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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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?