My anticipation of Spellforce 2 is a tangible entity; cravings have been made corporeal and given dominion over my psyche. That I am a fervent fan of the franchise is a matter of public record; in my opinion Phenomic should be spoken of with the same reverence usually reserved for the likes of Blizzard or perhaps Monolith. As my fearless taskmasters at WorthPlaying may testify, I have been relentless in my efforts to get first crack at this sequel. Somewhere along the line, I've either done something very right or my nagging finally broke their resolve, because I now have on my hard drive four playable levels of Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars. One might presume that my thirst is now slightly slaked; however, the opposite it true. Now I want the finished product even more desperately.
Not much in the way of storyline has been revealed with this preview build, so this will be a more or less spoiler-free writ. What I can reveal is that Spellforce 2 is set approximately 19 years after the final events of Spellforce: Shadow of the Phoenix, and the lands of Eo are wildly different from what they were like under the waning shadow of the Circle mages. Most notable is the absence of the Rune Warriors that served as the immortal slaves and sometime protectors of Eo. After the last of the Circle was eradicated, the magic of the rune began to crumble, leaving behind naught but memories and the slowly decaying monuments that one served as portals for these heroic icons.
A different form of avatar has arisen in the Rune Warriors' place, a line of peoples who can claim direct blood ties to an ancient dragon named Ur. These people are referred to as Shaikan, after the Dark-Elf word for "godless" and "free." Because these individuals aren't tied to any of the light or dark races, they are both revered and reviled in equal measure by both sides of the coin. This also makes them as misunderstood as the Rune Warriors they have inadvertently replaced. History rarely illustrates the conflicts a hero must overcome, but that doesn't stop the brave from striving to do so anyway. You're here already; why not save the lands from impending invasion at the hands of power-mad Dark Elves? This is the basic motivation of Spellforce 2.
Phenomic has taken pains to preserve the formula that made Spellforce: The Order of Dawn such a success in Europe. Rather than radically reinvent the game, they've done nothing more than polish, refine, and perfect the basic mechanics. The end result is immediately familiar to longtime players, but astronomically smoother in its execution. For people new to this franchise, a brief description: Spellforce 2 is a hybrid real-time strategy role-playing game. You are given a central avatar to level up and equip; you are also given mechanics to build up bustling cities or towns, and to train up armies of subservient fighters. The blend is just right – not too much or too little of either RPG or RTS. I've said this many times in the past; Phenomic is the only developer to have claimed they made a hybrid out of these genres and been 100% accurate in saying so.
Right off the bat, the alterations for the better are apparent. The preview build includes the tutorial and three mid-game levels, and from the moment you first see the panoramic views of the Iron Fields (where the tutorial takes place), you know the visuals have been greatly improved. Most of the effort appears to have gone into textures and lighting, which, in all honesty, were the two strongest aspects of the first game as well. The newly realized Eo has more detail, more style, and arguably the best use of bloom lighting I've yet seen. (For once it isn't a blinding smear of "soft focus," a la Guild Wars.) Each race seems to have been exaggerated to suit their respective clichés. For example, the Orcs are more savage and dripping with crude spiked armor, and Dark Elves are coated in heavily stylized rune markings, making them look somewhat like World of Warcraft's Night Elves. You can still shift your point of view from isometric to third-person as well, but as of this moment, you can't zoom in as closely as you could before so it's harder to get in close to admire your avatar. I certainly hope this is changed before launch; what a disappointment it would be to discover that Phenomic hasn't done its utmost to accommodate my in-game narcissism.
Character development has been given one of the largest makeovers, with an all-new skill system that provides a more organic feel to your character's growth. You no longer select a class, instead choosing which direction to take as you level. As you progress, you are given a tree of skill choices, each leading to a more detailed definition of where you're going. There are two base skill options: combat and magic. Each of these splits multiple times into more detailed versions of the basic attribute, giving you a total of 38 different skill choices. These aren't mutually exclusive either, so a mix-n-match fighter/magic-user is easily obtained with some careful decisions. As an example of how this all works, if you wished to sculpt a quick and deadly dagger-fighter, you would choose combat, then light combat, light combat arts, light weapons, and finally, dual-wield daggers. These all have ranks as well, allowing you to specialize in certain skills over others. Think of it somewhat as "Jack of all trades, master of none" or "deadly dual-wielding assassin for hire." Most of the weapons and armor in the game have skill requirements that interlock with this tree system as well, so the best stilettos would require you to be focused on more than just light combat arts.
When it comes to basic unit management and the overall base-building strategy mechanics, more polish seems to be in effect. Gone is the bloated list of seven resources, trimmed down to much more manageable three. It is possible that there are other types later in the game, but this build only includes base building for the human archetypes. As it stands, the only human supplies required now are stone, silver, and a plant called Lenya. Workers can be summoned specifically for the purpose you want them to do. For example, if you need five more workers and plan on using them to harvest stone, then you can click on your main headquarters and summon five stone workers. As soon as they're called into action, they go immediately to the nearest source of stone and get to it; you don't need to micromanage them.
Of course, if you need to, you can still call any worker off the line and get them to do other things as required. Spellforce 2 also has a handy little icon that displays how many workers you have that are currently idle. Click this icon, and you automatically select the inactive laborers, and can re-assign them. A final note of improvement is that basic fighting units now heal themselves over time. In the first game, the only way a regular trooper could heal was if you had one of your heroes do it or you were playing a race that had healer units you could summon. Now your damaged troops can take a breather and recuperate. This is a change I welcome for the better.
I could go on and on and on about how great I think Spellforce 2 will be. In fact, about the only thing stopping me from doing exactly that is a lingering fear of my editor and the wrath she may bring down upon my head for writing 5,000 word essays. Suffice it to say that these four levels have shown me that a game I've been craving for a long time is set to surpass all of my expectations. The refined gameplay is infused through every aspect of Spellforce 2: planned co-operative multiplayer features out of the box, sharply improved syntax and diction to the voice acting, avatars that run from place to place, better graphic technology, stronger artistic direction, smoother skills and character development, and an overall warmth to the world that is truly immersive and engaging. It looks very much like Spellforce 2: The Shadow Wars is the total package for fans of epic fantasy.
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