While you're trying to figure out why the females of these games seem to prefer deadly sword fighting in Victoria's Secret two-pieces, you just might fall in love with SpellForce 2. Oh, you'll hear plenty of Diablo comparisons, and we loved the big D six years ago, but hopefully you've moved on since, because this "role-playing-made-love-to-a-strategy-game" hybrid certainly has.
Didn't play the original SpellForce? No problem - the "play it your way", first or third person SpellForce 2 sports its own whopper of a story with plenty of poncy "You'll rue the day!" (who talks like that?) prose. The box claims 60 hours, but if you take your time with all the optional side quests, it's easily more. And the world of Eo looks like a party platter of islands - each one its own skirmish map equivalent to 10 of Warcraft 3's largest combat zones. Campaign mode beelines you through each, though you can return to "finished" maps at any time to complete side quests, and an alternative "free" mode lets you tackle them out of order either solo or cooperatively with other players.
The campaign kicks off with selection of a male or female avatars and some appearance fiddling, but stats are item and skill-track based instead of the usual D&D attribute blend. As you level by completing quests, you get experience points which can be applied to either combat or magic abilities much like World of Warcraft's talent trees. Maps come plush with quests and gear and generally split into booty grabs or lengthy pauses to base-build and gin up mini-armies of soldiers or magic-slinging creatures.
It's hard to argue with a game that gives you so much to do without dropping the ball somewhere. Where other games peak prematurely and abruptly zero you out to mask run-of-the-mill design, SpellForce 2 expertly paces itself like an Olympic distance runner. If you're not leveling skills quick enough, try shuffling hundreds of items to tweak stats like damage-per-second, speed, range, health, armor and mana. Frustrated with some aspect of the main quest? Try each map's generous helping of sides, or just pop back to an earlier area to scout for waiting quest-givers or explore an unmapped area for extra swag to sell and buy something better. And when hunting monsters in your tiny squad of heroes gets old, how about building a base with one of SpellForce 2 's elaborate three factions - the human Realms, orcish Clans or demonic Pact - and kicking out a massive army of Treants, Titans, or Death Knights to swarm your opponents?
Sadly, SpellForce 2 will probably suffer the fate of other misunderstood greats: gamers who played the cruder (but promising) Spellforce may be understandably wary, and anyone tired of Diablo-cum-Dungeon Siege will probably view it as "sequel shovelware." But try it and see for yourself. For just forty bucks, you're getting the gaming equivalent of a giganto-Whatchamacallit bar.