Many developers have been going darker with the tones of stories lately. It's time we stop asking definitively if this is a good or bad thing and consider the artistic value at hand.
SpellForce 2: Demons of the Past Review: Once More Unto the Breach
The Real Time Strategy genre has seen better days – better decades. Look around now and you’ve got Blizzard’s venerable Starcraft on one side and incredibly popular real time strategy-action-RPG MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2 on the other. A few interesting Kickstarter games and indie projects surface somewhere in the middle, but the genre’s once aggressively copy-catted gameplay has been relegated to niche indie games and hyper competitive e-sports. Meanwhile Nordic Games has quietly been releasing the SpellForce series, a mash-up of traditional RTS gameplay with the inventory management and skill trees of an RPG into what could easily be described as the natural evolution of the genre first seen back in 2002 with Warcraft 3. The latest entry, Demons of the Past, is a stand-alone expansion that somewhat successfully drags the aging engine and gameplay into its final conclusion.
Demons of the Past is the third and final expansion for SpellForce 2, originally released in 2006. That’s two-thousand-six. While it’s normally commendable for a publisher to continue to release content for a hardcore fanbase for years, in this case it was more about funding issues, developers changing hands, and attempting to squeeze every last drop from an incredibly old engine and interface design, paving the way for the confirmed upcoming sequel SpellForce 3.
Demons of the Past brings you back to a tired and generic fantasy world that looks passable zoomed out, and horrifying when you get close to the action. The units themselves animate well and some of the creature designs, especially the one-man-army Titan units are suitably impressive, but the world design and buildings remain uninspired and boring. This is a game that looks like it was released in the mid-2000s and there’s not much the developers could do to hide it. All of that could be much easier to stomach, especially at the attractive budget price point, but the actual campaign is a frustrating slog through poor design decisions, a story no one cares about anymore, and a difficulty curve that made me nearly give up at several maddening points.
The campaign begins with creating your own avatar, a Shaikan. For newcomers to the series the Shaikan are basically humans infused with dragon blood, and have some nifty dragon-themed units, though you’ll rarely see them. The actual army commanding, base building, resource gathering – you know typical real time strategy gameplay tools – remain in the background for most of the incredibly lengthy (20+ hours) adventure. The focus remains on your collection of heroes you acquire, some of which you choose and others which are thrust upon you during the surprisingly in-depth story. How much enjoyment you get from the campaign maps largely depends on how you much you like directing a small group of heroes with several different abilities.
Micro-managing your heroes in the heat of battle is thankfully made easy with persistent portraits that quickly show you each heroes’ ability. If you need to fire off a targeted skill – say launching a Divine Blast or Mighty Blow, tapping the space bar automatically switches to the foe your heroes are targeting. I always felt like I had a great level of control over my party; keeping everyone alive with healing spells while my tank taunted and mage rained down electric bolts of death from the skies was a very cool RPG feeling that you don’t really see from an RTS perspective outside of the SpellForce franchise. Unfortunately the campaign is marred by poorly balanced combat encounters, dull fetch quests, and some absolutely abysmal level and quest design.
There’s a point on the very first map, after you’ve survived the long and annoying tutorial segments, that you’re finally given control of your first headquarters. Immediately a gigantic army of undead spawns from one side of the map and goes straight for your quite literally burgeoning town and proceeds to lay waste. If you lose all your heroes it’s Game Over, and if your HQ goes down it’s Game Over. It took me at least half a dozen reloads before I was able to barely scrap together enough defensive towers to survive, though much of it involved exploiting the AI into chasing me around them. It’s the kind of early game shenanigans that would easily turn off newcomers in justifiable disgust, and while I know this is the third expansion and designed more for veterans and fans of the franchise, being a stand-alone expansion should dictate just a slightly gentler ease into this vicious world. It wasn’t an isolated incident, and much of the difficulty is exacerbated by the level system – every creature has a level tied to it, and that level means everything. A level 2 skeleton looks the exact same as a level 9, but that all important number means the difference between an easy battle and the complete slaughter of your entire army.
To its credit the campaign’s maps offer a ton of variation in content, though the tilesets are mostly the same hills and forests. It’s too bad much of that content takes the form of the dullest RPG quests – fetch these items, talk to this person, go kill these guys. Some moments of brilliance shine through, like some particularly funny Monty Python-esque dialogue scenes with a ghostly guard outside of the City of the Dead or bringing a petrified dragon back to life and riding him into battle, but they’re utterly brought down by poorly executed sections nearly everywhere else. A puzzle tasks you with finding ink and quill for a spell which are in the same room you’re in, mere feet away. A MOBA-like map has you fighting off demons while war rages around you, but it actually amounts to talking to multiple NPCs back and forth as their armies are quickly wiped out (thank goodness there’s a fast travel system – these maps are huge). An honest-to-God stealth sequence tries to drive you insane as you attempt to guess the hidden sight radius of patrolling guards as you make your way through a pointless trial exercise. The developers make it very clear that the campaign is for hardcore fans only, and it’s a severely wasted opportunity.
Fortunately as a real time strategy game, the campaign is far from the only way to experience Demons of the Past. A traditional skirmish mode gives you five interesting but disappointingly similar factions to choose from: the ho-hum vanilla humans of the Realm, the Underdark-themed dark elves and monsters of the Pact, the super-human dragon lovers of the Shaikan, the orcs and trolls of the Clan, and the new but limited demons known only as the Nameless. A chosen avatar can be summoned regardless of your faction, though nowhere does it explain your hero’s abilities until you see them in action. All heroes and units start at max level – completely eliminating the actual RPG aspects that are so prevalent in the campaign. Sadly only about a dozen maps are available to wage war on, though an included Editor offers the nifty chance to build your own and download community-made maps.
Where Demons of the Past really shines is the additional game modes that offer interesting variations of traditional RTS matches or RPG mechanics. Domination was my personal favorite, giving you thousands of resources from the very beginning and 1-5 control points (depending on the map) to take control of. The clock then starts ticking from 30 minutes and away you go, teching up and pumping out forces in a race to battle at the very bloody strategic points. It’s reminiscent of the Warhammer RTS games and tons of fun, especially with less control points than players. New to the franchise is a survival mode that gives you a starting level 1 hero and a few maps where waves of enemies come at you. Defeating them gives you gold which you use to instantly spawn your own army – providing a cool twist on the sometimes tedious aspects of resource gathering and base building and just letting you smash armies against each other. Boss battles every 10 waves help break up the action, and you’re constantly leveling up your hero and snatching up precious loot from your fallen enemies.
Free Mode is an attempt to distill the campaign into individual maps, and interestingly offers online cooperative play essentially allowing you to play the campaign cooperatively with a friend. Once again your chosen hero starts at level 1 with your faction’s headquarters and a handful of workers while enemies begin to assault your fledgling base. Unfortunately Free Mode also suffers from the campaign’s cruel difficulty curve, but it does provide what many would consider the definitive SpellForce experience in properly combining the RTS gameplay with the RPG hero leveling and loot management.