Release Date: December 5, 2005
Buy 'SPELLFORCE PLATINUM EDITION': PC
It seems like only yesterday that JoWooD and Phenomic released the criminally underrated Spellforce: The Order of Dawn. While the early 2004 release did well in Europe, the hybrid strategy/role-playing title failed to grab much attention in North America. Undaunted, Phenomic crafted two full expansions for the game: Breath of Winter was first, followed by Shadow of the Phoenix. Neither of these saw much shelf space at domestic retailers, but this may soon change due to a recent release of all three efforts bundled together in the Spellforce Platinum edition.
I won't go too much into detail regarding the story arc(s) in this bundle, primarily because it would take far too long to cover it all. I will say that you travel to hell and back (literally), fight off armies of animated black-bladed armor, and get into some tussles with huge ancient dragons, amongst other adventures. The basic breakdown is roughly like this: Spellforce takes place in a "traditional" (some might say cliché) fantasy world known as Eo. Some time ago, a massive war referred to as the "Convocation War" split the planet into a series of isolated islands. These are now connected only by a chain of teleportation portals, conveniently set up by the few remaining Convocation wizards left over from the war. The surviving inhabitants of these islands include such illustrious races as elves (in both woodelf and darkelf flavors), dwarves, orcs, trolls, and humans. Eo and its incredible species diversity is a land ripe with drama and power-plays, and you get to shape the outcome of these tales.
As the player, you are in control of a Rune Warrior, a being whose soul is bound to a stone that provides the dual gift/curse of immortality and slavery to whoever possesses the rune. In rare cases, one of these powerful beings is granted his or her own rune. Such a case is yours; you are bound to no one else's tyranny and cannot truly be killed. What a perfect setup to become a legendary hero! This avatar is where the majority of the "RPG" elements come into the game. You level up, you customize your spells and equipment, you tweak your attributes, and you climb the ladder to make your little character the coolest-looking little virtual "you" possible – everything all good RPGs require. However, you also get to build up micro-civilizations and field massive armies, which is where the RTS elements come into play.
Runes aren't limited to shining fighters and magic users. Worker slaves come in gem form too, and the key to success in Spellforce comes from claiming the monuments of each race that let you summon these slaves in order to sculpt your towns and fighting forces. Micro-managers rejoice! As a final nod to diversity, your hero also gets to collect other Rune warriors to summon and use as fodder. The irony is delicious; a freed slave immediately begins looking for slaves. The grass is always greener, I guess.
Your camera perspective is a matter of choice; Spellforce allows you to shift from top-down isometric to third-person view at will. I've always liked this feature, although I personally only use it for the occasional dip into immersion. I mostly just like wandering around the towns I build up, looking at my subjects as they scramble to do my bidding. I have been telling anyone who will listen pretty much since this game launched that its greatest strengths are immersion (Eo is a rich and vibrant world, despite the unoriginal source material) and how well it actually succeeds in fusing role-playing and strategy. In my experience, Spellforce is the only game to make the "RTS/RPG" claim and truly succeed.
Graphically, Spellforce is starting to show its age, but it still looks quite good. The models are very low-polygon affairs, roughly on par with BioWare's NeverWinter Nights. Smooth shadow effects are a nice touch, although pushing these to their fullest potential seems to destabilize the program somewhat. I have always been impressed with the ability to scroll into a third-person perspective, but this effect is choppy even on my X800XL, a GPU that is far in excess of what is recommended on the box. It's not all bad news, though; the texture detail is superb. This attention scales beautifully and really helps flesh out the world. The outstanding immersion is essentially what Spellforce banks on, and I believe wholeheartedly that the thorough detailing is what supports this effect the most. Eo feels alive, and it's certainly not the blocky models that make it that way.
On a completely different note, I feel a particular need to stress the length of Spellforce Platinum. It's incredibly long, perhaps even as long as Morrowind, only this game has a structured storyline and sense of purpose and thus cannot point to raw exploration as its excuse. I would say (without even remotely treading on the boundaries of exaggeration) that there is easily over 100 hours of gameplay, due to a combination of epic map scale (they're all huge and take forever to conquer), a lack of a "run" feature for your hero, and steep challenge. This is a double-edged sword; some might find it never-ending, others might find it delightfully comprehensive. In either case, the excessive play time does explain why Phenomic have been toying with the idea of turning this franchise into an MMORPG. It's almost as long as one already.
On the off chance that the robust single-player campaigns aren't enough, Spellforce does come with the standard online and LAN deathmatch RTS multiplayer. Breath of Winter adds a Freeplay mode, which is basically co-op for up to three players on randomly generated maps with no quest objectives. Shadow of the Phoenix adds no new multiplayer features, but does provide for the new items and creatures introduced in the final expansion to be used/encountered in Freeplay mode.
Perhaps the single greatest drawback to Spellforce is the acting. To be quite blunt, this package has some of the worst voice-overs ever slotted into a game. In a few rare cases the extreme accents of the European actors works well. After all, why should all elves speak flawless "common?" However, the vast majority of all NPC speech is atrocious. You can have it all; poor syntax, poor inflection, flat delivery, "cheesy" melodrama – take your pick or mix 'n' match! There are even a few times where it's clear that the actors can't speak English at all and are reading the lines phonetically off the script in front of them. This is by no means a deal-breaker, but it's good that you go into Spellforce knowing to expect the worst in dialogue.
There is one other flaw I feel has to be illuminated – the endings. Phenomic seems to have a real problem with ending their titles on a satisfactory note. Order of Dawn doesn't really end at all (there is no closure whatsoever) and Breath of Winter can't actually be finished unless you've chosen a hero with a ranged attack and happen to have a rune board full of archers. I haven't made it to the end of Shadow of the Phoenix, so I can't say definitively whether or not this team is three-for-three or not. I'm reminded of the author Neil Stephenson. I love his writing too, but he can't seem to end a book to save his life either.
To make a long story short (am I too late?), I adore Spellforce and always have. The awful voice-acting has never been enough to turn me off of the extremely fleshed-out and dynamic world setting. The lore is top-notch, and the fact that Phenomic as a team have taken such a tired template and made such an elegant creation out of it has always impressed me. If you love all things "swords and sorcery" and aren't intimidated by the excessive play length, then you should by all means go out and pick up this platinum release. It's the perfect way to whet the appetite for the upcoming Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars.