Sunday, June 04, 2006

SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars Review

SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, developed by Phenomic Game Development and published by Aspyr Media.
The Good: Unique RPG/RTS gameplay, online co-op support, lovely graphics, good user interface
The Not So Good: Strategy options could have more depth, no autosave
What say you? A successful hybrid of real time strategy and role playing: 7/8

Role-playing games and real time strategy titles have normally been to separate but equal genres in PC gaming, until recently that is. Now that developers are running out of original ideas, it seems that combining two seemingly different types of games is the trendy thing to do. Enter SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, the sequel to the wildly popular Nintendogs (I am kidding, of course; SpellForce 2 is actually the sequel to Mega Man Battle Chip Challenge). The original SpellForce games were titles that were released to relatively low fanfare; in fact, I have never heard of it, and I am omnipotent. In any event, SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars attempts to combine the best aspects of RPG and RTS games into one fluid package, that will hopefully not contain any real fluid. Will SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars succeed? Why is my CD leaking? Is that fluid hazardous?

SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars has some fantastic graphics for any type of game. The game world is rendered in full 3-D with many special effects. It may not be exactly on par with Oblivion, but the game is played from a much farther perspective and a lot of the same elements seen in that game are present here. All of the models in the game are finely detailed, from the buildings to the characters to the blades of grass. In addition, the game features accelerated day and night cycles, complete with dynamic shadows that move according to the sun’s position and reddish hues during sunset. All of the spells in the game are well done, delivering a believably powerful air. Showing some of its RPG roots, SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars allows for a 3rd person view during the game, where the camera changes from the classic RTS isometric perspective to an over-the-shoulder RPG perspective. Although the game is much more difficult to play from the 3rd person view, it is a nice addition and shows off some of the graphical prowess of the game. The sound is essentially along the same lines. SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars has a superb soundtrack: the background music is well orchestrated and comes in during key moments of the game. The voice acting could have been better, but overall the quality of the sound and the graphics are both well above average.

SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars plays as one part Warcraft and one part Diablo. There are three game modes that you can enjoy, and each of them mixes the RPG and RTS elements in different ratios. The main part of the game is the rather lengthy campaign (which includes a tutorial) that follows the path of your character as they save the world. The campaign features the usual gamut of fantasy name, although there is one NPC named “Craig Un'Shallach.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fantasy-based game with a character named Craig. Bravo, SpellForce 2! The campaign features the best mix of RTS and RPG. SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars features all the usual RPG trappings. Your inventory is where you can equip different items (hoods, necklaces, armor, rings, weapons, and shields) and the game’s tooltips indicate the relative properties of a selected item and your currently equipped item, in case you want to switch them out. New items can be gained by purchasing them from a merchant or finding them on dead enemies. Each of the main heroes has spells they can use during the game. Casting spells is very easy, as all the available spells are listed as icons below the character’s pictures on-screen at all times. This eliminates a lot of the micromanagement you usually have to deal with when playing with a large group of people in a RPG, as you can cast spells from different characters without switching around. Select an enemy (by clicking on them or pressing TAB for the closest one), and click away with the spells. Experience is gained during the game by completing quests. Most of the quests are linear in the campaign, although you can discover optional quests if you explore each of the game’s maps. Your experience points are spent on the skill tree, where you can select between improving your combat or magic skills, and each improvement will provide an additional skill or spell you can use during the game. This allows a level of customization during the game to better fit what type of character you’d like to have.

The quests in the game usually involve going somewhere and defeating the enemies along the way, or defeating the enemies at a specific location. Some of the quests are just your band of merry men, but most of them require you to raise an army, and this is where the real time strategy elements kick in. SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars is very Warcraft-like in nature concerning the strategy elements of the game. You are initially given a headquarters and some worker units. Worker units can build buildings or gather resources. There are three resources in the game: stone for buildings, silver for units, and lenya for elite units. You can choose to automatically assign new worker units to gather a specific resource, another advantage of the user interface. Building types include military-producing barracks, farms that raise your military population cap, and defensive towers. You can choose to construct additions to your headquarters that will allow for the construction of more powerful units. For example, the Realm faction can produce elite human, elven, or dwarf units (or all three) by selecting the appropriate upgrade and constructing the unit-producing buildings. The three specialized unit types for each faction are essentially the same, although there are some minor differences in them. SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars makes controlling your units fairly simple, with “select all military units,” “select idle workers,” quick selecting unit-producing buildings, and the aforementioned directly assigning workers to gather a specific resource all helping the user. The RTS parts of SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars aren’t terribly innovative, but we’ve never seem them paired with RPG ingredients so well before.

SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars also has a free game mode, where you can play on any of the game’s 31 maps from the campaign (although it depends on your character’s current level) either by yourself or online. The free play games provide a mix of RPG quests with RTS base building, much like the campaign. The great advantage here is that you can take your character online and play cooperatively. In this way, SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars plays a lot like a MMORPG; you could say that the game’s 31 maps are much like instanced quests seen in games such as Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach (and there’s no monthly fee here). If this wasn’t enough, you can also engage in skirmish battles against the computer or online as well. The skirmish games are RTS-heavy, and that’s too bad. They feature pre-canned hero units that are already at level 30 with pre-selected spells and skills. I would like to see some of the RPG elements shine through the skirmish battles: having NPC monsters strewn around the map that can level up your heroes would be a nice touch. This is similar to what’s done in Kohan II (my favorite RTS of all time). Most of the online game are free games, which is not surprising considering the relatively limited nature of the skirmish battles.

A lot of games that try to infuse other genres in them do so superficially: adding experience points to a first person shooter, or base building to an adventure game. SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars shows that you can take equal proportions of two genres and combine them effectively, producing a fun game that’s an original product. The game is at its best when you have RTS base building and tactical command with RPG quests, loot, and experience taking place in the same level. This is common during the campaign and seen to a lesser extent in the free games. The RTS or RPG parts of the game on their own would not have been as good, but SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars is a game that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Add to this outstanding graphics and numerous MMO-like multiplayer options, and you have a very complete package that should appeal to most gamers. It’s unfortunate, then, that SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars is not called “The Lord of the Rings,” because then it would sell the number of copies it should. Still, SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars is a great title that brings two apparently disparate genres together in a complete presentation.