Fantasy-themed strategy games have two great series--Warlords and Heroes of Might & Magic--and one game that damn well should have been a great series--Master of Magic.
While I've always thought Master of Magic was the best of the bunch, due to its rich magic system and more detailed, Civilization-style economy, the latest installment of the Heroes series comes close to changing my mind.
Be advised, Heroes of Might & Magic has a lot of great gameplay in it. Like all great turn-based games, it has that addictive, up-all-night quality. It achieves this by making you worry about four or five things at a time, just enough to keep you busy but not enough to overwhelm you. There's a tactical mini-game, cities to upgrade, costly armies to raise, and an exploration and overland adventure mode, but the game never really bogs down into the sort of tedious micro-management that plagues most other explore and conquer games near the end of a scenario.
At the heart of the game are the heroes. There are more than one hundred individual, pre-packaged heroes, each with their own name, portrait and special abilities. This is very reminiscent of Master of Magic, though the disparity between heroes you can hire early in the game and later on is not as great.
Heroes can be one of sixteen different character classes, which is more than you'll find in most straight up roleplaying games, let alone a strategy game. Each of the eight town types has two character classes associated with it, generally one mage type and one warrior type. So for example there are Battle Mages and Beastmasters, Death Knights and Druids, Wizards and Witches. They range from the normal Humans, Elves and Dwarves to more outlandish characters like Demons, Vampires and Efreeti, though the race of the hero has virtually no affect on the game.
More important than the class of the hero you hire is getting them up in levels. A tenth or twelfth level hero of any class is worth far more than a bunch of low level minions. What is key is hanging on to your heroes, building up their levels, and equipping them with useful magic items and powerful armies.
Generally, you're going to want as many heroes as you can afford, and you're going to put them into a variety of different roles. Your toughest and most experienced heroes go out on the front lines with powerful stacks of troops. They'll be used to take over enemy towns and intercept enemy armies before they get into your territory. They are your game winners.
You'll also want one hero per town, leading the garrisons, though a lot of times I found myself skimping in this department, particularly with cities well away from the front lines. Finally, you'll use other heroes as scouts and explorers, and a couple others for more mundane chores, like going to the sawmill once a week to collect resources, or ferrying troops from the cities where they were bought to the heroes on the front lines. These tasks are suitable for low-level duds.
But when two armies meet, the heroes don't actually get out on the battlefield and fight. That's handled by your armies, and stacking tons of good troops with each hero is the key to victory. Every hero can handle up to seven slots of troops, and there is no real upper limit to how many of one creature will accompany your hero. So a knight might have 200 pikemen, 100 archers, and 20 griffins with him, for example. What heroes add to the fray are combat bonuses, acquired either through experience or magic items, and spellcasting ability. They can also direct the siege equipment that can accompany an army.
When combat does occur, the game shifts away from the overland map and onto a hexagon grid that serves as a battlefield. Each creature type is represented by one big icon on the field (even if the icon represents only ten or a hundred pikemen, it's always the same size.) Units take turns moving and attacking, and a really good, if complicated, formula is used for dishing out damage and allowing the defending units (assuming they survive) to strike back.
While this tactical mini-game worked fine in the first Heroes of Might & Magic games, it does look and feel a little simplistic compared to some recent mini-games, like Caesar III. And while it isn't actually simplistic, since the game mechanics are balanced, highly detailed and very sound, the scope and presentation of the battles--goofy, over-sized characters on a narrow, flat field--doesn't really stack up with other wargames, fantastic or not. (Although it does beat Warlords III and that game's almost non-interactive combat, hands down.)
During the six fairly short campaign games, most of your heroes will carry over from one scenario to the next, though strangely, their accumulated artifacts and armies do not. I found that kind of a rough transition. What are my Heroes doing with their magic items after each mission, throwing them away?
Another thing I've never understood with this series however is why you can't flee a battle without having your hero quit from your service. This creates an unnatural situation of 'win or die', and for the player it simply means you're going to save the game before you go into every battle. Why can't you retreat? This brings further annoyances, since the save and load game interface is a bit cumbersome, involving something like four or five steps to save a game, and it quits out of the engine altogether if you just want to reload a game. That's inconsiderate.
