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Developer:
Phenomic Game Development
Publisher: Jowood
Platform: PC
Release Date: 2004

by Sinda




I should warn you right away that I may be a dedicated, addicted gamer, but I have never cared much for Real Time Strategy (RTS). I tried Age of Wonders and flirted briefly with Warcraft, but I remain a dedicated RPGer. If you want to make me happy give me a sword, some magic powers and a few monsters to kill for experience and loot. I'll take that over the mundane, workaday tasks of building structures and armies and gathering resources. Any old day. Why gather wood and ore when I can hack off the arms of vile trolls and keep their Rolexes?


I want my games to grab me and pull me in. I want to identify with my character and feel as though a part of me has been infused into her spirit and that she would make the same moral choices I would (ok, that whole thing with my Dark Elf eating dwarves alive was just an act, ok? Really, it was.) I can't infuse my spirit into an army. I'd feel like Genghis Kate if I tried. Armies are for wimps, not heroes, regardless of what Lee Ermey tells you.


So I was completely prepared to pass over the JoWood release, SpellForce, developed by the German group Phenomic. The screenshots looked impressive, and the game reviews I read sounded intriguing but there was that whole gather-build-conquer paradigm to overcome. I was much closer to caving in on a copy of Lords of Everquest just to get into the Everquest 2 beta than I was to buying this unheralded title.


That was before a gamer friend of mine started raving about it. A few of his stories piqued my interest and I was between game addictions, so I took the plunge. The supermodel elf on the box cover looked so much like me how could I resist? (Did I mention my eyesight is going and I suffer from delusions of glamour?)


The bad news about Spellforce hit me immediately - you can't create an elven avatar. You're limited to human beings and what's more, the sexy armor she's wearing on the box cover isn't even in the game. Fortunately, by the time I figured all that out I was already hooked. I was too busy being pleasantly surprised to worry much about my expectations.


Phenomic has pulled off a stunning tour de force with this game. It is an elegant hybrid of RTS and RPG that will surprise you with how well it works. The graphics are beautiful, the game ran flawlessly on my Alienware 2.4Ghz and GEForce4 (minimum system requirements are Pentium III 1Ghz, 256Mb RAM, and a DX9.0a compatible 32Mb video card) other than a minor problem with the CD copy protection scheme that prevented the CD from working now and then. The game's plot pulls you immediately into its tension with cut scenes and a back story - if you are in the habit of jabbing your escape key to skip game intros, I encourage you to sit through this one. The world has been nearly destroyed by warring magi who ultimately eliminated each other - almost. These Circle Magi were extremely powerful sorcerors but all are dead now except for two. One is your mentor who summons you, the Rune Warrior, to assist him. The other is the villain, intent on destroying reality as you know it. (Don't you always wonder why the bad guys are usually suicidal maniacs? Destroying reality is bad for the environment, among other things!)


The game proceeds in chapters, with each chapter having its own map. The maps themselves are built with confining terrain - usually mountain paths or narrow roads - to channel you in pre-determined directions and turn the maps into dungeon-like mazes. But you are free to use portals to travel back to previous maps, and indeed you must go back at several points to finish some quests or to get new ones. You can also travel via the bind stones in the game. Unlike the portals - which take you to one particular location - the bind stones give you a menu of all the previous bind stones you have activated, allowing you freedom to zip around as needed. On every map, it's important that you activate every bind stone you find - after you liberate it from the clutches of the evil hordes.


As you enter a new map, you are usually presented with a new crisis to solve. That crisis may require you to utilize a force of NPC soldiers provided free of charge or locate a racial monument and begin creating your own army. Each race (dwarves, elves, humans, trolls, dark elves, orcs) have their own monument and their own runes which are required to build specific types of units. If you have the correct runes for that race you can create workers, archers, swordsmen, healers, magi and so forth. Caster troops require the Spellforce version of mana, called "Aria". If you have a lode of Aria you can build clerics, winter mages, healers, and other casters. To build Dwarves and Dark Elf troops you need Moonsilver. These are in addition to the usual wood, ore, food and stone needed for basic troops.


You're not limited to creating endless ranks of soldiers, however. If you find hero runes, you can use them to create heroes -- special NPCs with unique abilities to augment yours. Heroes require -- you guessed it -- hero monuments to summon. At higher levels, once you have the necessary structural runes, you can also build a Titan. You get one per structure and he can be killed if you're not careful, but he is a very strong ally who can lay waste to your enemies. I liked the elven Treant (shades of Treebeard), but my favorite was probably the human Griffon Titan.


Once you get some gameplay under your belt, Spellforce begins to play very intuitively. There aren't any bizarre key combinations to memorize nor any mysterious mouse movements to master. Point and click to select, point and right click to move or attack. Click on a spell icon to cast the spell, "I" for inventory, and so forth. Group your armies however you choose and use the group icons in your display window to manipulate them. Move all the way across the map by clicking in the mini-map. You're free to focus on playing instead of operating the interface. That's a major plus when you're commanding fifty soldiers in three or four different groups.


I'll let you in on a little secret, though. You don't have to create armies on every map in order to win. In fact, on quite a few of the maps you may find the going easier if you stick to only your heroes and perhaps the free NPC units you start with. The Spellforce AI gears its own production and aggressiveness to you. Once you activate a racial monument and begin producing units, so does the enemy AI. If you forego activation and building, you can usually clear most of the map with just your Rune warrior and maybe a few support fighters and pets, if you are a pet-summoner.


