Video games afford users a reprieve from their daily responsibilities, offering everything from riveting stories to competitive climates. Moreover, when delving into how these virtual worlds provide gamers with both entertainment and a sense of accomplishment, one may find that a good place to begin is to highlight the various genres within the industry. Much like literary tales or cinematic fables, video games come with different themes and qualities. Often, these interactive stories are developed to fit one overarching genre. Spellforce 3, however, uses two genres to bring its world to life.
The staff behind a game’s creation sometimes defy industry standards and conjure a realm that pulls disparate elements from multiple genres. One such title is Spellforce 3, a tactical role-playing game (RPG) that illuminates the strengths of the RPG and real-time strategy (RTS) categories. Developed and published by Grimlore Games and THQ Nordic respectively, Spellforce 3’s mixed genre both enhances and dilutes its quality. The strongest aspects are the graphics, audio, and immersion factors. Unfortunately, the story and a few gameplay mechanics prevent Spellforce 3 from being great, instead lowering its overall quality to average.
Visually, the game conforms to standards set by both the industry and modern technology. The setting is that of a vibrant fantasy world teeming with adventure, beauty, and danger. From the predatorial beasts in the lush forests to the menacing outlaws in the dry deserts, Spellforce 3 brings yet another otherworldly realm to life. The amount of detail put into the world’s different terrains provides a strong sense of captivation. Trees tower over the player’s units as tall, brown behemoths waiting to be chopped down and used as a source of productivity for the user’s faction; grass is green and wavy; desert areas are craggy and desolate, giving off a sense of aridity that induces thirst; and lakes sparkle with pristine gleams that can quench the thirst coaxed by the desert at a mere glance. Faction buildings are diverse, conveying singularity between each faction’s culture. Additionally, the various species within the game’s world are every bit as unique as the different factions, some appearing large and powerful while others are small and numerous. Much like the independent units that lurk across the various maps, each culture’s citizens and combat units are distinct and polished. Orcs appear as muscular brutes, which is normal within many fantasy realms. Elves seem majestic, portrayed as more regal, agile, and educated than the other two factions. Humans take their lead from both orcs and elves, having brutish and august features, but at a less exaggerated level than their counterparts. All of these visuals blend together well to deliver an augmented world, but cannot propel Spellforce 3 to the top of the video game ladder alone.
Pushing the game up to higher rungs on the proverbial ladder are audio features that excel at augmenting Spellforce 3’s impressive graphics. The soundtrack stands out as a series of entrancing sequences that envelops players’ ears and draws them ever-deeper into the world. As with the intense battle scenes from the Lord of the Rings films, Spellforce 3’s skirmishes spark orchestral instrumentals and get gamers’ adrenaline pumping. While the soundtrack is sublime, the combat sounds are typical of titles set in a fantasy world, particularly one that draws inspiration from medieval periods. Swords and shields clash and bang; arrows zip through the air; and magical elements make noises appropriate for the type of spell being conjured, such as fireballs whooshing, lightning crackling, and healing circles humming. Standard as the combat sounds may be, they are well-executed. In an industry saturated with games that throw players into intense melees, innovating audio is a nigh-impossible task. Stories, withal, have more opportunities for inventive twists.
Spellforce 3 does not take advantage of those opportunities to fabricate an original tale, sadly. The plot is typical, pitting three factions in a race to increase their own power and gain an edge over their enemies. The game attempts to blur the lines between good and evil by having complex characters, but ultimately falls short of achieving depth thanks to rudimentary personas. Contributing to this cheapening of the characters is the middling voice acting. While the different accents and dictions are decent, the dedication to each personality is noticeably dispassionate, thus detracting from the player’s immersion and interest in the story. The abundance of clichés within the tale is equally unsavory, leaving the impression that the story was an afterthought that exists purely to showcase the gameplay.
The game’s mechanics are the most conflicting facet of Spellforce 3. Some mechanics are intrinsic, model examples of each of the genres mingled in the title. Other gameplay features, however, feel deficient, as if implemented at the last minute without room for in-depth exploration. Drawing inspiration from titles such as Age of Empires III and Stronghold 3, Spellforce 3’s gameplay sees players micromanaging every piece of their civilization. Each culture uses non-combat units to gather resources to put towards constructing various buildings and purchasing soldiers and other military units, such as mages and artillery devices. The further players expand their territory, the more citizens they have available to acquire assets. Similar to most RTS titles, Spellforce 3 forces gamers to keep track of their available resources and use them wisely to simultaneously defend their own territory and invade that of their enemies. However, within this standard adherence to genre norms lays a fatal flaw: lackluster combat. In most RTS games, combat is an exciting endeavor that enhances the core gameplay through a reliance on strategy rather than brute force. In Spellforce 3, taking the time to build up resources to create a larger force can make conquering enemies as simple as pointing and clicking. While some units offer powerful bonuses to the rest of the player’s forces, an advantage in numbers is more often than not the key to victory. This reality is a missed opportunity, as the title has the potential to be quite challenging. If more of an emphasis was put on strategic positioning and unit variety, the combat could take Spellforce 3 to new heights. Alas, the developer seems more open to having good ideas as opposed to fully executing those concepts. Fortunately, some of those good ideas make the game an interesting time sink.
One of the RPG concepts that blends rather well with the RTS aspect of the game is that of skill points for hero characters. Heroes, as the word suggests, are powerful characters who act as either defenders, healers, or aggressors, with some even combining pieces of those roles. Each faction has unique heroes, but all of them fill at least one of the three aforementioned categories. Humans, for example, can field a sorcerer who can burn multiple enemies with fireballs or electrocute them with lightning. Elves can utilize an assassin character who guts single targets with dual-wielded daggers. The orcs possess a brutal warrior who charges into the fray and smashes enemies’ skulls while buffing allies using passive defensive auras. Each faction has multiple heroes, and players can use multiple heroes at once—up to a maximum of four simultaneously. What makes heroes particularly interesting is the use of skill points to enhance their abilities. While this feature is not uncommon among RTS titles, especially in games such as Total War: Warhammer II, Spellforce 3’s skillpoint system is reminiscent of massive multiplayer online games (MMO), such as World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls Online. Skill points are acquired by having heroes engage in combat and leveling up. Each level allows players to upgrade that hero’s abilities, ranging from healing circles to damage output, or increase an attribute level, such as strength or intelligence. Attributes determine the hero’s affinity for certain roles, including their skill with particular types of melee weapons (swords, axes, staves) or the potency of their magic. The leveling system for heroes brings some depth to the game, and, if not for this RPG aspect, Spellforce 3 would be far too mundane to be considered worthwhile.
Not all games are going to be winners, just as not all games will be losers. Some raise the bar for the industry while others lower it, and some do not move the bar at all. Spellforce 3 is one of those titles that does nothing to improve or diminish the standard. The gameplay is intricate in some areas and flat in others, the story is irrelevant, the audio is well-executed but not inventive, and the graphics are superb. The game is by no means a flop, but it is not a title people will be praising for years to come. In short, Spellforce 3 is worth a look, but not for the USD$50.00 price tag.