Presto, but no change-o.
Pet project of Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, the 3DO company just couldn’t seem to do anything right. Their wildly expensive 3DO console
was eventually crushed like a bug by the original Sony Playstation, but the publisher was also responsible for a slew of crummy franchises, from the terrible Portal Runner
to wave after wave of awful
, awful Army Men
games. For what seemed like a decade, 3DO was something of an industry joke.
But rising from their sea of bad ideas was a strange, glowing gem of a strategy game - Heroes of Might and Magic. Whenever we got a package from 3DO, there were only two questions anyone here asked: was it a Heroes game, and if not, could I use the restroom?
Building upon the foundation of the classic King’s Bounty
, developer New World Computing refined the play mechanics until they had produced the quintessential turn-based strategy RPG. Dozens of games have drawn inspiration from the series, from Age of Wonders
to Advance Wars
. Fans are generally in agreement that Heroes of Might and Magic III
was the artistic pinnacle of the genre.
So while we’ve remained relatively unconcerned with what would happen to the Army Men license, we did wonder what fate awaited Heroes of Might and Magic. Well, new owner Ubisoft and new developer Nival took a no-risk approach that is sure to satisfy but destined to underwhelm those waiting with baited breath. Heroes of Might and Magic V is simply an updated version of Heroes of Might and Magic III with some fancy-pants new graphics. You’ll be simultaneously thrilled they didn’t screw it up and disappointed they didn’t bother to innovate anything.
Don’t get me wrong - there are some small gameplay refinements, and for the most part, they work well. This isn’t a complete re-issue like the most dishonorable Quest for the Dragonbone Staff.
In case you’re a Heroes noob (for shame!), some explanation is in order. This is a true turn-based game, meaning you make all your moves, click the ‘done’ button, and then the other players take their turns in sequence. You hire heroes who act as generals, roaming about the gameplay map capturing cities, collecting treasures and, of course, fighting the good (or bad) fight. Equally important are the cities themselves, as they are essential in equipping heroes with the armies they need for conquering goodness. There are several conventional “sides,” such as humans, elves, demons and undead, but given access through a captured city, any hero can command any forces. Aside from what you find in the field, your cities are your primary source of cash. Other resources like wood, ore, sulfur and gems require the control of different types of mines found on the game map. The core gameplay of Heroes is managing this map while attacking and defending cities until you ultimately conquer them all.
Doing so inevitably requires expertise in the other key ingredient in a Heroes game: the tactical battlefield. When conflict ensues, the game zooms into a simple grid for tactical command, and hopefully, victory. These chess matches pit army versus army in turn-based warfare. As your heroes win battles, they gain experience that can be used to make them more powerful in a number of different skills that boost either their own abilities or those of the armies under their command. “Leadership,” for example, will boost the morale of all your troops, while “Destruction Magic” will allow your hero to cast more powerful spells to decimate enemy troops directly.
Now, fans of the series will know all of this already and will find that game has returned almost entirely to the gameplay found in Heroes III
. Only a few of the changes from Heroes IV
were retained, such as the sub-skills in the hero learning tree. Other changes are fairly minor. The initiative system determining which creature can move next in battle has been substantially improved, and heroes themselves are no longer vulnerable to attack, dying when their army does. Your heroes also can no longer instantly cast spells; they must wait their turn like any other creature in your army.
But otherwise, you’ll find that every city, creature, map item, artifact, spell, and skill has been taken directly from Heroes III. You still roam about amassing battalions of units, chasing down enemy heroes and building up big enough armies to finally get past that ugly horde of black dragons blocking your way to some mystical treasure. The nature of this game has not changed one bit.
Such honorable plagiarism does not extend to the plot, however, because Heroes of Might and Magic V features an all new single-player campaign. Played out in five lengthy chapters, there’s a fair bit more story and plot exposition than in the previous games. The king has been slain and a queen must rise to the challenge of command. A demon messiah emerges to destroy all creation, and salvation lies in the hands of some very unlikely heroes indeed. It’s pretty hackneyed stuff, but that’s also consistent with the Heroes universe.
Easily the biggest change is in the presentation, as the world has finally been brought into the third dimension. Though you still navigate the overworld map as if it were a flat, 2D object, it’s now rife with nice effects and objects, not to mention a smooth zoom feature. The creature designers in particular went all out, creating some really cool units for your armies. The camera swoops, cuts and pans during combat, lending such much needed cinematic flair to the otherwise static fighting.
The sound has gotten a similar update. Every unit in the game gets some individual sonic love right down to the clop of their hooves or the clang of their axes as they smash them together in a victory celebration. The music also returns to Heroes III, as the tunes are ripped straight from that game and re-scored with a larger orchestra.
Since a single map can take a dozen hours or more to complete, multiplayer has always been a problem for the series. Civilization IV
finally solved that conundrum with its “rolling” multiplayer mode; Heroes V
offers a few original if less successful options. Direct Hero vs. Hero duels function as weird Deathmatches, but it’s missing all the fun found in exploration and army building. There is also a “Ghost” mode where during your opponent’s turn, you get to control ghosts that can subtly mess with his plan. Mostly it’s just something to do to kill time. Unfortunately, the best option is still to find an opponent or seven, cross your fingers that they’re in it for the long haul, and play it out.
Looks like we also have to wait for player created scenarios to extend the life of the game, as the toolset has not yet been released (although it is planned). Player-created maps made Heroes III just about the best gaming bargain around and should hopefully promote more online interaction here as well.
I don’t envy Ubisoft’s position. As the saying goes, “Nobody wants to follow Elvis on stage,” and while their Elvis impersonator is a good one, it will never be as good as the king until it can invent some new tricks of its own. Really, what’s the point of going 3D if it has no gameplay ramifications? For example, how about implementing terrain bonuses so that if you attack from higher ground, you get a buff? 3D strategy games have been doing that for ages.
On the other hand, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and New World Computing should be very flattered indeed. Despite how derivative it is, Heroes of Might and Magic V is still a good, addictive game. It just isn’t a very new one.