The Mage Wars have ended but the world isn’t at peace. A deadly plague and a fanatical group killing magical beings keep the populace in fear. But there is hope, though it comes from the unlikeliest source, the heir to the madman behind the Mage Wars. This is Spellforce III.
Genre(s): Real Time Strategy RPG
Developer: THQ Nordic
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Release Date: December 2017
Played Single Player Campaign
Purchase At: Steam
I love the Spellforce series. I remember playing the first two instalments in the series soon after finishing the Warcraft III campaigns, as it promised a RTS experience, one with RPG elements. But where Blizzard dabbled, the developers of Spellforce dove right in, creating a true RTS & RPG hybrid, one where your heroes play as characters from traditional role-playing games, where you increase not only their levels but their attributes and pick abilities from complex skill trees.
Each game in the series has brought something new to the table, from new and exciting races, to exploring new lands in the wide world that is Spellforce’s setting.
Spellforce III is no different in this regard, with a campaign that seems to focus on a single race at first before opening up and giving you the choice of approach. You see, as part of the plot you may recruit Elves and Orcs to go with your human allies, and once you do, you get to pick which forces you’ll use to accomplish whatever story task is next.
Each army has its own leader, a party member for the protagonist, and a quartermaster that sells upgrades for the armies, specifically cost reduction and production speed plans. Much like previous instalments, the armies start with basic units, buildings and upgrades and it’s through finding plans and blueprints that you unlock the more advanced stuff. The downside is that all armies feel samey, with essentially the same buildings and unit types and using the same resources, which is something I loved about Spellforce II, where playing elves was a profoundly different experience to playing with a human army.
But while the expansion of your armies’ capabilities remains the same as earlier titles in the series, the very management of your forces and resources in Spellforce III is bafflingly clunky, with a system that seems more at home with long turn-based strategy titles like Civilisation but that is anything but convenient for a real-time strategy titles.
In Spellforce III, tactics and combat depend on expansion. You must create new bases to extend your armies’ capabilities, which makes sense, as expansion is the basic principal behind conquest. But where in other titles you’re free to set up new camps wherever you see fit, in Spellforce III, at least in the single player campaign which is what I played, you can only place new bases in specific locations marked on the map, and these outposts drive your resources.
Where in other RTS titles your accumulated resources are readily available, no matter how spread out your camps are, in this game you have to wait for supplies to arrive to the given outposts before any building, unit generation or even upgrades can even start, and the carts only move within your borders, so if you decide to build a new settlement on the opposite end of the map, perhaps to set up a future pincer manoeuvre, you’re out of luck as this new settlement will be cut off from the main one and its richness of resources.
The outposts and their upgrades also determine how many workers you have and you can’t produce more, limiting what you can do in a given outpost. You assign them to work on resource buildings but you must also keep some at the main outpost, as those assigned to resource collection will only take those resources to that building. It’s then up to the carriers working at the outpost to carry the supplies from the resource buildings to the outpost and from there to whatever building requires the supplies for construction, upgrades or new units.
So at any given time, no matter how many resources you have, you’re waiting for a little guy to slowly walk towards other buildings carrying bundles of materials for those buildings to become effective. The hard limit of workers also makes it harder to have functional outposts with defensive towers, as they need workers from the same pool to be effective. If your tower doesn’t have at least one worker, it’s merely another target for your enemies, its only purpose to delay them. With the limits imposed on you, towers should work on their own, with workers added giving them automatic repairs or some other such ability. Sadly that’s not the case and it feels unfair.
It just doesn’t work with an RTS. True, it’s more realistic, but in the pursuit of greater logic you lose the fun aspect of the strategy and increase the frustration factor, without even mentioning how much it hinders your strategies. You’re limited to the settlements already in place and to always expand along your borders, with no space for unique or creative tactics, which is kinda the point. And while I’m sure the rules apply the same to the AI, many times I felt as if they had access to resources instantly, especially when I destroyed their supply caravans and they still pumped out units out of the nearby barracks. Perhaps the AI stockpiles, or perhaps they don’t really use the same rules. I’m not entirely sure.
Where the game really shines are those segments where you control only your heroes, which feels like playing Diablo. These sections are challenging and force you to use all your heroes’ skills items and your strategies against every group of enemies. Sometimes you just bash them with whatever you have, but other times you must go for the healers before taking out the tanks.
But despite my issues wit the strategy systems, the maps and tilesets are gorgeous, and may be the best looking RTS maps I’ve ever seen. What makes them special is not merely texturing but how detailed they are. When you’re playing in a jungle tile set, even the trees are different, to match the new climate. It’s brilliant stuff.
The plot of Spellforce III is interesting, a prequel to the rest of the series. The concept of the Bloodburn disease is great and the constant threat of a fanatical army for whom you work for in secret is also pretty neat, but the storytelling lacks impact and tension. It never feels as if the stakes are high enough, or at all, as your characters leisurely look for allies and pursue mission objectives without it ever feeling like you’re wasting time or losing what little you have. The Bloodburn is simply random like that, affecting some towns while leaving others intact.
It’s a far cry from the narrative of earlier titles in the series, where you essentially begin with the “villains” foot on your throat and as the game advances, they just bring in new friends to stomp on you and remind you they’re out there. The threat in Spellforce III is too nebulous for far too long.
The music in the Spellforce series has always been great and Spellforce III is no exception with some amazing and downright epic tunes. Voice acting is a bit of a hit and miss and everyone will instantly recognise Geralt of Rivia’s actor, Doug Cockle, playing yet another tough-guy character with that voice. I know that Doug can do a myriad of voices but he’s definitely been typecast, made to perform the same voice forever.
Spellforce III could’ve been a masterpiece. It has the beauty, the great sound, an intriguing plot that is pretty much the origin of the series, with characters who are legends in past titles, but the clunky border-expansion strategy system brings the experience down. The need to wait for resources to slowly spread around kills all momentum you may have, all enjoyment, tactical possibilities and ultimately just leads to frustration.
After all, no one wants to play a supply chain simulator.
3/5 – Alright.