In those cases where you can only clear a map with the help of an army, don't feel as though you must zerg rush the bad guys. (See? For a non-RTS fan I pick up the lingo quickly. I've never seen a zerg - never played StarCraft - but I have a husband who has educated me on these important issues. Next week he's teaching me how to fly a B1 Stealth Bomber. My neighbors will be so impressed!) On a couple of maps, the enemy AI had already built such large forces of undead, necromancers and goblins that the easiest strategy for me was to sit tight, play a defensive game until my forces were built up and let the AI beat itself to death against my defenses. It is obliging in this regard - I had crossbow towers and elven ice towers (my favorite) stacked 4 deep in choke points and the enemy kept sending small groups to raid me, piecemealing himself to death against my defensive structures.


Once I had built the maximum number of troops, I left a group at my base for defense against roaming goblins and then massed the remainder to sweep the map one enemy camp at a time. The AI gets a point off for stupidity here, as it could have easily swept me away early in that map if it had tried harder. I was playing in "Hard" difficulty too - on Easy or Normal it's a no-brainer.


The magic schools in Spellforce are varied and interesting. You can become a fighter, an elemental mage (fire, earth, ice), a necromancer, a rogue, a mentalist or various combinations thereof. Your beginning skill set is based on your first character class selection, but after that you are free to add more skills from other disciplines. You could end up with an ice mage/rogue, a fighter/necromancer, an archer/mentalist or any of a number of combinations. However, do not make the mistake of spreading yourself too thin in skill sets you don't intend to use. You are ultimately limited to 10 skills and no more. Once you take, for example, Heavy Combat, you cannot "untake" it.


The major skill categories (light combat, heavy combat, dark magic, white magic, elemental magic, ranged weapons and mind magic) each have minor specializations within them. For example, to get to piercing weapons you must first take the Light Combat category (cost of 1 skill point) then allocate another skill point to specialize in piercing. To get to necromancy, you must first take Dark Magic. To get healing, you must have the White Magic category opened. Since the slot you use to open a major category also counts against your total, you are further limited on the number of minor specializations. Specializations are also limited to the level of the category - to raise Piercing to 3, you must first raise Light Combat to 3.


This system feels constricting at first, but it is an elegant way to maintain game balance. You will also find that armor and weapons and spells in the game have skill requirements. A heavy warrior isn't going to be able to cast spells (without spending skill points in that category), or use light armor. Fortunately most of the best armor and weapons in the game require Light Combat skill. I would recommend Heavy Combat only if you plan to be a melee beast wearing the heaviest plate armor and swinging a gigantic magic axe or zweihander. I would only recommend Ranged Combat if it's something you're fond of - the bows in the game are not nearly as good as the melee weapons.


My first character was a heavy warrior, but I didn't get far before I remembered that necromancy has been my true calling ever since Everquest. The Spellforce necro can summon as many skeletal pets as he can afford with his mana, bearing in mind that to maintain those pets will require mana costs as long as they are active. Each tick that a pet is alive, you lose a little mana. And if you run out of mana, pets spontaneously die until you can afford the mana again. Other magi get their own form of pets (fire elementals for Fire mages, for example), with the same limitations. Necromancers also have the usual lifetaps and poison DoTs.


Mentalist magic is also great fun. You can mez, root, and charm your enemies, as well as inspire your allies. My personal recommendation for your first time out - if you want to make it easier on yourself - is to take Light combat and White magic. That way you can melee and heal yourself (and your army). Black magic includes aura spells which slow your enemies. White magic includes aura spells which boost your allies' speed and health.


Most spells are purchased from vendors, but a few are only dropped off of monsters or found in chests in the game. Be sure to explore every square inch of every map so you don't miss out on loot. And don't worry about inventory space - unlike most games which give you the RPG equivalent of a small cardboard box to hold your gear, Spellforce allows you to keep page upon page of equipment. I got to 12 pages and never ran out of space. And none of it counts as weight to slow you down. I had rings and robes and armor for every occasion - as well as for outfitting my heroes as I found them.


Despite a linear plot progression, Spellforce gains points for the skill customizations and the variety of armor and weapons choices in the game. If I have any complaints about the game, they are relatively minor -- for one, camera controls take some getting used to and while the most pleasing to the eye may be the close-up trailing camera view, the most convenient way to control your armies in a fight is to pan out to maximum overhead view. You lose some immersion in the battle that way, but it's better than losing your Rune Warrior because he got surrounded by undead warriors.


Spell targeting in the game can be ticklish. Your character will auto-attack only if he/she is first attacked, so standing back and casting spells can be very mouse-intensive work. If you're at maximum zoom it is almost impossible to click on a goblin who is moving away from you.


Voice acting has the same shortcomings of a few other European titles like Divine Divinity. I am a huge D.D. fan, having replayed it almost a dozen times, but the voice acting was never its strong suite. One wonders if the actors are more convincing speaking German or French than they are speaking English. In the case of Spellforce, the musical score makes up for some of the poor voice talent. Each map has a theme that can reach crescendos of excitement during the final battle.


Final Grade: 75%


Overall, I think Spellforce deserves every bit of a 75% rating. It's a quality game that can become addictive very quickly, and only loses a few points on replayability, linearity, camera controls and voice acting. Don't let minor details like that stop you from enjoying one of the year's best surprises. By the time you've built your first Titan, you won't care.


Useful links:

Spellforce Official Website

Spellforce Free Demo Download

Spellforce 1.10 Patch Download




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