least six or seven islands before finding what you are looking for).  Still, the quests add a nice touch and are a worthy attempt to make this more than just an RTS game with a main character in it.

So, what “races” or factions are there?

Throughout the game on each map there are monuments of old. Some of these are Hero Monuments, allowing you to summon forth your Heroes. Others are monuments for each specific race. There are six races which can be played; humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls and dark elves. Quite original, eh?

At first, when you only have the races of Humans and Elves to play around with, you get the impression that they are basically the same thing in different skins. The more you play, however, and get more access to better units and also other races, the more that the differences become apparent. For instance, in comparison to the better units of the elves, which you often use in combination with the humans, the best human fighters seem like nothing more than pure thugs.

Apart from the humans, the races seem to be rather well balanced. Where elves have the best archers and long-ranged combat abilities, for example, dwarves and orcs are the better “tanks”, to mow everything down in close combat.

Often, you will have use of several monuments at the same time, and thus you will have to evaluate the task ahead of you and put together a force of the two races that you think will be appropriate.

Another unique feature is that each race has the option to create a Titan specific for that race, with different abilities. The Titans are really tough and aren’t easily defeated.  But if and when one does go down, it cannot be brought back for that map, so keep in mind they are not invincible.

Into battle we go!

When you engage the enemy in battle (or the enemy engages you in battle), the music changes from the soft melody of the world, and another grand tune starts blaring from your speakers. People rush into the fray, and a battle of life and death (more often than not death for your troops, it feels) ensues. Swords clang, magic is cast, and arrows fly through the air. The feeling of it is actually quite epic, despite the fact that you “only” have around 80 units (maximum) at your command. Seen through third person view as your army runs past, you will notice that the number 80 is not so small after all. Zoom in, and you will feel like you are in the middle of a battlefield, with all the chaos that follows.

A major problem with the battles is that it can be hard to issue orders to attack a specific person or object, especially if you are in a big, close-quarters battle. Finding the right place to click to attack someone or something is a bit tricky, and more often than not, you end up simply telling your army to walk to the point you where you clicked, only to find that you just missed the big, bad, evil arch mage.  Fortunately, the soldiers are able to find targets of their own; but it would have been good to have a special command for them to attack the “strongest” or something similar, instead of bashing away at the enemy closest to them.

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not very smart either, but then again, it usually isn’t in RTS games. It follows the same pattern in...Say, Cossacks: European Wars. It has a number of spawn points, where it can issue units to attack you. And from here, it usually keeps sending small contingents of 4 or 5 enemies against your heavily fortified base, defended by at least 50 warriors.  In the later parts of the game, however, things start to get uglier, where there are a great number of enemy bases and your base will have to withstand what seems like an endless sea of enemy soldiers.

The AI of your own workers is not exceptional either.  It is frustrating when a hunter runs away chasing after a boar straight into the enemy base and starts skinning it in front of the stunned eyes of the enemy’s soldiers. (Probably thinking “how stupid can someone be”?)  It’s too bad that there is no way to limit workers in their search for new prey and resources, for this would have relieved many frustrating moments. It becomes especially annoying when the errant worker aggravates the entire enemy base and sends them forth as a screaming horde straight into your unprepared base.

However, I must give the AI credit, because if you are playing against two races on a map, if you send away your forces to attempt to subdue one of these enemies, the other one is quick to attack that which you have left open.  This leaves you in an almost permanent mode of defence, calling for quick strikes, and then withdrawal – I especially enjoyed this aspect of the game.

Anyone who has played Red Alert is familiar with the term “tank rush”. Spellforce is something of a tank rush game. Often, what is needed is speed to quickly gather up your resources, establish a base, and then start pumping out units.

It is possible to play another way, however, where you hoard your resources -- but this requires you to have a strong defence, forcing you again to quickly gather what is needed and erect defence towers before the enemy has managed to send out a raiding party.

Spellforce does contain more strategic elements. Edges and cliffs can give you vantage points to erect defence towers; you can almost always attack (and be attacked, mind you!) from several different angles.  You can also attempt to lure out the enemy from its base, and then destroy the base.  The enemy then returns to find nothing but a wasteland, and you can attack when they are without anything to reinforce them.

This is what makes a game pure fun, in my opinion.  There is nothing sweeter in this game than finally seeing a powerful enemy or base fall after a long and valiant fight.

