Games that combine genres are not rare, but games that successfully splice together genres in way that feels natural and satisfying are uncommon. SpellForce 3 seams a complex, story-driven RPG with a RTS game and, miraculously, the result feels inevitable.
It has been long enough since the previous SpellForce game (2006) that we can assume many are unfamiliar with the high-fantasy world of Eo and the long-simmering conflicts between the mages that rule it. No matter, as SpellForce 3 is actually a prequel, setting up the story that propels the first two games. Sounds confusing, but it isn't, and SpellForce 3's campaign does a good job of both introducing the player to Eo and the epic story and the game's core mechanics.
After the tutorial mission, the player is free to create his or her own character and the game proper begins. While SpellForce 3 sticks pretty closely to traditional high-fantasy tropes and character types, each is interesting to explore and characters remain engaging to play and constantly developing throughout the game's 30-plus hours. Whether specializing in close melee combat or powerful magic, wisely combing a character's abilities with that of other party members is a core task of the game, and an aspect that makes SpellForce 3 a replayable experience.
Essentially, a big part of SpellForce plays like a party-based, traditional, Infinity-engine RPG with lots of story and questing, exploration, intrigue and discovery. On its own, this aspect of SpellForce 3 is satisfying and well-imaged, with memorable characters, effective dialog and entertaining voice work. At certain mission junctures, Spellforce 3 transforms into an RTS game, with a small party simply not being up to the task of capturing a region or defeating an enemy force. Instead, the player takes on the role of construction manager, allocating workers and resources, building structures and offensive military units for the battle to come. Once built, bases take on a life of their own and the map will soon be littered with outposts.
If there is a criticism to be leveled against SpellForce 3, it might be that in choosing to combine two genres, some complexity was sacrificed in both. Personally, I'm fine with that. I don't need either an RTS tech-tree that is miles deep or so many spells and abilities to develop that I'm paralyzed by choice. The act of moving from one genre to the other makes the whole entertaining and varied.
Graphically and artistically, SpellForce 3 is lush and lovely to look at, with ample, hand-painted detail and color in both its natural environments and sometimes elaborate settlements. Battle effects, spells, and unit animations are all well done and the score is likewise effective in both the RPG moments and epic encounters. The biggest irritation with SpellForce 3 might be its interface, which seems less a product of this current generation than an artifact of the last.
With co-op and additional skirmish modes available on top of the main campaign, SpellForce 3 is a generous -- and largely successful -- merger of two genres. While it isn't the world's deepest or most complex RPG nor gaming's most substantial RTS, it is a very effectively constructed and balanced hybrid and most important, makes a strong and compelling case that the mashup works. With over a decade between installments, it's not like the SpellForce franchise has overstayed its welcome. It's perfectly timed to delight both fans of the series and surprise new players looking for something new and different.