I don't know about you, but when I hear hype about "genre-busting" titles, I always sneakily suspect that a development team has fudged a design document somewhere, couldn't decide whether their game was a fantasy RTS or a tactical RPG and have tried obfuscating the issue by saying that it transcends genre boundaries. You can understand the confusion, because if you take a moment to analyse how games in the RTS and RPG genres play, you'll see just how close the two sit together.
For example, if you strip an RPG classic like Baldur's Gate back to its raw essentials, you'll see that it's little more than a six unit RTS with an AD&D plot. Contrariwise, the Freedom Force games included statistics and the improvement of character abilities, but were so light on actual story and dialogue choice that they never really became true RPGs; they were always more inclined towards the high-octane thrills of a combat-centric RTS. There's always been a closer relationship between RTS and RPG games than fans of either genre would care to admit, either hiding behind impenetrable statistics or repetitive housekeeping tasks (like base-building or resource gathering) in their devotion to one of the two. True genre hybrids are rare indeed, so I was somewhat sceptical when I was presented with SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, since it claimed to be exactly that. You can imagine my surprise then, upon playing the game, when the hype actually turned out not to be just the usual hype...
Not that things started out particularly auspiciously: it took three attempts to get the sound to play with the opening introductory cutscene, wherein I was then introduced to Nightsong, the token not-really-that-evil Dark Elf, sporting a ridiculously impractical Battle Bikini; so, not a big fantasy cliché at all, then. Thankfully, these were first impressions that didn't last. Diving straight into the campaign mode, it was immediately clear that the game's a bit of a looker. The 3D engine is almost as much of a hybrid as the game, striking a delicious balance between the lush texture detailing of an isometric RPG with the sharp lines and high polycounts of a cutting edge 3D RTS. Both the character models and the environment are intricately modelled and are thematically consistent, giving you a real sense of place and atmosphere. The 3D camera is also fully moveable, allowing you to view the action from any perspective you choose. There is even a chase camera, which switches the control of your main avatar from the mouse to the WASD keys, so you can play more in the style of a third-person adventure, rather than sticking with a more traditional isometric view. Whilst the chase camera isn't so useful for the more strategic set pieces, it's great for eye candy, and can be very useful when you're trying to find shortcuts through the labyrinthine streets of the large settlements.
'If you want characters with upper-crust British accents, try hiring British voice actors...'
The campaign story is strictly standard fantasy fare, telling the story of an alliance between the Dark Elves and the demonic Shadows, who then go on a rampage against the forces of Light. You assume the role of a Shaikan warrior; the Shaikan being a sub-race of humans whose ancestors entered into a blood pact with the dragon Ur. The Shaikan are mistrusted by most of the surface races, since their half-draconic blood gives them the power of resurrection and remote command, letting them occupy an ambivalent position between the service of the Gods of the Light and the Gods of the Dark. The campaign starts with your homeland being attacked by a force of Dark Elves allied with the Shadows, which impels you on a grand quest to forge your own alliance; an alliance of Light to dispel the Shadows falling on your people. It's very Tolkien meets Babylon 5, but at least the game has been structured in a way to make such a clichéd plot interesting to uncover. The only weakness in the storytelling is a limited variation of gesturing by the character models in the cutscenes (they like clenching their fists menacingly and pumping their arms a lot, it seems), and some of the voiceover work is a bit forced. My tip for developers: If you want characters with upper-crust British accents, try hiring British voice actors...
Still, it's nice to see that the game doesn't tip its hand too early, making you travel almost the length and breadth of the game world, currying favour with the rulers of other lands, before you can head back to your homeland with a potent enough army for the grand showdown. There's a sense that there are troubles in the game world beyond the Shaikan's peril with the Shadows; that the concept of the quid pro quo is very much in effect: help me with my problems, and I'll help you with yours. Tasks range from escorting a supply convoy to its destination and helping rid a dwarven mine of ghosts and other assorted undead, to finding a cat furry enough to scare off a minotaur guarding an archaeologist's cell. You need only complete the main story quests to move the story along, but in true RPG tradition, completing the side quests gives you valuable experience that will help your party level more quickly and make your life easier in the main story quests. The game rewards a completist attitude, so exploring the depths of each map (which are pleasingly large) will likely reveal treasure chests with powerful weapons or armour your party can make use of (and would otherwise be unlikely to find at a merchant's shingle in one of the cities).
As your main character gains experience and levels, you can choose whether to specialise in either the Combat or Magic skill tree, or choose whether to devote yourself to both equally. You can also choose to determine how your party members spend their skill points, too, though the automatic levelling works well enough. Depending upon your style of play, you may choose to strike a balance in your party between spellcasters and warriors, or chose a predominance of one over the other, with one or two characters heavily specialised in the magical arts or the mastery of martial arms to provide either heavy firepower or a melee shield for your magicians. The main character is the most powerful in the game, given that they have more ability and spell slots for quick actions than the rest of your main party members (who have only three - though these again can be customised). The Shaikan ability to resurrect other members of your party is a real bonus, and can even be used in combat, which is a utility you will want to keep in mind as the learning curve starts to steepen.
The game is nicely paced, with an almost equal amount of time spent on questing and combat. The combat set pieces are where the RTS influence makes its presence felt, but the switch in emphasis never jars. The game simply becomes an RPG with the ability to gather resources and build units. It's done so seamlessly that even people who aren't so keen on RTS games shouldn't struggle. You're given ample time to build up a force capable of taking on the enemy, though like most RTS games, SpellForce 2 does favour the bold, early striking commander. The RTS influence is kept fairly light, with no convoluted tech trees, no bewildering array of thirty different types of cavalry or any particular formula for guaranteed success. Anyone who's been exposed to a relatively streamlined RTS like Starcraft should have no problems here. Phenomic have kept it clean, simple and easy to manage, to their credit.
One feature of the game that manifests itself, especially in the RTS sections, is the unit pathfinding. I know it's not exactly a sexy or glamorous thing to draw attention to, but when you have a game with maps as large as this, where your headquarters may be a third of the way across the map from where you're currently waging war, the pathfinding of units you've built to reinforce your embattled army suddenly becomes rather important. Well, in SpellForce 2, it's damned near flawless. Perhaps in this day and age, ten years on from the original Command & Conquer, these things should be taken as a given, but in a world where dodgy pathfinding is the norm rather than the exception, it really struck me, because it allows you to build units, group them and send them to support your force with the minimum of fuss, letting you concentrate on running the battle at hand. The maps in the game feature all sorts of convoluted mountain paths, urban crannies, lakes and canyons, but put a unit in one corner of the map and with a single click ask it to navigate to the corner at the diagonal opposite of the map, and I challenge you to be able to do it quicker manually with an identical unit. It's that good.
If the game has any major flaws at all, it's that whilst the two halves of the game, RTS and RPG, mesh together brilliantly, if you take either of those elements in isolation, they're perhaps a little on the lightweight side. Fortunately, the game does have real synergy: it's greater than the sum of its parts. A little more depth to the RTS tech tree and a little more polish to the RPG storyline would not have gone amiss and may have even pushed SpellForce 2 towards genuine greatness, but as it is, it's an immensely playable and accessible title that will appeal to RPG and RTS fans without alienating either. That in itself is no inconsiderable achievement.