I try to stay abreast of what’s coming up in the strategy game space, but miss out on them far more often than I’d like. Thankfully “cataclaw,” an RTS player who I met thanks to our mutual appreciation of the Company of Heroes series, pointed out to me last week that Spellforce 3, an RTS/RPG hybrid, was having an open beta on GOG this past weekend (November 24-27, 2017, for those who may read this in the future).
I’d never heard of the series, but was intrigued by the concept. Was this game in the vein of WarCraft 3, or Battle Realms? I had little idea what to expect, but the concept and the art direction interested me. What follows are my impressions from the handful of hours I was able to give the game this past weekend.
Spellforce 3 was a little harder for me to ease my way into than the average RTS. This isn’t a problem per se, but did lead to a little bit of frustration as I jumped right into a skirmish match expecting to feel my way around, and promptly running into the walls of my incorrect assumptions over and over. Switching over to the campaign, I was able to ease my way into the game’s mechanics a little more gradually.
In Spellforce, players manage a number of different types of entity. Players can have up to 3 heroes, a little like WarCraft 3, but each faction has a larger stable than in Blizzard’s game (there may be some WarCraft 3 references in this article, but the games are far more different than they are similar. Heroes each have their own tech tree, with players allocating points to abilities and stats on alternating levels: so, when the hero reaches level 2, they are allocated an ability point, and when they reach level 3 they’re allocated a stat point.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that all heroes share the same level, doing away with the challenge posed in WarCraft 3 of leveling each hero individually (sometimes quite a challenge for the second and third heroes you add). Of course, this leads to power spikes as heroes are brought up to speed in the game, but I saw that as largely a positive thing in the context of Spellforce.
Hero tech trees can be quite long. The human heroes in the campaign had liner tech trees that required the unlocking of certain abilities before others, though providing a large number of potential leveling paths and final states. Orc heroes have clusters of tech that are more freeform with no requirements beyond each hero’s final ability, which is unavailable until the group hero level passes a minimum threshold. I did not get a chance to see if the campaign hero tech progression was reflected in multiplayer, and I do not have any screenshots of how Elves handled hero ability progression. Ah well.
Interestingly, heroes can have more active abilities than they can use at a time. While heroes may have 5, 6 or more active abilities, they’re only able to use 3 abilities or items at a time. Similar to World of Warcraft, heroes have a number of profiles that can be set up to switch between ability and item sets and swap out abilities. It felt a little fiddly and didn’t do much for me personally, though I feel an intent behind it.
The tech tree is broken into 3 discrete tiers, vaguely analogous to Age of Empires’ Ages system, with each tier giving access to about 4-6 different structure types and about as many unit types. The game has 5 resources: wood, stone, food, iron, and sticks. Both iron and sticks require 2 buildings to mine: one for processing the raw resource, and another to convert the raw resource into one usable to pay for units.
This seems like a lot, and at first I was really unhappy seeing that many resources in an RTS: I felt like managing the workers handling the resources would be a logistical nightmare. My internal preference for resources is about 2 or 3: I start feeling uncomfortable with the idea of managing 4 or more resource income streams at a time (though of course Age of Empires is an excellent example of a game that handles more resources well). Side note: while I didn’t play Rise of Nations or Rise of Legends much, I feel some vague similarities to those games and Spellforce 3, though it’s hard to put my finger on it, since neither franchise is one I have a close familiarity with.
Territories and Resources: Interrelated Systems
In Spellforce 3 though, managing resources is mostly a matter of building the appropriate structure(s) in a territory without overloading that territory’s worker availability. Which is a roundabout way, perhaps, of introducing the fact that Spellforce 3 utilizes a territory system. We’ll get back to workers and resources, I promise. The detour into how territories work is important to explain it.
Spellforce 3 has a territory mechanic that I find difficult to explain utilizing examples from other RTS. Each map is divided into zones or territories. Territories are connected in a linear fashion, the importance of which will become clear shortly. Players take ownership of a territory by defeating the neutral enemies (or enemy player/team) who has occupied that territory, and using a hero to capture/build a territory control structure at a pre-defined spot within the zone.
Once that structure is completed, it will spawn a number of autonomous workers around the control structure, and confer control of all resources and special structures within that territory, and allow the player to build additional structures within the territory. Similar to many management sim games, structures require workers from that territory to build them, and require workers from that territory to man them or they won’t function.
In this way, workers are the primary resource of the game. Workers are a soft limit to how many structures a territory can support, from farms to barracks to tech to iron mines. And territories themselves become something of a resource: though you can expand the worker capacity of any given territory, each one has a limited number and variety of resource, and it’s easier (and cheaper!) to expand to a new zone than it is to build up your capacity to get work out of an already-owned zone. In a way, the actual resources in the game are less important than worker and structure management, since they’re abstracted behind that system. In the end, I found it very compelling.
