It has become my tradition to begin a given review with some over-wrought flight of fancy, such as a quote from some topically related pop-culture tidbit or perhaps even a fragment of conjured phrase I feel will assist in "setting the mood." Alas, in this instance, I find the creative recesses of my cranium barren of inspiration, due in no small part to the fact that I have covered this franchise of which I am about to write no less than four times now, including this very article. What more can I say without slipping into redundancy? Forgive me as I break with tradition; it appears as though my introduction will glide into your eyes with all the grace of an old pair of army boots. I'm here to tell you whether or not you should buy SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, and why. All apologies, please read on.
The un-poetic description of SpellForce 2 is that it's a sequel to the wildly successful (in Europe, at least) high-fantasy title SpellForce: The Order of Dawn and its two expansions, Breath of Winter and Shadow of the Phoenix. Like its predecessor, it is a hybrid role-playing/real-time strategy game, and Phenomic (our intrepid developers) has thus far been the only team to ever successfully marry these two genres in such a way as to actually include the best elements of both.
You begin play with a single avatar that you steadily improve – complete quests for experience points that level you onwards to greater power and abilities, collect items like rings and weapons and armour for increased aesthetic glory, and amass your personal wealth. As the game progresses, you'll collect up to seven other individual heroes that will always sit just under your main character in power, but you can tweak them in all the same ways. This isn't a million miles from Dungeon Siege; however, gameplay never devolves into merely tapping a key for health potions, and as such, SpellForce 2 comes across as more dynamic than Microsoft's squad-RPG. Underneath all of this are the strategic aspects: resource management, base-building, tech-tree advancement, and large troop tactics.
Phenomic simplified the overall approach to strategy, but not so much that it's become vestigial. There are less resources to gather (three down from seven), and because the whole "rune" concept has been essentially removed from the franchise (they were a big part of the original), you don't need to juggle worker-gems. As your main avatar levels, so too do your units. SpellForce 2 tends to blend the "light" and "dark" races into one mass, meaning that you'll usually be using humans, elves, and dwarves or orcs, trolls, and barbarians all in one base. Each race has its strengths and weaknesses, and thus, this strategy salad is more than just a matter of taste; it's a necessity.
For example, elves have excellent archers and healers, but their range isn't comparable to the dwarven siege wagon. Use the distance of the dwarf boulder-hucking device, and let the archers mop up any retaliation. I personally feel that the balance of strategy is excellent, if only because I can actually play it without getting completely lost in micromanagement. If there's any one critique I can point out, it's that SpellForce 2 tends to support the turtle-tactic too often. The key to success is usually to just hold off attackers long enough to develop a massive ranged fighting force, then move out to slaughter all enemies. The resources are rarely sparse enough to warrant a severe need to expand outwards in desperation for more stone. That's not to say it doesn't ever happen, but usually, everything you need to clear a map will be included right next to your headquarters.
Avatar development has been simplified, too. You no longer need to assign your statistics; you just grow stronger over time. Additionally, the skills have been re-distributed to a tree. Using melee as an example, you begin with "combat," moving on to "light" or "heavy" combat, then to light weapons, heavy weapons, light armor, heavy armor, and so on. Spells work in the same way, splitting up schools of magic along the same lines as light/heavy weapons. Each new skill brings with it not only the freedom to use weapons, armors, or spells suited to the skill, but also new abilities to use in battle.
This system isn't as solid as it seems on the surface. Each new notch on the tree requires that a certain amount of points have been spent in total. This means that, until your avatar is on their mid-20s, you'll be somewhat of a "Jack of All Trades." You cannot specialize in say, daggers, without spending your points to max out in combat, light combat, heavy combat, light and heavy weapons, light and heavy armor, and then finally dual-wield daggers. As there are three levels in each skill, you can see how long it will take before you can become an individualist character. I still prefer this structure to the percentage-point system employed by SpellForce 1 though, so I suppose a golf-clap is in order.
Graphically, everything in SpellForce 2 has been built upon and improved from the original. The keyword here is "more" – the textures are more detailed, the models have more polygons, the shadows are more dynamic, and the lighting is more realistic. This could all be construed as a paradigm-setting effort, but it really just comes down to an excess of polish. Unfortunately, shadows have a blocky, jagged appearance, and extra anti-aliasing doesn't seem to do anything but blur the edges, make the shadows look jittery, and contribute to framerate lag and system instability. This is a holdover from SpellForce 1, which also tended to crash if you cranked all of the settings to their highest. There are two areas that Phenomic did excel in, however: reflections and artistic design. Anything that has a shiny surface looks simply amazing, showing off glitter, sparkle, and gloss in equal measures.
Water is stunning, although like many new 3D titles coming along these days, it still looks more like liquid glass than H2O. Either way, the shimmering ripples are hypnotic to gaze upon. For my money though, the design is what I love most about SpellForce 2. The Art Direction manager for this game is a gentleman by the name of Sven Liebich, and together with his crew of 15 artists, he's sculpted a seamlessly beautiful world of lush fantasy. Under their guidance, Eo has grown from a massive world into a massive, detailed, and living world. Every weapon has been forged into the kind of item you'd want on display in your house, and each separate piece of armor just looks cool. The surest sign the designers have done a good job is if you find your narcissistic habits on the rise; every new item you gather will usually result in a quick zoom in so you can gaze upon how much more majestic your hero looks. In my opinion, SpellForce 2 is the only fantasy RPG that has been able to match World of Warcraft for elegant design.
Variety is an applicable word to throw into this mix, in that SpellForce 2 comes with two single-player modes, as well as cooperative online play and competitive multiplayer, too. Aside from the extensive storyline campaign, there is a "Freeplay" mode that hands you a character and sets you loose in the "Westguard," a kingdom established by your avatar as part of the prime campaign. From there, you can adventure forward, traversing all the islands of Eo. This is also how you work through co-op online – each player is a member of the overall team of heroes. This Freeplay mode feels almost like a MMO in that you're just assigned random quests as you encounter them, and your overall goal is to build yourself up in power, as opposed to the plot point-to-plot point structure of the campaign mode.
Rumors of Phenomic/JoWood developing a persistent-world version of Eo have surfaced, and this Freeplay mode in SpellForce 2 merely gels the concept into a delectably tangible sweetmeat. Such ideas fill me with a giddy cheer, which immediately goes to war with my preternatural instincts for jaded skepticism. One imagines the emotional vortex I experience when allowing for the briefest whimsy regarding this possibility. I assure you, it is every bit as absurd as it sounds. To underscore my initial point, SpellForce 2 offers an immense replay value.
The astute observer may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the plot at all. This is calculated, in that I am hoping to save the best for your own discovery, and that if I went into further detail, this review would become a novella and not many people want to read 500+ pages whilst sitting in front of their monitors. As it stands, I've had to cut out too many details just to keep myself within reason. This may seem like shameless self-promotion, but I do urge you to read my earlier preview of SpellForce2 if you desire even more information regarding the specifics of the game. Allow me to sum up: in my opinion, drenched in syllables as it may be, SpellForce 2 is an absolute must-have title for anyone who is a fan of fantasy PC gaming. I loved the original, and Phenomic has improved the franchise in every possible way, with better graphics, better voice actors, better story-flow, a far more efficient and user-friendly interface, and a far smoother travel system that helps the dynamics of play. Europeans already know this is the best of the best; take the plunge and see why this is the most successful series overseas. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
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