As much as I enjoyed the original Spellforce, I must admit it had its share of problems. The interface was clunky, unit and building acquisition was overly complicated, and the need to juggle 6 or 7 different resources was just plain silly. When coupled with some downright terrible voice acting, questionable AI and pathfinding, and a graphics engine that just seemed to sputter along at times, Spellforce never got a chance to really shine. So when JoWood sent along their latest playable build of Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars, I was quite interested to see how things improved while still maintaining the delicate RPG/RTS balance.
The first thing I noticed upon firing up Spellforce 2 was the graphical improvement. In short, it looks great. The terrain looks fantastic, the units are detailed and full of animation, and the entire world has a soft, almost dreamy quality that really fits the atmosphere of the game. All this graphical grandeur comes at a price, as my aging system had a difficult time keeping up at critical points in the action. However, looks aren’t everything, so I just cranked down the detail a bit and dived into the action.
Although Spellforce 2 feels quite similar to the original title, much of the over-complex clunkiness has been trimmed. Players are once again placed in charge of an almost-immortal Avatar, although the Rune Warrior avatars have been replaced by “Shaikan”, a race imbued with dragon blood. Once again the missions alternate between RPG-ish scenarios and full-blown RTS swedges. The controls have been polished a bit as well, especially on the RTS side of things. Several common RTS conventions have been added to the Spellforce world, quelling one of my big complaints from the original. Thankfully, Spellforce 2 keeps the “Click’n’Fight” system, which was one of the high points of the series. Once focused on an enemy, several quick action buttons appear under the Avatar and any Heroes on the field, allowing for efficient unleashing of various powers and spells. This system makes the myriad different special abilities easily manageable, and I often wonder why other RTS games aren’t adopting this mechanic.
The controls aren’t the only thing receiving an upgrade in Spellforce 2. The unit and building system has also been revamped, cleaning up a lot of unnecessary complexity. The Rune and Blueprint systems have been axed, meaning that units and buildings are available without scouring the maps to find them. There are also fewer choices when it comes to units and buildings, but it’s still too early to decide how I feel about this. Spellforce 2 does introduce flying units, adding another level to the battlefield and another level of strategy. In the building of all these units, Spellforce 2 thankfully reduced the number of resources required by half. While it was thematically interesting that each race require a different mix of 7 or so materials to build their armies, it was just overcomplicated in the execution.
The Avatar’s upgrading system has also been streamlined this time around. Rather than choosing from several different schools and specialties, ability points gained from increasing in level are now spent in a simple ability tree. One tree is dedicated to combat, the other to magic. Players are free to mix and match from these two branching paths, but it looks like focusing in a particular theme will be most beneficial. From the looks of things, this simplified tree system won’t reduce the customizability of the characters in any way, it will just make things a bit more straightforward.
The three missions I had a chance to play through were quite fun, allowing me to see the RTS/RPG balance in full effect. Each scenario was once again chock-full of side-quests and optional missions, and thanks to an upgraded Quest Log it was much easier to keep things straight. No longer will time be spent hunting across several maps searching for one elusive treasure chest to complete a mission—now players can highlight a quest, and the mini-map will indicate the next point of interest. While this may seem like a bit too much hand-holding to some, after I spent hours slowly slogging through some of the original Spellforce maps, I welcome this addition.
Although Spellforce 2 looks to be making several improvements, I still noticed some places that concern me. The voice acting I encountered, while worlds better than the original, is still not up to par with the rest of the game. With the loss of several unit and building types, I also worry that Spellforce 2 might be just a bit too streamlined and consolidated, causing it to lose some of its flavor and uniqueness. However, those concerns may be allayed when I see the game in its entirety.
Overall, Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars looks to be a solid improvement over the intriguing and unique original. With a great graphics upgrade, a lot of polish and streamlining, and some interesting design changes, Spellforce 2 could bring us that much closer to the “perfect” RTS/RPG hybrid.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I'm an old-school gamer, and have been at it ever since the days of the Atari 2600. I took a hiatus from the console world to focus on PC games after that, but I've come back into the fold with the PS2. I'm an RPG and strategy fan, and could probably live my gaming life off a diet of nothing else. I also have soft spot for those off-the-wall, independent-developer games, so I get to see more than my share of innovative (and often strange) titles.
Away from the computer, I'm an avid boardgamer, thoroughly enjoying the sound of dice clattering across a table. I also enjoy birdwatching and just mucking around in the Great Outdoors.