22 Apr, 2007

Spellforce 2: Dragon Storm Review

PC Review | Blood magic, dragon fire, and cheesy mages.
Everybody loves a dragon. Sure, they’re big, they’re smelly, and they have a nasty tendency to burn holes in the couch when they drool, but we always seem to forgive them when they stare at us with those big, brown, eyes. Shortly before devouring us alive, admittedly, but still - they’re the puppy of the lizard kingdom. They’re also the major draw card for Spellforce 2: Dragon Storm, the expansion pack to Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars, released early last year.

Relatively speaking, Spellforce 2 : Shadow Wars didn’t get a lot of coverage in Australia. It was apparently quite popular in Europe, much like Spinal Tap. The lack of coverage, to be blunt, is quite a pity - the game pushed genre boundaries by combining RTS and RPG elements into a single experience. While that may instantly scream “below-par experience!”, the game was better than it deserved to be. The RPG elements, while nowhere near the complexity or depth of what Oblivion had to offer, were still about as good as any of the other action-RPG games out there. Better than many, even (Dungeon Siege, I’m looking at you). The RTS elements, while somewhat simplistic with limited tech trees and troop combinations, were also good enough to stand on their own. Overall, it really was a game that quite effectively skirted the potential chasm that always awaits these genre-crossing games.

On the other hand, it was also plagued by extremely bad camera angles, phenomenally cheesy voice acting, and bad AI. While they did get points for delivering almost all cut scenes using the in-game engine, I lost count of the number of times I watched a talking house for five minutes because the camera focused on the wrong element. That and watching your battalion of mounted horsemen get slaughtered one by one by a single enemy orc because they’re too dumb to act independently is ... shall we say ... somewhat frustrating.

Nothing some Pepto-Bismol won't fix ...

Nothing some Pepto-Bismol won't fix ...
Overall though, the game was good. It had its flaws, but it was a strong (and long) experience. Not surprisingly for an expansion, everything’s gone wrong. Where the original game focused on an epic struggle between good and evil, the expansion pack focuses on a world gradually collapsing. The portals, the key to your ability to travel around the world in the original game, have died. The factions have fallen apart, new enemies have arisen, and the dragons (lovable puppies they are) have returned.

More technically (for those familiar with the original game), the expansion offers a new skill tree, a new faction (the Shaikan, bit players in the original war), new bosses, new weapons, new free game maps, and approximately another 30 hours of single-player campaign, should you choose to pursue all the side quests. And dragons, of course.

I could have joined Frodo. Instead, I followed you, and now look at me!

I could have joined Frodo. Instead, I followed you, and now look at me!
The game mechanics follow precisely the original. What appears to be a top-down isometric 3D RTS (say that ten times fast!) is actually a fully rendered 3D environment. With the click of a mouse button, you can swap between a third-person floating camera viewpoint and the traditional RTS control system. While the graphics are nothing special in RTS mode, they really do shine when you drop into third-person mode. You’ll find yourself dropping into it periodically just to watch, even if you don’t actually play in that mode. It’s just a crying shame that the game's control scheme makes it difficult to always play in that mode. The art design is far more World of Warcraft than Company of Heroes, so be warned – if realism is your thing, you’re probably not going to appreciate this.

The RPG elements are delivered through being able to customise your team’s weapons, armour, and skills. You control each of your party individually, forcing some frantic clicking in the middle of a battle. As you kill your enemies and complete quests, you not only get better equipment, you also gain experience. New to the expansion is a fairly rudimentary item crafting capability. Very rudimentary, actually.

Get enough experience and you and your party level, giving you access to new skills and abilities. In the original game, these fell into four fairly standard categories - area damage, individual damage, healing, and party boosts (positive and negative). In theory, these were aligned to the elements, giving you increased damage against certain types of monsters. In practice though, just hitting them with the biggest attack available seem to be good enough.

The expansion gives you access to exactly the same skill tree, but extends it with a new “Shaikan” category, kind-of a warrior mage. You can now summon companions that assist in battle in various ways (such as attracting damage or causing party damage) and have access to a new variety of spells (most of which focus on absorbing energy from your enemies and boosting your party).

Calling it an RPG is a little generous though, as it’s more Diablo than Neverwinter Nights. Character interactions are numerous but totally scripted - you start talking to someone, they tell you a story, ask you to do something, and you go and do it. Occasionally you get to make a small choice, such as being able to ask one of two questions. You’ll normally get to ask the second immediately afterwards though, so don’t feel too pressured.

Hey sailor!

Hey sailor!
The original game offered a fairly unique experience in RTS games. The world map wasn’t one-way, so to speak. Even after defeating areas, you’d frequently back-track to complete side quests and gain access to areas originally unavailable. As the story-line progressed, you found yourself deliberately returning to talk to new individuals scattered around the map. By way of example, you were awarded a fiefdom relatively early in the original game. As the game progressed, you could repeatedly return to continue to develop your kingdom, eventually driving back the undead, building monuments, and establishing a metropolis. Making this all the more impressive was that each time you returned, all your troops were exactly where you left them. With well over 20 different areas, some of which being extremely large, there was plenty to see and do.