Nonetheless, these complaints can't justifiably lower the final score. They're more questions I had with the design decisions, because I prefer the city-based, not the stack-based, strategy games, than anything else. And certainly a number of nice new design touches have made this the best Heroes game to date. For example, you now have to place magic items on your hero, rather than letting them carry around as many as you like. And the world of Erathia features subterranean levels, like those in Cave Wars or Master of Magic, which makes for some more interesting strategic planning.
Besides the six campaign games, which take a while to finish and let you play virtually every type of troop and hero in the game, there are some forty odd individual scenarios as well as a scenario editor, which should be more than enough gaming in one box to keep you busy for a good six months to a year, depending on how often and regularly you play.
The multiplayer gaming features have been improved with more options for hooking up with other players and more for the player to do in the game when it's not your turn, but there are still some networking issues that need to be worked out. But that's probably less important in a turn-based strategy game than it would be in a real-time game, since most people are going to want to play this one against the computer, at least first.
The game's music is up to the professional quality of its predecessors, though this time it's in MP3 format. That's actually kind of handy--I'm listening to the MP3 tracks in Windows while I write this review. The graphics are probably the best in any turn-based strategy game to date--even the recent Alpha Centauri and Call to Power--but as to the story, I honestly didn't pay much attention to it, since it was so thinly woven into the actual missions, and there is never any diplomacy or NPC interaction to speak of. Still, fans of the series as well as the Might & Magic roleplaying games will find much of the storyline and setting familiar.
Heroes III doing really do anything radically different than its predecessors. The number of town types, magic items, heroes, monsters and the like have all been increased, in some cases doubled, but the core game mechanic is pretty much the same. Battlefields are bigger, but combat is essentially unchanged. The graphics are sharper, the maps are bigger--but basically any element of the previous game have only been expanded and refined, not revised. There are a few new touches--underground maps, better AI--but there aren't any major surprises. But in the case of Heroes of Might & Magic, more of the same isn't a bad thing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
So if you've already bought and played Heroes of Might & Magic I and II, you'll definitely be happy with III. And if you're new to this series, pick this one up and give it a try.
Commanding Erathia's greatest heroes and fiercest creatures, players will fight alongside Queen Catherine to restore her family's royal reign. In this world of swords and sorcery, players will need to hone their fighting and spell-casting skills in order to complete quests, fend off foes and gather new allies to bring the royal family back to its rightful glory.
With an arsenal of formidable medieval weapons and an array of impressive creatures to lead, Heroes of Might and Magic III will plunge gamers into adventure filled quests brought to life by beautiful high-resolution artwork. State of the art technology delivers pre-rendered 3D game graphics and the smooth animation system supplies realistic and engaging combat visuals that match the intense action.
Players will find Heroes' non-linear, quest-based design highly addictive, with its complex campaigns, individual scenarios and deep gameplay. While the engrossing turn-based battle system and user-friendly interface help to ensure that Heroes of Might and Magic III will challenge the most experienced players, while still providing hours of accessible gameplay to strategy novices.
Heroes of Might and Magic III is the most recent addition to the very popular Heroes of Might and Magic series, and like other recent sequels it improves upon its original while keeping the same popular style of play.
For those new to the series, Heroes III is a turn-based strategy game that takes place in the fantasy world of Enroth. Players outfit and improve their heroes, upgrade their towns, gather resources, and build armies. For those who have played the other games in the Heroes series, most aspects of the game will seem very similar, as the same gather resources, build castle, build huge unbeatable army strategy still applies.
The main difference in Heroes III is the little things. The music, the graphics, the interface, and the game system itself have all been tweaked and re-tweaked. Combat options, game options, menus, and even the map editor have all had small yet significant improvements. Individual heroes have more skills, each now has a unique ability, and each hero's artifacts are now displayed on a paper-doll template that prevents you from using an unlimited amount of magic necklaces or rings. The number of artifacts and creatures in the game has been increased, and the number of different city types has been expanded. The game map has been now includes an underworld, and play balance has been improved.
Among the most welcome additions is the increased number of city types. There are now eight types, and while some of these are very similar to Heroes II, some, like the Inferno and Fortress, are very original indeed. Each city also produces more units type than before, and the game introduces many new kinds of units to Erathia. The Tower, for example, now produces gargoyles, gremlins, nagas, and genies in addition to the titans, golems, and mages they cranked out before. Of the new cities, the hellish, fiery Inferno is home to demons, devils, pit fiends, and all sorts of evil nasties. The swampy Fortress contains mostly reptile-like monsters, nearly all of which has some special ability. For example, hydras can attack in many directions at once, basilisks can turn creatures to stone, and gorgon's stare can kill the first unit in a enemy stack.
