Hands On: Spellforce 3 – The Long-Awaited Return of the Classic RTS/RPG Hybrid Series

Spellforce 3 is a distillation of the series; streamlining the setting, tweaking the RTS element to be economy based, and refining the campaign structure. As if that wasn’t enough, it takes place 500 years before -what was- the defining event of the series.

The Convocation tore the world of Eo asunder. Powerful mages tried to wrest control of the elements to gain immortality, transcending traditional life while their god was at its weakest. They couldn’t control the elements however, and the very chains that held the world together shattered sending chunks of land astray – magical portals the only way for people to travel from region to region. Heroes and armies were summoned to fight from giant shrines, but among them one was given the power to control the shrines themselves, and it was up to them to save the ruins of Eo.

THQ Nordic’s role in the Spellforce series began back in 2012, 9 years after the series started. They oversaw the completion of two promised expansions for the second entry in the series, also rolling up the IP, the previous, struggling publisher JoWooD, and the publishers other properties.

For the new title they have a new developer at the helm -Grimlore Games, a new, internal studio which includes veteran members of the series- and a few new ideas in order to get the series rolling again. Large new ideas, like gluing the world back together, stripping the fae races from the game, and changing up the strategy layer so that the maps are used in a much more dynamic way.

It all looks beautiful too, a massive visual step forward from the last entry in the series, and ahead of the current visuals bar in the genre. Of course, we do have to remember that the last title was built on 2006 tech – so it’s a bit like comparing Ubisoft’s GRAW with Wildlands, Sony’s Resistance: Fall of Man with Horizon: Zero Dawn, or Bethesda’s Prey with… Prey.

Spellforce 3, though, running on Grimlore Games’ bespoke engine, does truly look wonderful though. Jutting out from forested walkways massive statues of soldiers leer and tower, cities stand nested in cliff-edges or protruding from hillsides, the mouths of carved faces serve as openings for cascading waterfalls — these are all things I’ve seen, and stopped to look at, during the couple of hours that I’ve had with the game over the last few months, both at EGX Rezzed, and at a recent, closed-doors event in London.

I was originally surprised to find out that the game took place well before the other entries in the series -a prequel by half a millennium- however, of all of the changes it’s one with the least impactfon the game. You still have a world made up of separate areas, of course, and in fact you can navigate between them even when the area has no missions, or combat, for you, it’s just you have a world split into continents, not islands.

The world’s main split, and most pressing one, is no longer a physical one, but ideological. The monarch lays incapable, and an untrustworthy so-and-so has abused their position of regent to execute a power-grab. A great war takes place not long before the game which sees the region split between the royalist rebels, and those who have pledged allegiance to the regent. The royalist forces were shattered however, and the game starts with the player taking on the role of a battle-worn child of a -recently slaughtered- leading figure in the faction. You pledge to help a group of refugees travel a dangerous area, and head off to gather some medicine for a suffering member of the troupe.

Both of the two maps that I’ve played on have been extensive, large areas. The first map was simply a multiplayer skirmish, so I didn’t get much of a feel for the game, however my recent playthrough was -as mentioned- the first scenario of the campaign and delivered a fair bit of in-universe lore, and character background.

After a quick exploration of the map, with myself and two other heroes offing spiders and wolves near and far, we’d explored most of the map. A walled city in the South, a village turned encampment in the North-West, an orc encampment in the North-East, and several hamlets dotted around the middle. Notably, the orc encampment would remain out-of-bounds for my entire session – according to the game’s Executive Producer, Reinhard Pollice, the game’s levels regularly feature elements like this for the character to return to. As a matter of fact, maybe not excitingly but certainly interestingly, you can return to maps even while there isn’t a mission, battle, or quest going on there.

