The fantasy genre is a weirdly subjective thing. If 'Age of Beards VII' features ale-swilling dwarves, elves in tights firing longbows and singing weird poetry filled with circumflex accents and brutal, tribal orcs who paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, one would be forgiven for moaning about how it's too 'vanilla', with not enough originality to engage a sophisticated audience. On the other hand, if you want me to read fourteen pages of backstory on the thousand-year history of the Squig'N'oth peoples... well, I'm probably not actually going to do that. The problem here is that as a gamer I am introduced to roughly eleven new fantasy settings a month, and don't really have the time nor inclination to learn the cuisine and musical preferences of your made-up Viking guys or whatever.
So Spellforce 3. It definitely steers close to Fantasy 101, in a way which might actually seem a little... simplistic to many. Personally, this is the side of the fantasy genre I prefer. I know what elves are, I know that if you lift up that mountain you'll probably find a few drunken dwarven miners under there, and so on and so forth in a traditional western fantasy style. This familiarity doesn't imply a simple and formulaic plot, however. No, the simple and formulaic plot is Spellforce 3's burden to bear.
You play an important magical guy with a dark family lineage. There is a kingdom that seems noble but harbours sinister prejudices. There's something about a lost city belonging to a long-dead glorious civilisation, and a succession of inexplicably similar magical plagues... throw in a couple of religious zealots and you're well on the way to a vanilla plot as well as a vanilla setting.
But let's not dwell on plot and setting. What we've got here is an interesting and unusual synchronisation of RTS and RPG. You'll form a small party of usually four characters, each of which has a suite of abilities, spells, stats and a scattering of backstory. You'll equip these heroes with weapons, armour and various magical accoutrements and head off into a world of giant spiders and goblins and stuff, looting merrily as you go. At various times, you'll be inexplicably given control of a settlement's armed forces - often when they have every reason to fear and hate you, but we're not dwelling on plot, remember? - and you'll be into a familiar world of gathering wood, stone, and food. You know, like you were playing Age of Empires 2. You'll be building woodcutter's huts and watchtowers, upgrading your barracks to build slightly better troops, recruiting infantry until you're at your population cap, lassoing everyone and clicking vaguely on the enemy base in what looks a lot like - Okay, I suppose I have to say it - a vanilla RTS.
And it really is almost laughably vanilla. But the upside to this is that it's really, really easy to settle into. And the lack of complex sophistication really does allow the RPG and RTS sides to marry up seamlessly. Your heroes have traditional powers (fireballs, AOE healing abilities, whirlwind attacks that hit everyone nearby with your melee weapon, and so on) that continue to function in exactly the same way in RTS-mode. So rather than fighting three spiders with your core heroes, you're now fighting fifteen orcs with your core heroes and as many infantrymen as you can produce. The scrubs happily battle away with you chucking spells and healing into their midst as appropriate. And the weird thing is that despite the simplicity - or perhaps, as our dear Felix suggests, precisely because of this simplicity - it's pretty fun. At least at first.
For the first eight hours or so, there was enough in this straightforward design to amuse me. The setting is beautifully, and above all, imaginatively crafted, and zooming right in on your fellows reveals a depth of attention to detail and belief in the setting that is admirable. Orc villages aren't always just obvious RTS bases with buildings scattered unconvincingly around a clearing. In many cases, there will be an actual city, with watchtowers and other RTS elements cunningly incorporated into the town's structure. Patches of wilderness will occasionally render up some fascinating ruins and other evocative landmarks that can make exploring a lot of fun. In fact, striding valiantly around the countryside in RPG mode where you have as much time as you want to explore and see the sights is perhaps Spellforce 3's primary passport to the fun.
Things do tend to go downhill in the RTS game. Many tasks are best performed by your heroes, but endless waves of enemies, particularly later on, make defensive and exploratory strategies tough to pull off. More often than not, the endless wailing of "we're under attack!" by your settlements will force you to scamper back to help out, fragmenting the gameplay in less-than-fun ways. Stone monoliths operate as teleportation gates for your heroes but the pace of battles makes their micromanagement a chore. Then, just as you're despairing of getting anywhere, you'll succeed in building enough troops to rush the enemy right through until you've won the whole map. Just like in RTSes of old.
I feel that Spellforce 3 could have done with a pause feature. The RPG side feels like it should be pausable, but the number of spells and abilities each character has means that it's rarely a game-breaker. And I understand that if you allow pausing in a RTS, that just makes it an S, but in this case, I think the benefits of increased player control would make up for any problems of nomenclature.
In the short term, if you're willing to think of the prefab fantasy setting as comfortingly familiar, Spellforce 3 is a pretty fun. The voice acting is terrific, and the plot easy to understand without requiring weeks of learning why THESE giant wolves are different to other games' giant wolves. Whether this familiarity is a brave counterpoint to the endless setting creep of gaming is really a matter of personal taste. And if you're looking for a fantasy RPG/RTS hybrid, this is a promising contender. However, by trying to do two things at once, it fails to be really remarkable at either.