In the spirit of action-RPGs such as Diablo and Dungeon Siege (and the original SpellForce: The Order of Dawn), SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars offers fantastic landscapes to explore, monsters to defeat, and character skills to acquire. In the role of the greatest champion in the world of Eo, players lead a band of heroes to do battle with enemy Dark Elf warriors and unholy Shadow beings. To fight well, the player's party must be supported with resources, which are gathered by building and managing real-time strategy styled bases. The game's single-player campaign boasts over 60 hours of adventure, and the free-form character development system allows players to pick one of nine races within three factions and improve their heroes with over 100 special powers and abilities best suited to their playing styles. Both competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes are available as well, and up to three friends may play a campaign storyline on the Internet.
SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars is a welcome diversion from the typical fantasy RTS. In the game's immersive (if cliché) storyline, you take the role of a fantastic hero on a quest to unite surrounding kingdoms against a growing threat from Dark Elves. To do that, you must prove your loyalty and trustworthiness by embarking on quests, integrating the RPG story elements which define the SpellForce series' mixture of genres.
The quests in SpellForce 2 are nicely varied, and there are enough twists in-quest to keep you from yawning too much by the end. While the tasks do tend towards the tired "Find a bottle of tears from the rare Elvish Squatting Toad" type of search-and-return quests, the maps and models are pretty enough to distract you on your fourth leg of the "Tear Toad" type quests. There are only so many types of quests possible in this type of game, and SpellForce 2 walks the line between the repetitive and the implausible well.
Like any game with RPG elements, your "hero" characters level up as they gain battle experience. The leveling-up system is complex, but not unnervingly so. Heroes follow line charts of development that are similar to Final Fantasy X's leveling system, but nowhere near as mind-numbingly intricate. Decisions must be made, and early, to determine your character's development as a battlin' speed demon or a sloth-like leviathan with a big stone hammer. Speaking of sloth-y leviathans, the equipment system is where the game makes its first stumble. Inventory is not well organized, and it's easy to get confused when choosing weapons and armor for each character. The traditional pen-and-paper RPG stats are all visible, but the simplistic combat system often doesn't allow for much strategy in the selection of weaponry. Unlike many other RPGs, the strengths of one weapon over another aren't especially apparent while fighting, especially considering the ridiculous amount of HP you'll encounter in both friendlies and enemies. The combat system is simple point-and-click. The user interface allows you to program character movements, so that some heroes will attack automatically upon encountering a certain type of enemy - not a great change from many other RTS titles, but helpful nonetheless.
You are assisted in battle by soldiers you create at your headquarters. By defeating enemies, completing tasks, or just reaching a point on the map, you are rewarded with a headquarters at which you may construct your army. In the typical system, you pay craftsmen to mine and harvest supplies, with which you can construct new facilities, and then later create soldiers. You will spend a tremendous amount of time at the headquarters waiting for craftsmen to amass enough raw materials to build whatever you need. Just a few hours into the game, I was wishing my hero's party would come across a scribe, just so I could have something to read besides my own notes on the game.
Waiting also comes into play while moving your army between objectives. Maps are large, terrain is often complex - two positive attributes, but it also tacks on a lot of time for movement. You need to pay attention to the in-game maps, or you could easily spend an extra five minutes navigating yourself out of a labyrinth of forests, streams, boulders, and villages. Navigation could be made easier with a map that zooms farther out, but you are restricted in your main view options to a rather puny portion of the game maps. Zoom in, however, and you'll see pleasant, if somewhat repetitive, textures and modeling. The game also makes a nod at its RTS elements by incorporating a third person over-the-shoulder view. Beware this view mode on all but the most heavyweight systems, it will lead to dropped frames and hair loss.
Sound in the game is worse than it should be, considering the game overall is quite good. Voice overs aren't laughable, but are often woodier than that spoiled chardonnay you sipped at your aunt's wedding. The soundtrack features the obligatory clinks and clanks of swords and armor, and the soundtrack is the same canned SPAM fantasy soundtrack to which we've all grown accustomed.
The multiplayer features are enjoyable enough, but there is not a huge English-language following for the title, so you might encounter some translation issues. Luckily, the single player storyline is large and varied enough that you may not ever need to play online.
Overall, SpellForce 2 offers a change from the typical RTS fare. To say that the game is a true RPG is stretching the genre to its breaking point; the game is essentially a fantasy RTS with RPG elements added to the gameplay. Waiting around for tasks and movements is a problem, and the learning curve is a little steep due to a sharply designed, but unique, interface. Fantasy RTS fans should definitely look into a download of this immersive game, and it may even be attractive for the hardcore RPG fanatics yearning for a breath of fresh air.
People who downloaded SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars have also downloaded:
SpellForce: Shadow of the Phoenix, SpellForce: The Order of Dawn, Soulbringer, Seal of Evil, Sacred, Shadow Vault, Space Rangers 2: Dominators, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords
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