Schizophrenic difficulties?

What had me most baffled about this game was the difficulty level...which resembles a roller coaster with a double twist and a loop.

For example, the difficulty level was moderate up till Stoneblade Mountain, where I was trapped between a base of Minotaurs on one side, and a base of Uruks on the other. Both these races are far superior in fighting to the only race available there -- Elves. When I orchestrated a massive crusade against the Minotaurs, all the elven defence towers were torn down like sand castles by the Uruk, and soon my entire army lay shattered as my elven monument fell (when it is destroyed, every unit spawned by that monument dies).  As if this was not enough, in a matter of minutes, I was chased by a horde of approximately fifty Uruks and quite a few Minotaurs hungering for revenge. The only choice remaining was to escape and come back at a later time.

Another example of the baffling difficulty is the map “Mulandir”, where, after a relatively easy map (the Godwall) you are thrown straight into a nest of high-level monsters that can tear you apart in seconds. This was also one of the few maps in the game where you can only summon forth your Heroes (making it more like a RPG), but no army. And so it was that there were only six fighting valiantly against a horde of medusas, stone gargoyles and other dread beings.

And the hero himself...or herself

As in all RPGs, the main character can level up, choose abilities and increase his or her attributes. What is slightly disappointing is that the abilities the Rune Warrior chooses can only determines which weapons, armour or magic he can use, not how well he handles them.

For example, a two-handed sword of some kind requires the Rune Warrior to have the skill “Large Blade Weapons 4”, which means he has to have level 4 in that particular skill. Instead of being able to use it, but being lousy at it, he cannot use it at all until he has reached that level of that skill. This way, you strive more for the next level to be able to use something at all instead of getting better at it, which removes part of the fun of developing your character.

The abundance of gold you experienced in Baldur’s Gate II definitely will not occur here. For the first part of the game, you will be dealing in silver pieces. This changes drastically, though, as the foes become more powerful and carry more valuable items. By the time you can buy that exclusive set of armour, there is a very good chance that while you now have enough gold to buy it, there are only a few select things that are better than the ones you have already picked up yourself somewhere in the lands. There is a perfect balance between wealth and poverty in this game. I applaud the developers for this – Spellforce is not a game where you can simply buy your way through the game.

There really are only two classes in the game; fighter and mage. You can create something similar to a rogue, with specialization in light piercing weapons and light armour, but there are still no special “rogue” skills you can use, which is too bad. As it is now, it feels like a one-way ticket through the game.

This is the same case with the character of the Rune Warrior herself...she is always the same way; good and trying to help. There is only one way to complete the quests.  The Rune Warrior is bound to do the “good” thing and help the lands.  One cannot but wonder why there aren’t more varied paths to follow, in which the Rune Warrior chooses to be an evil, malevolent creep who ends up serving the darker powers in the game, leading to a totally different perspective.

The story itself is not something to cheer about, but nothing bad either. It is there mostly to encourage you to keep playing. It is the usual epic struggle between an evil villain and the powers of good (with you at the head of their forces), and does not offer any real surprises.  The background of the world is, however, much more fleshed out than you would expect, probably due to the RPG “blood” in it.

The way you gain level is as usual, through experience. This is not done with experience points however, but with a small “bar” indicating how far you have progressed.  It takes time to gain a new level in this game...the bar moves very slowly, and it really makes you strive to gain a new level, and makes the wait all the more worthwhile.

To gain experience by defeating foes, you have to be the one defeating them. I do not see the point in having an army at your back, but not letting you gain experience for the enemies your army kills. After all, they are bound to you, and therefore should not their experiences connect to you in some way? The current game structure means you have to be at the front of your army most of the time to gain as much experience and power as possible, and not in the back, where it is relatively safe – an important factor if you are a mage.  In Spellforce you do not actually have to be as powerful as you possibly can, since much of the time you can have an army do your work for you.  But it is very helpful to be somewhat powerful on the maps where you are only accompanied by your Heroes.

And the companions

Ah, yes, the Heroes. Unlike the main character, you cannot improve them in any way, which is unfortunate. The only way to improve them is to find new runes. The Heroes have their own level that will never change, as they do not gain experience. I would have preferred a few heroes early in the game that you can develop as you wish, instead of being tied to the existing runes.  It also would have made me happy to see them with more personality than a simple voice set. As it is now, the voices are all that distinguishes them from one another.

