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Spellforce: The Order of Dawn Review

Duke_Ferris By:
GENRE Strategy 
T Contains Blood, Fantasy Violence

What do these ratings mean?

RTSPG? RPGTS? RTRP...ah, who cares.

Innovation doesn't usually spring up from out of nowhere; most inventions are actually new combinations of existing technology. Gears, wheels and engines were all around long before someone assembled them into a car. Ever since Eli Whitney first had the brilliant idea to mix together cotton and gin, inventors have been in a combining frenzy.

And it's no different in the gaming world. As the technology has gotten more and more powerful, developers have combined previously rigid game types like driving games and shooting games and merged them into some brilliant, harder to categorize title, like Grand Theft Auto.

Likewise, Encore and Phenomic's Spellforce has combined the RPG and the RTS into a truly unpronounceable acronym...and a pretty good game.

We've seen token efforts at this mixture before. Warcraft III, although almost purely a strategy game, had some primitive role-playing aspects to its heroes. Warlords: Battlecry 2 had a lot more RPG depth to your avatar, but with few items, an archaic inventory system and no quests.

Spellforce is the first title to really provide both game types, fully-fledged and undiluted, cutting no corners and presented in a single interface. Sound complicated? It is, but thanks to a long hold-you-by-the-hand tutorial, you'll learn all of the complex game mechanics as you adventure through the game's prologue.

It is also in the prologue where you'll learn about how the 13 great mages fought with each other and ripped apart the world, because that's the sort of thing that mages are always up to. The land, which now lies in separate pieces, is connected only by magic portals. Darius, a survivor of the 13, seeks to heal the land and has summoned you to help. However, it seems that another of the 13 has survived as well and is clearly up to no good. And so begins your quest.

Who you are, though, is up to you. Your custom-designed avatar (with 30 or so faces to choose from) has plenty of stats and skills to tweak as you level up. You can specialize in heavy or light combat arts, archery, or in one of the many schools of magic. You can mix and match skills to your heart's content, but it is clearly better to specialize.

Once you are ready to go, you can run around the land undertaking quests, killing monsters, gaining experience, talking to villagers, finding treasure, learning new spells, buying and selling items in the shops and trying to open the portals to other lands- basically everything you would expect from a decent RPG.

However, getting past some obstacles, fulfilling some quests, or reaching some portals is more than you can handle alone. There are a few other heroes you can summon to help, but sometimes you need the help of an army. So get out your hammer, because its time to start building.

Or rather, it's time to force your peons to build things for you. You'll have to start off simple with a quarry for stone and a mine for iron, and maybe a hunting lodge or a fisherman's hut for food. There are six resources to manage, although you generally won't need all six for any one town. It's not until you have a pretty functional base going that you'll be able to start producing the military units you want. In your RPG adventures, you can even find blueprints for new structures and units. With six races in the conflict (humans, elves, orcs, trolls, etc…) each with their own structures and units, this is a full strategy game as well.

Even with so many features under the hood, Spellforce looks damn good. Your avatar is nicely detailed and wears all the appropriate armor and weapons you've equipped. All the units, buildings and terrain looks equally good; spells glow and explode, arrows really fly, and I swear the units are actually motion captured. Battles can get pretty big before anything starts to slow down. You can even zoom all the way in directly behind your avatar, which is a difficult way to play but really lets you admire the scenery… or the chaos of battle.

The sound isn't as impressive, with oft-repeated battle sounds and battle cries and bland music that fortunately doesn't constantly play. The voice-acting ranges from adequate to downright embarrassing, and there's plenty of it with the game's many quests, dialogues, and in-game cutscenes.

There's a lot to like in Spellforce, but unfortunately there are a few gameplay issues that get in the way of total enjoyment. The controls, which accommodate both types of gameplay, are a little awkward. The RTS portions suffer from a lack of hotkeys and a clunky camera. The multiplayer game just isn't as good as the single-player because it is just the strategy game without the RPG depth. It would have been nice to bring your own avatar into the online world instead of just being able to select from preset defaults.

The AI of the game is its most irritating aspect. The computer's strategy always involves sending small sallies of units to die on your defenses every couple of minutes until you have built up a large enough force to attack and overwhelm them.

Even my own avatar's AI makes me want to scream. Like many RPG games, your avatar does nothing without being instructed. My first avatar was an archer, who was so stupid she wouldn't even shoot the enemy; meanwhile my generic archer units were running around being useful and shooting at orcs like pros. When I realized I was going to have to instruct her to shoot each and every single enemy, one at a time, in a large battle, I ditched her in favor of a melee fighter who would at least defend himself when attacked. An avatar with more initiative, like in Dungeon Siege or Warlords: Battlecry, would have really improved Spellforce.

However, there's plenty of good stuff in Spellforce. If it hasn't quite reached the perfect combination that is sharks with laser beams, it's not for lack of trying. Besides, everyone knows that a fax machine is just a toaster with a vacuum cleaner attached.

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