The best thing about all the different cities is that, despite their diversity, they all compete on an even level. For example, the Fortress player does have under-powered troops compared to other factions, and late in the game his or her troops will get stomped by high-powered creatures like dragons, titans, and angels. However, the Fortress builds up its city quicker than the other factions. Long before the Tower can produce its tough creatures, the Fortress player will be massing armies of hydras, gorgons, and basilisks on his borders. On the other hand, factions like the Dungeon may take a long time to produce powerful creatures, but once they are producing their Dragons and Septicores they are all but unbeatable. Although play balance has always been a strength of this series, in Heroes III this balance manifests itself in much subtler and deeper ways.
Another major improvement is the AI. The artificial intelligence controlling the computer players was a problem with Heroes II. While the basic AI was solid, the computer could occasionally act in a not-so-smart manner. For example, in Heroes II, the computer player would always try to attack the weakest nearby city. If a human player left a city completely empty, the computer's armies would all rush straight for the city. Well, by leaving one city empty one turn, then another empty the next, the computer's armies would march one way and then the other, turn after turn. Needless to say, this was a terrifically effective stall tactic. For Heroes III the computer movement and combat AIs are both greatly improved. In fact, when the levels are set to more difficult settings the computer player acts almost identically to an experienced player. For a game of this complexity, designing a perfect AI is a near impossibility, but the way HOMMIII's AI emulates an experienced player is amazing.
Having a get-together to play Heroes has always been one of my favorite ways to spend an evening with friends. The Heroes games have always been simple to learn, and Heroes III is no exception. (So simple, in fact, that my five-year-old has taught himself the game - ed.) Although the game does take quite some time to finish, the addictive gameplay keeps most players up long past their bedtime in hopes of just one more turn. Heroes III has all the standard multi-player modes that we have come to expect, including hotseat, IPX-network, TCP-IP internet, modem play and direct connections. Some improvements have been made here as well. The hotseat game, for example, now includes a much-needed feature that allows a player to replay the movements of all other players that are in his or her line of sight.
I did have one major problem with hotseat portion of the game, as there seems to be some sort of error that causes the game to crash during computer player's move phases. The occurrence of this bug was somewhat random, but it happened no more frequently than once an hour. According to the Heroes III message board, there should be a patch for this problem shortly, but in the meantime those with this problem can get around it with a workaround. You can do this by reloading the autosaved game, turning off the "view computer players" option, ending their turn, and afterwards turning the "view computer players" option back on.
I also suggest that you check the website and message board with any other problems as a mail to 3DO support on this problem took over a week to get a response, not the two to three days that they suggested. In addition to taking a long time, their response to my problem was simply to ask me for information that I had provided in my first message. I'm not completely sure anyone really read it.
On a happier note, the campaign game is excellent. The missions are introduced with incredibly detailed videos that use the new Bink video technology. This provides additional quality and color depth for videos, and helps to create an immersive experience. The campaign details the story of Queen Catherine retaking the land of Enroth. Enroth is in a state of constant war as many different factions are vying for control of the land. The campaign game features six different campaigns, each playing from the point of view of a different faction. Many of the campaign levels also allow you to take artifacts or heroes from level to level, giving almost a role-playing feel to some of the levels. I found myself getting attached to Yog, my favorite hero, as he traveled with me from level to level.
Overall, Heroes III is a great improvement on an already great game. With an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to game design, 3DO has created a game that will stand the test of time and outlast many, more high tech, games. The thoughtful design and eye for detail will make Heroes III what games like Starcraft and Alpha Centauri already are to many. Heroes III is a successful sequel to a successful sequel and I expect to play it for years to come.
People who downloaded Heroes of Might and Magic 3 have also downloaded:
Heroes of Might and Magic 4, Heroes of Might and Magic 2: Gold Edition, Heroes of Might and Magic II (Deluxe Edition), Heroes of Might and Magic, Heroes Chronicles, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Warcraft 2, Lords of Magic: Special Edition
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