And how does it sound, then?

From the moment I started Spellforce the first time, I knew I was in for a good musical score. The hauntingly beautiful theme from the main menu is easily one of my favourite tunes of all time, all music categories.

When you start the game, you discover that for each world there is a special tune, which changes into combat music when a battle begins. The background music is amazingly well done, ranging from the sounds of Celtic pipes to the soft, mellow music reminding you of springtime, to the bombastic tones of something grand and beautiful.  The entire soundtrack is a melodic masterpiece consisting of 34 songs, making it longer than a normal CD.

The ambient sounds in the game are not anything out of the ordinary. In battle, magic whooshes by, arrows fly in the air and strike with resounding “thumps”, and your units shout their own battle cries.  It is a bit disappointing, though, that every military unit seems to have the same sound set, so you listen to the same thing over and over again.

Something that may have deterred players from gaming further than the first sequence is… the voice acting. With the exception of the mage Rohen (who does a good job), all the characters in the game sound either like twelve-year-olds with attitude or like people desperately needing to be somewhere else.  The prime example of this horrible acting is the main character when playing a male. He sounds disinterested, never shows any real emotion, and you can almost see him reading the lines in front of you. Nearly all the characters you encounter, man and woman alike, sound as disinterested.

I began to wonder if the developers went after the two most depressed people they could find and made them record all the voice acting in the game.  I was eventually able to disregard this, however, as the ever-present music soothed my wounded ears.

Speaking of technicalities

How good are the game’s graphics? Technically speaking, it all depends on what kind of computer you have. I ran it on a 2.66Ghz with 512mb DDR and GeForce 4 Ti4600 128mb, and it worked relatively well. It went smoothly in 1024*768 with details on Medium as long as there were no big battles on the screen.

Later on I realized I wanted more of the detail and less of the high resolution, so I switched to 800*600 with all details on Maximum. It did not go as smoothly as before, and during battles became much sloppier.  But it was playable and the battles were quite the sight to see.

Given that Spellforce is not a traditional RPG and more of an RTS game (I would say that it’s three-quarters RTS and one quarter RPG), I am impressed by how much detail the developers lavished on individual characters, even on civilians. The Heroes tend to have more advanced and exclusive gear than normal bystanders, and they are a wonder to behold in all their glittering glory.

What is most impressive about the game, however, is the scenery. The amount of detail in the buildings is astounding, and even the old Woodcutter’s Hut looks quite inviting at night with its flickering torch.  And you can view all this from the eyes of your Rune Warrior. You can zoom in until you are right behind your character, playing her from a third person perspective. It is easy to marvel at the sight of a beautiful valley with winding roads, and cliffs -- your settlement far below with a lake in the middle of it, and the sea off in the distance -- with the sky turning a hazy orange, indicating the oncoming night.

There are old ruined temples, fallen pillars, and ruins of old cities and all can be viewed from this perspective, immersing you in the world. It is not a new thing to be able to go down into the battles like this, but seeing the scenery this way is breathtaking. What it does to the game’s atmosphere is marvellous.

Newer games may be arriving, and Rome may have even more detailed characters, but there is still a simple beauty to Spellforce that none of these newer games have.

And what can fell even the strongest of Giants...

Those ominous imperfections known as bugs...does Spellforce have these? Yes, indeed it does, but only to a small extent. Personally, I have only encountered a single bug throughout the entire game, and that is when I talked to a person after I had completed his quest before asking him about it. He said something about “having his revenge”, and then my quest book did not update, and I had to drag it along with that quest listed as “unfinished” through the rest of the game.

The game is one of the most stable I have played. There has not been a single crash, and not a single plot-bug.  Not one. No “runtime error” and no “Spellforce.exe has performed an illegal operation”.

It is very good to know that some developers put their games through serious testing to avoid these issues.  Once again, I applaud JoWood.

So let it begin

I have written many things that annoyed me about Spellforce, but also many things that impressed me. The truth is that I have enjoyed it far more than most other games in recent memory.

The good things about Spellforce far outweigh the bad, and though it may lack certain things in both its RPG and RTS aspects, it is still a game that you will have fun with for a very long time – by my estimate, at least 70 to 80 hours.

So between the music, scenery, strategy and a bit of action, the game’s attempt at combining two genres turns out to be very enjoyable.

And that is what computer gaming is all about, is it not?

Grade:  87%


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