The old school RTS continues to gather strength, with help from some friends in high level places.
Describing a game as a mash-up of two other well-known titles is lazy, but you know what? It's fun and sometimes useful, as in the case of SpellForce. 'Baldur's Gate meets Age of Mythology' is the sell, and third time out for this particular series I'm committed to updating the labels of the imaginary Venn diagram for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the game's role-playing strategy formula. And while it's tempting to stick with Baldur's Gate and Age of Mythology, especially as they remain in loyal service thanks to their respective enhanced/extended editions, after a number of unremarkable expandalones and dutiful anthologies, SpellForce 3 feels like the first in the series eager to break free of binary influences.
There are obvious aesthetic overtones from Divinity: Original Sin, narrative nods towards the racial and class animosities that bridge The Witcher series, and map-wide elements of strategy that can be traced back to Dawn of War and Company of Heroes - all of which suggest that while the team at Grimlore Games might not have a huge body of work to its own, they've certainly been getting their influences in order.
There's been some debate among SpellForcerers, new and old, as to where exactly SpellForce 3 exists on the ol' RPG-RTS teeterboard, for while the original had a well defined 50/50 split, developer Grimlore has reportedly been keen to shift the balance more towards story and hero advancement, while many newcomers have been attracted by favourable comparisons with WarCraft 3 (which itself was derivative of the original SpellForce).
I'm not sure the balance between strategy and role-playing has shifted significantly either way for SpellForce 3, but the definition between the two gameplay styles certainly has been adjusted. Previously it was like a border wall existed between the two genres, in that you always knew exactly when you were passing from role-playing to real-time strategy. In short, there wasn't much subtlety to be found (the cover art was indicative of that), and the only reason SpellForce worked was because the area at which the two genres were tethered was so pivotal that even at their weakest structural points they cradled the other. The real-time strategy was pretty decent without being great and and the character development between battles was passable without being awful, but it was the timely changeover in pace and emphasis that worked so well. It was a crude synergy that championed quantity over quality too, with numerous races and quests that seemed endless even before the expansions and sequels kicked in.
SpellForce 3 isn't as generous in terms of content as its predecessors. It has half the playable races as in the first game - just humans, orcs and elves are on offer here - with each lacking the levels of distinctiveness that might be hoped for or expected. The elves are flightier and favour ranged attacks, while the orcs are more brutish and melee focused, but the units and buildings are functionally more or less the same across the three civilisations.
Were it a traditional RTS, SpellForce 3 would quickly feel repetitive, as you invariably approach each new map with the same set of objectives with maybe a new unit or two to hopefully keep you engaged. Thankfully the battles are spaced out in such a way as to provide context within the character-driven campaign, so that while you have to establish bases and outposts at various points along the story, they are always in new locations, often with different forces (such as allied orc factions) and always after quite an intense and enjoyable period of dealing with monster spawns and discovering loot. Just as its RTS elements lack unit depth and diversity and the RPG portion lacks the consequence and freedom of a modern isometric game like Tyranny, the two parts combine to create something that is able to shift into gears - not always smoothly, mind - that no other title in either genre has.
To some extent it's the heroes that maketh SpellForce 3. You only get to have four in play at any one time, but there are a plenty of characters coming and going between each story arc. Also, while the six combat ability trees aren't the broadest, with around eight abilities each, most of them have two or three tiers - plenty of scope to develop characters into dual roles and thus cover all the standard RPG classes. Levelling is pretty quick - two dings per map-wide battle encounter - and since XP is applied to the whole party, when one hero levels up they all do.
The way limits are placed on hero abilities is through the control system, with each hero only able to have three abilities available at any one time. These are intuitively mapped to the left side of the keyboard and are accessible without getting in the way of the standard RTS shortcuts. In addition there's an excellent action wheel function mapped to the Alt key, which lets you fire off any of your equipped abilities on a targeted unit - friend or foe. It's a superbly implemented tool that would be essential even if it didn't conveniently slow down time when active.
Another feature of the game that stands out - and the one that's reminiscent of Company of Heroes - is the way the map is divided into regions that have to be captured and developed before you can start to gather the resources there. Your central base will be relatively abundance with wood and food, enough to assemble a sizeable basic force, but you need to establish outposts to secure the rarer resources, then upgrade buildings to recruit the more specialist units. The thing is, even when resources are abundant, manpower is often quite limited, meaning you have to wait for resources to arrive and then reassign workers between buildings to effect repairs or switch production.
Local resources add a welcome extra tactical layer to the game, especially when caravans shuttling your supplies can be attacked and destroyed with ease. Thankfully transport is automated, as are the movements of individual worker units - which means they never end up inadvertently press-ganged into military service, which was always a frustration of the Age of Empires and Cossacks games.
There remain a few technical issues with SpellForce 3, though they seem to be decreasing in scope and number rapidly. Some players have reported performance issues, but I have to say that I had none at all, just the occasional instance of disappearing functionality in the UI, where units that were necessary to progress couldn't be summoned. That's not been an issue for a couple of days, however, and with two or three small updates currently being rolled out on a daily basis, the developers are nothing if not dedicated. Frankly I wish they'd take a few days off - they probably need it.
While the script and delivery is out of whack in a few places and genuine asymmetry between the playable races would be warmly received, there's really very little about SpellForce 3 that warrants getting upset about. Perhaps there isn't a wide open world to explore and the routes to victory seem more focused on which heroes you recruit along the way, but there's enough more freedom in pace and plenty to enjoy just exploring the maps. Then there are the the multiplayer options - a main campaign can be played in tandem and an unspectacular but fully-featured skirmish mode. There's certainly far more to enjoy than there is to endure and for fans of RPGs or RTS games who might only have a passing interest in half of what SpellForce 3 has to offer, I can assure you that you won't be disappointed.
I'd even go so far as to say that SpellForce 3 is the best Baldur's Gate meets Age of Mythology ever.