Everything can be made better with magic, and games are no exception. Even Age of Empires – arguably the archetypal real time strategy title – could be improved with the addition of otherworldly elements, as exemplified in the outstanding Age of Mythology. Luckily for us strategy and sorcery lovers, the folks at Grimlore Games took one look at Microsoft’s classic and said “wouldn’t that be much better with magic”?
Turns out it is. SpellForce 3, published by THQ Nordic, is a strategy title with a healthy dose of RPG on top (or an RPG with a healthy dose of RTS, depending how you look at it). The third entry in the SpellForce series is the most complex to date, presenting numerous options in terms of units, buildings and powers, all of which come to play at some point in the campaign.
Featuring both named and custom hero characters, the main story has you play a couple of missions as General Sentenza Nora (voiced by The Witcher’s Gerald, Doug Cockle) before creating your very own hero, and proceeds to show off pretty much every one of the game’s mechanics and factions. Hero creation, for its part, is quite comprehensive, allowing you to choose everything from gender and appearance to skills and attributes.
The prologue alone features an astounding amount of creature variation, and I faced nearly a dozen different enemies before the tutorial was done. Massive creatures like trolls and dragons are also part of the game, really bringing the whole fantasy world alive and giving the impression that yes, creatures exist, and no, they don’t give a damn what your level is – they come out of the woodwork or the sky, and suddenly attack your party with unreserved aggression.
In such a dangerous world where enemies can make quick work of your forces, you’ll need strategy to succeed – that’s where SpellForce 3’s RTS aspect comes in full force. Featuring three tiers of buildings with several options, the game allows you to build up your base as you please and recruit a massive army. From hunting cabins and to barracks and magic structures, SpellForce harkens back to the good old age of strategy where we would steadily build a base and army before pursuing objectives.
While the game clearly cares more about base building than that abomination that was Dawn of War III, you are not encouraged to turtle down – you can construct watchtowers to defend your perimeter, but walls are nowhere to be seen in the workers’ construction menu. Given how cramped and detailed maps are, it’s hardly a questionable decision, and the lack of walls also put more emphasis on assembling a proper force.
While normal units play like RTS troops, the main characters are pure RPG. Abilities, attributes, and even inventories – controlling a SpellForce hero gives off a very Dragon Age: Origins like vibe. Special melee attacks land with a resounding thump, ranged arrows knock enemies down with excessive force, and magic wonderfully consumes the battlefield with shiny arcane effects. Controlling hero characters feel exciting, which is definitely not a compliment I pay to isometric games lightly.
The good side is that combat looks beautiful and there is a nice variety of both normal troops and heroes available, which allow a great degree of tactical variation during engagements. The bad side is that it follows the trend of squishy units and somewhat fast-paced combat, rendering combat rather inclined to micromanagement. While there is a slow-down/pause function built into the special abilities contextual menu, the fact that you need to hold ALT while hovering over an enemy makes the pause rather useless – unable to issue any orders but special attacks, the whole thing comes off more as a way to buy time to use an ability than a tactical pause meant to coordinate your attacks.
Technically, the game is rather capable. I only encountered one major bug, which was the inability to change my control scheme from panning with the arrow keys to WASD, and while loading times are somewhat long, the graphics are quite pretty. The art design is a bit too cluttered at times, which is unfortunate – given the angle and distance that gameplay often takes place in, I would rather have a clearly readable screen than one full of noise. That extends to gameplay, too – you can easily spot heroes by highlighting them with one button, but seeing which of the dozens of enemies on screen has been targeted is an exercise in futility. SpellForce 3 could really use a visibility pass.
The title’s soundtrack, however, is utterly extraordinary, with a composition that makes use of brass and crescendos to effectively accentuate the epic nature of the game’s ambitions. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a game soundtrack that aspired to be so epic – and longer still since one succeeded. While the sound effects are quite forgettable, voice acting is often good and helps bring the characters to life more than their little portraits ever could.
In the end, SpellForce 3 is a unique mix of strategy and RPG mechanics that miraculously loses very few of either. It asks no knowledge of the previous titles, and features co-op and PvP multiplayer modes in addition to the rather long single-player campaign. Ironically, in an age of MOBAs and strategy-less strategy games, this years-old staple of game design feels surprisingly refreshing.
SPELLFORCE 3 VERDICT
A unique mix of strategy and RPG mechanics that miraculously loses very few of either.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Shield bashing the crap out of an enemy. Any enemy. Seven times in a row.
Beautiful and often responsive combat
Significant base-building aspects
Interesting lore and dialogue
Bit too focused on micromanagement
Units are quite hard to select or precisely control in battle
Character development is rather shallow