SpellForce: The Order of Dawn

Review by Old Rooster
February 2004

I'm nearing the end of my most pleasant gaming surprise this new year and simply had to pen this review in order to share my enthusiasm. If you'll forgive the pun, SpellForce, created by the little-know European developer Phenomic, is—in a word—phenomenal.

In a daring approach tried by others, mostly without success, Phenomic has evolved a blended real-time strategy and role-playing experience, which they term RPS—"Role-Playing Strategy." Accompanying this novel gameplay approach is a most satisfying and long story, stunning graphics in a vast world, and a game engine that allows complete camera movement—even to a third-person "real-world" perspective. It's hard to believe this is Phenomic's first major production. Let's chat a bit about the game, hopefully without spoiling any of your own discoveries.

"Driven by Greed for Divine Power"

In an opening cinematic of which Peter Jackson would be proud, we are told the tale of thirteen Mages, who, in their vying for status, have destroyed the land. Shattering all in their path, the Universe is now comprised of only a few islands, connected by magic portals. Years later, one of the good Mages, Rohen, attempts to put the world back together with your help. However, there is also another Mage hanging around—the Dark One, who presents barriers and obstacles. Your long and arduous quest unfolds within this context.

Although the beautiful 42-page, 5×7-inch manual is clearly and comprehensively presented, the developers have also included one of the finest and most complete tutorials I've ever seen. Using Tahira as your guide, you'll learn the basics—character movement, camera rotation and zoom, building inventory and experience, summoning heroes to help, NPC conversations, the art of fighting. Initially, the game and its mechanics can seem a bit overwhelming. But this fine tutorial, even without the manual, will get you up and running, as well as adding a dose of encouragement and inspiration to your quest.

SpellForce Is an RPG Because ...

You begin the main campaign by creating a character or choosing one of the ready-made avatars. Points can be assigned, depending on the combat orientation of your character, with these areas building with experience (quests for others and fighting victories) during the course of the game. There are combat options, schools of magic, strength, stamina, intelligence, charisma. With the magical path, for example, over 100 spells are available! There are NPCs to converse with and merchants to patronize, as well as treasures that are dropped by defeated creatures and enemies. A quest log, character upgrades, and inventory are all available at the touch of a button. The game interface is extremely clear and efficiently laid out.

SpellForce Is an RTS Game Because ...

You need to create an army early in the campaign. Workers are summoned to build structures for an outpost, in classic RTS fashion (cf. Warcraft III). You can select and assign groups for various tasks including, eventually, combat. Settlements will be established with all of the six different races you encounter—humans, elves, dwarves (the White side); orcs, trolls, dark elves (the Dark side). Three basic and four sophisticated raw materials become available. Specific building plans, needed at particular times, also come your way. Upgrading and repairing buildings, as well as dealing with the classic "inactive workers" of RTS games, is also part and parcel of the RTS aspect of the game. Little pop-up windows, highlighted by colors, make clear the descriptions of characters as well as actions available.

Finally, point-and-click fighting, and related movement, is very reminiscent of RTS games. And you will have a lot of that to do and enjoy during your 60-plus hours. Phenomic has developed a neat twist on the typical approach called "Click 'n' Fight." A simple click on an enemy within range shows all possible actions that may be performed—spells, swordplay, etc. A click on a specific action is all it takes to complete the attack. From your avatar fights to large-scale battles, this approach has worked very nicely, saving considerable time, effort, and even possible premature death! These battles are particularly enjoyable to observe in the third-person perspective, where the game world looks more vibrant and "alive." The included pictures show my battle with the Minotaur, Gronz, a nasty fellow. Included is a three-quarters perspective and also a terrifying ground-level third-person view. This proved to be costly, since Gronz destroyed my camera before I finally brought him down.

"A Very Special Rune Lies Concealed"

There's so much more that can be said about SpellForce. Interactive runes and monuments become essential along the way—to activate heroes, save your game, transport to other land fragments. A Stone of Souls can be activated to be a fallback stop (save) if your avatar is defeated in battle. Interesting side quests are presented, but not all are necessary. A day-and-night cycle adds a great deal to the total atmosphere. Your created buildings even have lights in the evening! The musical score is rousing or soft, depending on the occasion. Voice acting is uneven, perhaps the only weakness of SpellForce. Multiplayer is very basic, and there's no skirmish mode. But replayability is certainly an option, with a different avatar, skills, quests not completed the first time through.

"Destiny Awaits—Go Forward to Adventure!"

Most of you know by now that, if I err in judgment of a game, it tends to be on the generous side as compared with other reviewers. I play (all or part of) dozens of games a year, enjoy them, and am a real sucker for a good game. Having said that, caveat emptor and all that stuff, I cannot take any other action than to joyously award SpellForce our coveted Gold Star. I'll be surprised if it's not up for some 2004 awards about a year from now.

SpellForce seamlessly blends the essences of role-playing and real-time strategy into a lengthy, grand and glorious campaign. Lack of skirmish mode and minimal multiplayer are irrelevant when we have such an enjoyable and epic story in which our avatar plays a central role.

For many, SpellForce will seem to be "role-playing light" and real-time strategy at its most primitive level. However, the blend of the two works so smoothly in the game that it's amazing it's not been used in this way before. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay is that I rarely thought: "Oh, here's the RTS part," or "here's an RPG portion." Rather, I just let the game carry me along, working with whichever of the two aspects presented itself. These genre features don't seem "stuck on" SpellForce, but rather are an integral part of the game. Why hasn't this been done before? And let's hope Phenomic does it again!

Very few games lead me to my gaming nirvana: "Suspension of Disbelief." SpellForce enlisted my involvement and playing dedication with the incredible opening cinematic, the brilliant tutorial and, ultimately, the absolutely captivating game adventure itself. Adventure and RPG enthusiasts are encouraged not to be apprehensive about the RTS aspects. Destiny awaits—go forward to adventure!

What I Liked Most About SpellForce

  • Stunning graphics, colors, game world;
  • An involving and large story to follow;
  • Seamless blend of RPG and RTS components;
  • Wonderful tutorial and excellent manual;
  • Effective camera control, including third-person perspective;
  • The "Click 'n' Fight" technique is truly admirable;
  • Professionally polished, smooth, bug-free.

What I Liked Least (Not Very Much, Really!)

  • Multiplayer is dull, but that isn't why I bought it;
  • No skirmish mode, but remember it's not pure RTS;
  • Voice acting is uneven, but text is available. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Phenomic
Publisher: Jowood
Release Date: February 10, 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
Pentium III 1 GHz (P4 1.8 GHz recommended)
256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended)
32 MB 3D GeForce 2 video card (64 MB GeForce 4 recommended)
DirectX 9.0a compatible sound card
2 GB free hard disk space

Where to Find It

GoGamer $39.90

Prices/links current as of 02/10/04
Links provided for informational purposes only. FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into by any party(ies).

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.