SpellForce: The Order of Dawn

Platform(s): Arcade, Game Boy Advance, GameCube, Nintendo DS, PC, PSOne, PSP, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360
Genre: RPG/Strategy

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


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PC Review - 'SpellForce: The Order of Dawn'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Feb. 22, 2004 @ 2:53 a.m. PST

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Encore / JoWood
Developer: Phenomic
Release Date: February 11, 2004

Yes, I know what you are thinking right now. "Oh jeez, yet another developer tossing their hat into the RTS ring?" is probably bouncing around in your mind right now, and most gamers have good reason to have that initial reaction when it comes to the genre. Phenomic's Spellforce is indeed an RTS and does indeed put you in the shoes of the commander of your very own army, but unlike the hordes of other cookie-cutter RTSs Spellforce actually adds a few new twists to the tried and true RTS gameplay and comes across as a rather fresh experience.

At a glance, Spellforce is what you would get if you were to mix some of the quality RTS gameplay found in games such as Warcraft 3 with the role-playing aspects seen in such titles as Diablo 2. Saving the latter half of that statement for later, the meat of Spellforce's gameplay is of course real-time strategy in which you command a handful of worker and combat units to do you bidding. There are six playable races in Spellforce, made up of humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, trolls, and dark elves, with each having their own traits, strengths, and weaknesses rather than being simple mirrors of each other with different looks. To produce a base of any type of race you first have to capture a shrine building of that race and produce some basic worker units, which in turn build the brunt of your outpost. Worker units can also specialize themselves in certain areas of expertise, such as hunting wild animals or fishing. To put an even further twist upon the different races each race can only harvest certain materials from certain areas, which would be a problem save for the fact that you can control multiple different shrine areas at once. With the control of more shrines than of just a single race you can not only build a second base but also a more well rounded army.

In Spellforce's storyline, the world has been broken up into a series of islands by a group of powerful mages, with each race inhabiting their share of the islands and greedily trying to snatch the islands from other races for their own habitation. Not unexpectedly or unsurprisingly, it is the player's task to reunite the 6 races and stop the unnecessary bloodshed between them. In the continuation of the storyline you aren't simply beating mission after mission and reading text explaining your actions or watching a cutscene between them, but rather actively learning more about the goings on of the world via interactions between your main avatar and other people such as townsfolk or special people.

Borrowing a bit from Warcraft 3's book is Spellforce's avatar system. Avatars are essentially extremely powerful units that you control not unlike any other, though their similarities end there. Avatars can be outfitted with various weapons and armor, Diablo 2 style, to increase their defensive capabilities or their attack damage. Avatars can also learn spells to give a cunning commander and extra edge when sending their forces into the fray. These items can either be found on the corpses of slain enemies or can be bought via merchants found in certain areas in certain maps such as towns or villages. A nice feature of avatars is the ability to scroll the camera right down to a behind the shoulder view of your avatar, which can give a more personal view of a battle. While in this view you can also control the selected avatar directly, though it feels less like a 3rd person game and more like, well, controlling a RTS unit with a ground level view.

At its current state Spellforce has its fair share of both interesting features and small irks. For instance there is a perpetual day and night cycle that casts the lands into shadow followed by the gentle rays of dawn, which is such a natural transition in gameplay that you might not notice it the first few minutes you play. Day and night does directly influence the strength of your units, as light side races (Humans, Elves, Dwarves) will perform better in the daytime while dark side races (Trolls, Orcs, Dark Elves) will perform better under the cloak of the night. On the irksome side building your base can feel a bit constrained due to the fact that you cannot place certain buildings in certain areas for a variety of reasons. In a bottleneck before a canyon entrance most players would build a couple towers evenly spaced on either side, but in Spellforce you may have to place one in a spot a sizable distance away. Regular builds fall to the same quirk, and players who enjoy making nice and tidy base clusters will find themselves a bit frustrated at first.

Spellforce's graphics rate fairly highly against other games in the genre with quality textures and models overall and a good attention to detail. Trees and other map objects leave realistic shadows behind them during the daytime, you can pick out individual planks of wood on the side of your buildings, and tufts of grass and bushes can be seen dotting some of the plains areas. Spellforce's graphical ensemble really packs a punch when you see mages of opposing factions fling magic at each other's forces, or even simpler things such as surveying the look of your base as lit by an evening sun. Units tend to look a bit grainy at a distance and a bit bland up close but for the most part your viewpoint is somewhere in the middle, effectively nullifying both.

From an audio standpoint, Spellforce delivers fairly strongly in the musical department but lags behind a bit when it comes to the sound effects. The musical score is largely orchestral in its instrumentation and does wonders for establishing a sort of fantasy mood that fits the on-screen action well. As for the sound effects, they don't really jump out and grab you with a varied array of crisp sound effects, but they also don't repeat themselves for every hit and become annoying. That's not to say the sound effects are all of the average quality, as the casting and sending forth of a magic spell or the vocalizations of a troll invasion force do tend to stand out and grab your attention. Each avatar has their own voiceovers, which are used for the most part in cutscenes where the avatars speak with other people. The quality of voiceovers range from fairly low to fairly high depending on which character you are listening to, though thankfully you don't really hear the bad VOs too often as they are usually associated to characters that don't make much more than a guest appearance.

Overall Spellforce is an RTS game that doesn't hide behind its genre with the same gameplay and features of every other RTS game but rather tries to break the mold down a bit and carve out a new facet of the genre for itself. The RTS gameplay is solid and presented well, and while the way you control multiple races via set shrine points may take a bit of getting used to most players will take to it like a fish to water within minutes. The avatar system is a beefier system than what you'll find in any other RTS game on the market and offers for a little higher degree of flexibility and even strategy, outfitting your avatars with various weapons and spells in order to complement the other normal units of your attacking force. A little more direct control over the avatars while at ground level would have been welcomed, but at its heart Spellforce is an RTS game after all. While it doesn't have a huge budget or a big name behind it, Spellforce does come across as a solid title that not only has great looks and decent sound in relation to other games in the genre but also stands as a fresh new look at the RTS genre.

Score: 8.3/10

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