Unit movement is a similar affair to previous titles. The game still manages to capture the feeling of classic, party-based CRPGs when moving smaller groups of units, although unit formations and (obviously) appearance feel like they’ve galloped forward; collision detection on units is excellent, and watching the units bumble along a short path and end in formation was brilliant. That said, in the build I played the pathfinding was still a little bit weak; there were two points on the map where units kept getting caught, one ridge near the starting pathway, and the other near the enemy-controlled city.

Hero units have full RPG style equipment and statistics, as well as their abilities/spells. The latter are a lot easier to access than in previous series entries as modern screen resolutions have allowed for a lot more to be shown on screen – each character’s portrait has under it each of their spells, which also happen to have keyboard bindings on them. Of the four that I commanded they each had their own personality in quest conversations, however admittedly in combat sequences they felt a lot flatter, and limited in dialogue & stray comments, than their CRPG predecessors. “But, Dann, it’s not a CRPG, it’s a strategy game”, you cry.

The strategy layer has undergone some major and interesting changes from the previous series entries too, almost certainly the largest. Traditional base-building strategy is out, although the resource management is still there – visible through a map screen. Each map is divided into sections, with each having it’s own resources; fish, meat, iron ore, wood. Combatants claim the various zones by interacting with an icon floating central to it, this starts the process of building a small outpost. Once the outpost is finished you gain a few peasant workers who can be used to build, and work, various buildings.

From that point it’s a case of maintaining a decent flow of resources through your various outposts, upgrading outposts to accommodate more workers, and using the buildings to upgrade or generate troops. I confess, it took me a while to get used to the supply line system again – as much as I have enjoyed the Settlers series, and recent titles like Hills of Valhalla, and Banished, which have used similar economy management techniques, I wasn’t expecting it here.

This system spells more resources to manage, but it’s a system that feels like you are setting up a machine, rather than simply building a base. That machine is a joy to watch once it’s up and running. Carts move between outposts spreading resources as they are required and tens of workers work away across the map, under your vague instruction – it’s all automated, only requiring you to check back if resources are low, or you decide to upgrade the area to tweak your economy.

Although you cannot select, and ergo have no direct control over, those carts and workers they’re far more than just a visual representation of your supply-chain. If enemies get behind your frontlines they can carve them up, and you can do the same to your enemy. My economy had frozen and stagnated, a 100 or so units of iron deficit caused by me having not properly developed the various areas I controlled – as such my flow of melee units suddenly stopped – the enemy actually pushed me back and claimed a few sectors for themselves. I threw my remaining army -a composition of horseback scouts and basic melee and ranged units- at the biggest enemy checkpoint that I had seen, and then moved my cluster of heroes beyond that yet. Seeing a bunch of carts piling out of, and workers clustering around, an enemy outpost I set my heroes upon them, spells and swords and arrows.

Better planning on my second attempt removed any requirement for ballsy suicide missions which succeed in severing arterial economic links, but it was a moment which underlined a tactic easily exploited by cunning players of the future; not wholly dissimilar to using large groups of fast units to destroy any carts supplying a rivals barracks.

There are three races in the final version of the game, each with a three-staged technology tree (with progress tied to your map control point on each map’s upgraded state). Orcs, Elves, and Humans are all playable through the campaign depending on how your alliances with them are holding up at that point. Much like previous titles you can play through the main story in co-operative if you wish, this might mean that you manage the frontline while a friend manages economy, or anything – you both have mutual control. There’s also a six player competitive multiplayer mode – which is presently in beta testing.

I’m now rather taken with the changes to the economy/RTS elements of the game, however the fact that it took more than one playthrough in order to find the groove of the game underlines the game’s current, main issue. A lack of a solid UI explanation and economy tutorial. I mucked through running everything at a deficit; unable to build woodcutter’s shacks because I didn’t have any wood, unable to upgrade existing ones for the same reason. Others may not. Still, the developer’s have plenty of time with the game left before it’s launch.

Spellforce 3 launches on the 7th of December for Windows PC


All images provided by Dead Good Media on behalf of THQ Nordic

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