I'll admit right off the bat that I never played the original Spellforce. I wish my excuse could be because it was before my time, but come on - 2004 wasn't THAT long ago. But I was one of the many PC gamers in North America who overlooked the original Spellforce.
Still, it's hard not to get excited when a role-playing/real-time strategy hybrid lands on your desk. I enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard when it came out last year, and hoped Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars would be just as engaging.
Well, the good news is that it's not half bad. However, that implies that it's not half good, either.
The problem with hybrids like this are that you can't expect to spend much time managing stats and leveling up, and looking for loot is kind of tough when you have a kingdom to save. Plus, the RTS side of Spellforce 2 doesn't really allow for too much customization.
The most attractive element of RPGs is that they are pretty simple when you break them down to their individual parts, and largely complexity is added by the amount of involvement the gamer chooses to invest in management. And much of the enjoyment of RPGs comes from planning your management strategy. When I played Diablo II for the first time, I had a list of how I planned to spend each character/skill point I got whenever I leveled up written down on three pages of notebook paper.
In an RTS, it's similar: You must figure out which units are needed to handle which situations, gauge the relative strengths and weaknesses of the forces, incorporate decisions about terrain and possibly even manage some kind of resource gathering in order to maintain supply lines and troop production.
Both the RPG and the RTS genres are largely about management. In RPGs, it is a very micro-management of skills, abilities and inventory. In RTS games, the management typically happens at a much larger level. Both have their strategic qualities, and both genres are fun and popular.
To combine these very complicated game types into one hybrid makes for an uncomfortable level of detail and management that will definitely annoy some players. Even enjoying both of these genres, and being something of a stats-fiend, in the end it is more than I really want to deal with at any one time. I usually feel like playing an RTS or an RPG, not both.
Spellforce also draws on RPG gameplay style a lot, and for some RPG fans, this will definitely be strange. The RTS elements are intense, sometimes chaotic, and challenging (sometimes not in the good kind of way, either, but more on that later). For those not accustomed to the RTS experience, Spellforce 2 might be overwhelming at first.
But have no fear, dear gamers, there is good news.
Spellforce 2 is a good game. I couldn't get into it as much as I wanted to because I couldn't get into the full avatar configuration, which is a much-hyped quality of the game. The preview version features a female character who isn't really specialized in melee combat over magic. I always prefer to play as melee tanks, be them female or male, so that affected my gaming style. However, the developers, Phenomic, made this version of their game open in regards to combat to accomodate different gamers' tastes.
Spellforce 2's story is pretty standard as fantasy games go. The kingdom is imperiled and you must unite certain groups to stave off the end of the world. Blah blah. The story is obviously not the focus of this game. No matter -- give me a sword and some enemies to swing it at and I'm usually happy.
Which Spellforce 2 does admirably. It even has an optional third person behind-the-back view you can switch to if you zoom in enough. However, when you have 30 units following you around, it can get kind of confusing trying to keep track of them in all of the mess that battles throw your way.
The graphics are especially nice, and the cutscenes are frequent, but not frequent or long enough to pull you out of the game. Battles rage on land and in the air, often resulting in amazing, chaotic scenes. Seeing numerous winged fantasy creatures battling above a field of warriors is definitely exciting. This quality of the game alone will attract some.
My main beef with Spellforce 2 centers around mission design. In the introduction, the resources are always right next to, or inside of, your base camp. However, in the first mission, there wasn't a resource in sight by the time I made it to the first base my character controlled. The resources weren't sold separately, however, but located far from my position. However, not knowing this, I spent them all buying units thinking this was it - the end of the world. By the time I made it to the resources, I found myself too broke to do anything but send my poor workers over to them, through dangerous, unclaimed territory to harvest it. They then proceeded to be picked off one by one by flying enemies that seemingly popped out of nowhere.
This ended up not being the end of the world, though, just the end of that attempt to beat the mission. In general Spellforce involves a little too much trial and error for my liking.
All in all, I enjoyed my time with Spellforce 2. If you're an RTS fan on any level, you should have fun with Spellforce 2. However, RPG fans should be warned - Spellforce 2 can cause humiliating death to the strategically impaired.
Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars is scheduled to release on April 24, 2006. Interested gamers should download a copy of the Spellforce 2 demo here