One last interesting thing about territories. Though the player has an abstracted absolute stockpile of resources, each territory stores the resources mined there. I am not sure of the implications of this, for example whether when a territory’s central structure is killed, whether those resources are lost: I believe it spawns caravans from the dying building and tries to move them to other territories, allowing the enemy to kill them and the player the chance to save them. Regardless, resources are shared between territories via automated carriages that take the needed resource types and ship them from zones that have the resources available to the zones that need them. It makes the game feel alive, and is an interesting and complex system with a lot of tactical implications (e.g. harassing en-route caravans).
Tying it all Together
So, here’s what we have: a primarily tactical game focused on the specific use of a limited number of in-depth and powerful hero units supported by relatively fragile and generic unit types with a more or less rock-paper-scissors interaction system (infantry > cavalry > ranged > infantry, etc) that gains in depth across the course of a match (more complex unit interactions are available from later-match upgrades, and higher tier units) focused on territory control and gaining hero experience via killing neutral creep camps. This is supported by a vaguely 4X-style territory where worker management is the front layer of a relatively complex resource management system. It actually ties together into a relatively attractive and coherent package.
Though I am obviously skeptical of the depth inherent in the faction units, I feel like the economic system, hero complexity, and units together add up to a pretty satisfying system overall. I also like that some units are produced in batches.
My main issues with the mechanics lie in the following areas:
- The single 1v1 map I played in the beta (I believe it was the only one included) was very linear: territories in this map connect in a chain spiraling around the outside of the map into the center, meaning that each territory connects linearly back down the chain to the starting area, and reducing the amount of choice involved in player progression. There were shortcuts into the central zones that could be used for harassment, but expansion was pretty linear across the map, which was disappointing.
- There were some issues with selecting units and issuing orders. Sometimes the unit selection wouldn’t ‘take’ and it was very difficult to manage hero units while other units were selected: heroes’ active abilities would often fail to trigger if they were selected as a part of a group. Missed clicks or clicks that did not register were frustratingly prevalent across the whole UI
- Resource generation seems restrictively slow in the early game, making the loss of units to neutral creeps a major setback. The game is much, much more enjoyable in the midgame, when the player has a workable network of territories providing income. It’s not bad, but I strained to get out of the early game in the handful of skirmish matches I played.
- Though I was not able to spend a tremendous amount of time with each faction, the differences in their play style and hero unit types seemed… more conservative than I tend to like for RTS. This could be an artifact of my limited experience with the series and its factions though.
Spellforce 3 is a pretty game, but it’s rife with visual clutter. The profusion of trees and presence of a distance blur is visually distracting, which can be murderous in RTS games. It’s easy to lose track of units in dense brush, behind buildings (though there are occlusion outlines which help with this, a not-pretty but useful tool for units obscured by structures). Units tend to blend into the terrain which muddies their outlines and makes precise control of engagements needlessly difficult at time.
Visual flair like cloud shadows, the day/night cycle in matches, foliage, and distance blur are all awesome, but implemented in a vaguely frustrating way that can obscure visual information that RTS players tend to really like/need when making tactical decisions in-game. It’s not terrible, but it can make high performance play more difficult.
Hero units are also sometimes hard to distinguish from non-heroes, which can be… dangerous in combat engagements. High level hero units, while not necessarily hugely more survivable than non-heroes, can put out some serious hurtin’ on an army.
But i mean, really, it’s a pretty game. And structures are believably sized in comparison to units, if not exactly 100% proportional. It’s nice to see the occasional RTS branch out from C&C/StarCraft style scales into something that looks a little more representational in scale.
I only managed to play through the first couple of levels in the campaign. I was not particularly impressed with how the game was introduced to the player, though the introduction was enough for me familiarize myself with the core concepts and pick up on most of the game’s systems. The story was a bit hard for me to follow; it seemed to be the continuation of something else and it was kind of hard for me to get into enough to care about. I’d imagine that with strong RPG elements, the main campaign would be story-driven. The gameplay was compelling enough for me to not count this against the game. Wish I had more to report on this, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me.
So where does this leave us? What’s my impression? It’s… honestly mixed. I am torn as to whether I was compelled enough to drop $45-50 dollars on it. If I bought it, I’d primarily be interested in multiplayer, and I have no sense of how popular Spellforce is and whether there will be any sort of active ladder. It’s definitely got me intrigued, but the weekend beta didn’t convince me to rush out and purchase the game. In the end, I’ll probably pass on it. I tend to enjoy competitive games, and Spellforce 3 didn’t seem to know whether or not it wanted to try to be competitive. The protracted early game, overly linear level design, same-y factions, and graphics that ended up obscuring gameplay situations didn’t really sit well with me, even if I have grown to appreciate the game’s resource system, which I feel has a pretty interesting abstraction layer on top of the actual harvesting of resources.
Thanks for reading.