It must be frustrating for many game designers to release their latest pride and joy onto the market only to find that reviewers will insist of comparing (usually unfavourably) to whichever game is considered to be the current top of that genre’s tree. However these comparisons are often valid ones to make. Take for example the strategy game Warcraft 3. Most PC strategy fans will have played this seminal RTS (Real Time Strategy), therefore when reviewing a game that fits mainly into the same genre, such as Spellforce Gold, comparison and conclusions are inevitably going to be drawn, and unfortunately having compared Spellforce Gold with other games, the conclusion that inevitably arises is that Spellforce Gold is a flawed, derivative and crushingly average game.
The Spellforce Gold package contains both the original ìOrder of the Dawnî game and the expansion pack ìBreath of Winterî. The gameís developers JoWood describe it as a ìRPSî, which is basically a combination of a Roleplaying game and Real Time Strategy. So you create a single character at the start of the game called your avatar and level this up in one-to-one combat the same as an RPG, but you also take part in large battles building towns, training workers, mages and soldiers and going to war with your avatar leading the army. Your avatar follows the stories across a series of linked maps and on each map a battle must be fought and the enemy destroyed before moving on. It certainly sounds like an interesting way to liven up the strategy genre.
Unfortunately the way it has been implemented leaves a lot to be desired. Pretty much every fault and problem with the game can be found within the first few hours of play. After the admittedly exciting introduction, you are allowed to create your avatar. Physical customisation is limited to making it either male or female and a choice between 31 rather odd looking faces. You then assign various skill points and abilities to specialise in which will have an effect as you play on in the game.
Then you are thrust into the game, not with your newly created avatar but one of the Hero characters who will lead you through an extremely lengthy tutorial which seems impossible to skip on your first time through. It is here things really start to go wrong. For starters the voice acting and dialogue is execrable. Characters deliver their lines with all the passion and interest of an eight year old child in the school nativity play. Attempting to then move the character takes some getting used to as the in-game camera is absurdly sensitive and will swing wildly across the map at the slightest push. This leaves you needing to use the cursor keys to keep it under control. As the character progresses you get into some hand-to-hand combat with single enemies. Music and speech samples seem to kick in at random, with absurdly OTT musical stings rising as you fell a level one goblin and your character calling out for her men to ìfollow herî and ìhold the lineî even though she is in fact alone.
As you reach something called a Hero monument the next layer of complexity kicks in. By questing you can find runes which allow you to summon Heroes to fight alongside your avatar. These hero units are powerful allies but unfortunately unbalance the gameplay to a large extent as with some levelling up you can simply conquer most maps with just your heroes, leaving the Strategy element rather redundant. As the makers themselves insist the Strategy/RPG balance is supposed to be 75/25 this seems to be an extraordinary error to make.
The strategy part kicks in when you come across a Rune Monument. This is where you summon the workers to start building yourself a base from. Now it turns into a traditional RTS, with mining resources, building new buildings and accessing new fighting units being the order of the day. You then use your army along with your heroes and crush whatever enemies need to be crushed before moving onto the next map. This RTS part of the game is fairly well conceived but still suffers from an overall sloppiness in its execution. Itís difficult to get an acceptable camera angle to view the activities from, as zooming up too far makes the camera tilt into a top down perspective rather than an isometric one. Also as you follow the story you will command humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, dark elves and trolls, but they all play very similarly, so although later in the game you can create armies made up of several different races this isnít as much fun as it could be.
The interface with the game is also extremely complex. Not only do you have to manage the strategy resources, but there also screens covering equipment for all heroes, skills, items etc. The lack of hotkeys and the inability to select a unit or building first time you click on it also makes the harder battles more frustrating. Once you have found several Hero runes you can summon heroes and use them to clear most of the map and in some cases you can leave out the strategy entirely. Some other players of the game have actually recommended doing this in places as once you activate the Rune Monument and kick off the strategy element, enemies will keep spawning over and over making it a long struggle to finish. Stay as a handful of Heroes and you can have a much easier time of it. Even if you donít do this, pretty much every mission can be finished by simply bedding in and making your army bigger than the enemiesí, there is very little variety in how you can approach different maps and missions.
Another big black mark against the game is how it handles your Avatarís death. The maps are connected by portals like lots of islands connected by bridges. On each map are things called ìBindstonesî, by activating them if you die you will reincarnate at the last bindstone you activated. However once you leave a map, all your settlements will disappear, and if you happen to get killed and forgot to activate a bindstone you can find yourself several maps back down the line with the prospect of doing them all over again, if you didnít save earlier.
Spellforce does have some good points. It is still quite a good game to look at without requiring a high end PC to get the benefits. Character models are rather crude and some weapon effects donít appear to show when using a female character, but the environments and buildings are nicely done and the classical music is also very atmospheric. The pace of the game is fairly leisurely and you donít have to wait too long before you can begin building really big armies. The inclusion of a super unit in each army called a Titan is a nice touch as well. Itís also epic in length providing you with many, many hours of gaming if you manage to get into the swing of the story and gameplay.
Unfortunately for many people the amount of small frustrations such as the poor voice acting, sluggish pace of the story and the repetitiveness of the tasks required of you will outweigh the good parts of it. It borrows the mechanics of Warcraft 3, but lacks both the gripping plotline and slick well balanced gameplay which has made Warcraft 3 so renowned. If you are looking for a fantasy based strategy game Spellforce Gold might be worth a look at once you have exhausted all other options, and itís also available a budget price. But it is unlikely after the initial novelty has worn off that youíll be playing right through to the bitter end because when all is said and done Spellforce Gold is just a rather boring game thatís been done better elsewhere.