SpellForce: The Order of Dawn Review
publisher: JoWooD Productions
developer: Phenomic Game Development
PIII 1000, 256MB RAM, 32MB Video Card
|ESRB rating: T
release date: Feb 10, 04
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Ranko "Arjuna" Trifkovic
Who doesn't want to be a part of an epic fantasy tale? Well, Spell Force is as epic as they get. In short, Spell Force could be described as a mix of top-notch titles such as Dungeon Siege and Warcraft III, with a dash of Age of Mythology: Titans and Evil Islands.
As far as the story is concerned, you can expect a few interesting moments. Rohen is the only Circle Mage that survived the Convocation; the great plague that nearly destroyed the entire world of Eo. After the cataclysm, Eo was nothing more than an archipelago, floating on the astral ocean. Rohen is struggling to reunite all the races and restore the world to its former glory. Another surviving Circle Mage, the one responsible for triggering the Convocation, opposes him. Anyway, the whole storyline seems to be similar to those we've witnessed in titles like Rage of Mages, Etherlords, and Evil Islands, all created by Russian development team, Nival Interactive. Though both Nival and Phenomic have the same publisher (Jowood), they swear that idea had not been borrowed, nor were they aware of any similarities with the material from the aforementioned games. Oh well, I guess nowadays people won't mind if a concept was stolen... oops, I mean "borrowed" as long as the game turns out okay. From what we've experienced, Spell Force is not spectacular or anything, but it's enjoyable enough to keep you occupied for quite some time.
The plot has a few interesting twists. Instead of portraying a typical good vs. evil struggle, the developers took a slightly different approach. You will be able to experience the game by wielding light and dark races simultaneously with no restrictions whatsoever. Mixing, of course, is always a bit tricky. Remember, there really shouldn't be any Dwarf-tossing and you're going to want to separate Elves, Orcs and Trolls. (No dwarf-tossing!! Then I'm not playing it, no way! -Petrodon) If you stick to this, everything should be fine. This interesting option is plagued by complex logistics. Every nation has its own food supply and you will need to build an entire infrastructure, just in order to get a few good units from an allied race. But, it's not entirely impossible to field a mixed army.
Before you choose your race and alignment (good or evil), you are also able to select from a range of hero characters (male or female - there's about 30 different faces for each gender). Additionally, you can opt for a predefined character profile and even tailor your own clothes. The skill system is not exactly D&D, but it's slightly more ambitious than the one used in, say, Dungeon Siege. Your character may not be so versatile at the beginning, but as the game progresses, you'll be able to improve on several attributes. There are a few light and heavy melee fighting styles available, as well as ranged combat, and four types of magic - White, Elemental, Death, and Mind. Each one of these has numerous sub-skills. For example, Light Melee warrior has the option to advance light blunt, light edged, shields, and light armor, while White Magic has Nature, Life and Boons disciplines, etc. Given the sheer number of combinations, you can create very interesting "classes" such as elemental ranger, paladin, death mage, warrior mage, etc. This aspect definitively adds some replay value to the game. Speaking of replaying, Phenomic crew claims that the game has four different endings, which depends entirely on the path chosen by players.
The game offers a choice of varied professions. Since the gameplay is well-balanced, the experience is different according to the profession you opted for. For example, the first couple of levels are easier to complete with a warrior rather than a mentalist (who specialize in Defense Magic). Later on, warriors gain more might via various items, while mentalist characters gain great power by wielding magic. The cool thing is that players may blend professions if they wish; hence, you can always train a warrior-mage character. When choosing which skills to upgrade, inexperienced gamers are advised to pay close attention to the hints and tips offered by the game. Advancing skills is possible only once your basic attributes are upgraded to a certain point. In order to reach higher levels you will need extremely advanced attributes, so it's wise to use any bonus items you have lying around. Each level-up gives you 5 points you can allocate to boost your attributes, so think before you make your move. Every character can improve the following basic attributes: Strength, Stamina, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charm. Stamina measures your hit points, Strength increases damage, Dexterity enhances skills in ranged combat, Agility improves the character's speed and reflexes, Intelligence is crucial for gaining higher levels in magic, Wisdom translates to mana and, finally, Charm is important for characters like the mentalist.
Embarking on the quest to save the world, your hero will have to go through 26 islands. There are exactly 27 playable maps and a huge number of missions to resolve before you actually save the world. The game involves a slick combination of real-time strategy and role playing. One of the most enjoyable aspects is that you are able to move about freely from island to island... provided there's an open portal available. This means you can return to earlier maps and take care of uncompleted quests or comb the area for any cool items you might've left behind. All the objects, buildings, resources, units will stay behind, so when you return to a map, you don't have to begin from scratch. If, by any chance, you've swept through the entire map during your last visit, monsters won't be respawning randomly. But if you've left at least one enemy spawn point, they will repopulate and start bothering the peasants again. (And by bothering, he means chopping them into peasant kibbles. - Petrodon)
Island maps are nicely designed in the classic snaking style, to provide for more space (128x128 grid, right?). Playing through each map features a solid choice of challenging side missions, which are fairly fun to play. Actually, they come as a rather nice break from your main goals. Some side-quests are closely related to the story (like escorting elven rangers), while others cling to a separate scenario (like bringing some brandy to an already drunk dwarf). (If he passes out then he becomes easier to toss! -Petrodon, Grandmaster of Dwarf-Tossing)
8.0 Very Good
Great story, excellent combo of RTS and RPG elements, decent visuals, good AI and path finding, a true sense of adventure with an epic feel thrown into the mix;
Rather unpolished, too easy at times (especially the RTS bit), units balancing, clunky interface, voice acting, steep hardware requirements.