It's been a while since a brand new title was released for the SpellForce RPG/RTS hybrid series, though the second game received plenty of expansions. Harry Papadimitriou got to see the upcoming SpellForce III in action at this year's E3.
RPG meets RTS is back with SpellForce III, the latest entry in the SpellForce series. The game takes place after an uprising against the royal houses by rebel mages led to the Mage War. Although the war has ended and the land is at peace, that peace is fleeting and new dangers lurk. We don't yet know what exactly they are, but the developers promise a heavily story-driven experience with fully voiced dialogue and a complex narrative.
Oftentimes players will have to think about their decisions as different factions in the game have deep reasons for the actions they take. For example, in many games groups of bandits are purely evil and exist for the sole purpose of being killed. In SpellForce III, those bandits may have a backstory and deep reasons motivating their actions, and killing them without consideration may lead to unintended consequences for players. The story and progression is non-linear, with players deciding which missions and maps to take on next. Players may also wish to return to previously visited areas to see how these areas have progressed and developed through the story, to explore new sections not previously accessible, or to kill strong enemies they couldn't handle the first time around. The story and progression is also affected by player choices — for example, choosing to help a general from another faction may in turn make that faction an ally in future battles. Player decisions can also affect party member relationships, which can be strengthened to the point of strong friendship or romance, or weakened to the point where characters may choose to part ways with the protagonist, and high sympathy with characters may even unlock new skills.
Gameplay is a hybrid between RPG mechanics for the main heroes and RTS mechanics for armies. Although the game is a hybrid, both of these aspects are fully featured, and there are no compromises made to either system. On each mission players can select four of the ten or so heroes available to control. Mission gameplay, including map exploration and combat, is real-time without pause and viewed from a top-down perspective. Heroes can set up to three abilities to use in quick slots; these then become available from a contextually driven menu when hovering the mouse over a unit, depending on whether the abilities can be used on that unit. Players can switch out abilities to the quick slots in the middle of combat, but since the game does not pause while doing this, it can be punishing as enemies will continue to damage players while they are busy navigating the menus. This is intentional and intended to add a battle preparation part to gameplay, and features like setting up multiple ability quick slot sets facililtate in this.
As a fully featured RPG, SpellForce III has a wide variety of abilities, some useful in hero fights and others useful when facing off against armies. These include passive abilities, healing, buffs, debuffs, and sustained area effects that can be placed on the mission map. To learn these abilities, each hero can progress in three of six available skill trees, including one extra skill tree avaialble for the lead character. The skill tree system is specifically designed to avoid the problem where characters max out a single skill tree and splash a few skills from the remaining ones here and there for taste. While that's still a very viable option, spreading out skill points more evenly across multiple trees is equally effective, as abilities are designed to form powerful synergies with each other. In SpellForce III, the party levels as a whole rather than characters leveling individually, so characters not in the main party will always be viable choices even if they've been negleted for long stretches of time.
During missions, players can build up a base and army and recruit other armies on the map. New to SpellForce III is the ability for heroes to capture new territory sectors in which to build new bases. To run these bases, players can assign workers to each building, and the number of workers determines how effectively that building operates. The number of workers is limited and can only be increased by upgrading the base, so players have to decide how to assign them depending on the overall strategy they want to employ in any given map. Players can also use Godstones to teleport heroes and armies between certain map locations, enabling some interesting battle strategies. The RTS and RPG elements are optional, and players can choose to only use their heroes to take on any of the missions or use only their army, though doing either of these is significantly more difficult. There is also some unique interaction between these elements. For example, players can expend revive charges at Godstones to ressurect fallen heroes, and revive charges can be obtained through worker prayers.
The game's presentation is very polished and cinematic. Maps look detailed both from a zoomed out perspective and when zooming in close. The developers opted for a realistic yet clean medieval aesthetic and atmosphere that's very well executed, though the environments shown in the demo were all from the same area and so didn't have much variety between them. Hopefully different areas will have unique environments. Compared to previous entries, SpellForce III also boasts maps and battles of a much more massive scale, though I didn't get to experience massive battles first-hand.
Both systems are fully featured without any compromises. As an RPG it includes meaningful, well-balanced character progression, top-down real-time combat, and a deep, complex story that can be somewhat affected by player actions and decisions. As an RTS, it boasts massive scale maps and battles and a territory sector capturing system, in addition to all the standard features of an RTS such as personnel and resource management, and unit and base building progression. Players looking for both a strategic and tactical experience rolled into one will be able to get their hands on SpellForce III by the end of the year.