The expansion doesn’t disappoint in this respect. You’ll not only revisit lands from the first game, you’ll also end up exploring brand new areas. The start of the game really conveys how epic the scale feels at times - you start off under siege from an invading armada in the wintry heights of a mountain in the Dwarven kingdom. After driving back the initial forces from Winterlight Peak, you’re forced to retreat through the freezing blizzards, trying desperately to keep your allies alive. As you fall back through a failing portal, you lose access to the Dwarven kingdom and are dropped into another fracas raging for a human town, a battle this time more evenly matched. Eventually, you make it back to the central kingdom from the original game, Sevenkeeps, where you must infiltrate your way through the opposing forces and bring down the defensive towers, allowing the Dwarven refugees to be reunited with their people. Sevenkeeps has changed since the original, and is looking the worse for wear. Should you be interested in pursuing the side quests, you can even eventually push back through Winterlight and reclaim it for the Dwarves.

You know, I think we should have taken that last left, after all.

You know, I think we should have taken that last left, after all.
To give a sense of scale, that overall scenario spans approximately five maps (visiting each multiple times) and roughly eight to ten hours of game play. And, it isn’t a major part of the overall campaign, relatively speaking. This game is big, as is the story. Don’t feel bad about taking notes - there's enough characters, races, and locations in there to almost require it at times.

The RTS elements are solid, but likely to disappoint hardened RTS fans. They’re more complete than almost any other genre-crossing game out there, but the tech trees were and still are relatively under-developed. The AI is abysmal at times, and doesn’t appear to have been fixed since the original. These aren't major issues as long as you’re aware of them and work around them. Unfortunately, this also means using the same strategies over and over again, simply because little else works.

However, this isn’t as big an issue as it sounds. The original game focused on large-scale battles quite frequently, forcing you to play your standard Warcraft-type battle. Fairly standard and traditional stuff - multiple enemy camps, single base of operations, take ‘em all down.

The expansion, by comparison, has done wonders to reduce this impression. The missions are well designed and tend to be more focused than just simple free-for-alls. Whether you’re defending a vanguard against a siege of enemy mages, storming an enemy camp along a narrow pass, or simply trying to get a foothold against an invading force, the battles feel more personal and controlled. There’s enough action continually going on to prevent one from easily defending on one front, yet it’s neither hectic nor difficult enough to be frustrating. The expansion rewards careful planning - it's not so hard that you’ll find yourself giving up, but it’s also willing to hand your army back to you on a plate should you not command or plan effectively.

We've come for your daughter, Chuck.

We've come for your daughter, Chuck.
The sound, however, will end up disappointing. It isn’t bad, per se, it’s just there isn’t enough of it. With up to (and possibly more than, depending how fast you play) 30 hours of gameplay, you’re going to end up wishing they came up with more than one tune for the loading scene. Or for battles. Or more than three or four tunes for different areas. Thankfully it isn’t overtly offensive and it’s well mastered, but it’s still extremely repetitive. What really rubs salt in the wounds though is that for the most part, it’s exactly the same audio as in the original game. Come on, JoWooD, throw us a bone here!

The voice acting, on the other hand, seems to have improved since the original. There’s still the cheesy evil-mage (who’s crying for a moustache to twirl if I’ve ever seen an evil mage), but for the most part, the main characters aren’t as wincingly bad as they were in the original. Here’s to what seems to have been a better budget for voice acting, if not music.

The multiplayer builds on the first. New maps are included (both player vs. player and Free Game) and a new scenario, Time Race, is offered. Free Game is worth a mention, even though it was introduced in the original - it's what a MMORPG would be if you ran it on your computer and de-scoped it. You’re free to pick any of the maps you’ve already defeated and play them co-operatively online, levelling up your character in the process. The idea is great, but the limitations in the RTS engine bring it down a little.

Overall, it’s a good game. It takes the best elements from the original, and actually improves on them. It overcomes some of the graphical flaws of the original (not one talking house yet, amazingly), but doesn’t improve on them. The missions feel tighter and the mechanics play to their strengths more so than the original. The story is fairly generic, but in a good way. And, the sense of a living, breathing world underneath you where things change with time doesn’t hurt either.

On the other hand, it doesn’t really do anything new. The new skill tree, while interesting, doesn’t add a whole lot to the game. And, the Shaikan faction could be any of the existing factions with different art elements. It’s basically more of the same, but a little better. If you enjoyed the original, you’re probably going to enjoy the expansion even more so. If you haven’t already played the original, what with the expansion pack and original game being offered as a bundle in some locations, you’ve got somewhere between 40 and 70 hours of RPG / RTS game-time, not even including multiplayer time. Importantly, that’s enjoyable game-time, too. While it definitely isn’t GOTY material, it’s a solid game that’s worth playing and offers strong value for money. As long as you don’t mind bad voice acting and a limited score.

‘Course, it also has dragons. So, how you can really go wrong?
The Score
A very solid game. Worth playing if it sounds at all interesting. 8
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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7 years ago
The market is unfortunately just way too saturated with these kinds of games.
7 years ago
^ Yeah, totally agree. There is a part of me which likes these games but I'm lucky its not too strong since otherwise I would have endless amounts of RPGs to play.
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