Heroes VI: Making Might and Magic Relevant Again
I’ve lost the better part of a week. I don’t know exactly how it happened either. I sat down to play Heroes of Might and Magic VI (er sorry… Might and Magic: Heroes VI, as it has been rebranded) and all of a sudden it was the weekend, then it was Tuesday. I can vaguely remember eating, sleeping, mumbling something to my wife when she came home and mumbling something again when she was leaving with all of her things and our pets… should I be concerned about that?
In all of that time, all I could think about was Anastasya, the undead daughter of the Duke Slava of Griffin, who has lead an army of the damned to uncover the evil force that took over her mind and forced her to kill her own father, resulting in her untimely execution at the hand of her brother. Considering this is only 1/5 of the story in the game, as well as the well-made maps, gorgeous graphics, improved mechanics, and general high level of polish, it’s pretty clear that my week-long coma was at least spent playing a very good game.
A Return to Form
In many ways, Might and Magic: Heroes VI (from now on, just Heroes VI) is a true return to form for the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and more specifically, a return to the game as it existed in Heroes of Might and Magic III (widely considered, until now, to be the best entry in the series). If you are unfamiliar with the Heroes series, here is a brief history lesson:
Might and Magic was an old-school computer RPG series, begun all the way back in 1986 by New World Computing. It was, in many ways, the precursor to games like The Elder Scrolls, and was hugely popular in its time, spawing nine games before dying in 2002. I never much liked them myself, but then again in those days I was playing adventure games and my RPG experience was limited to Quest for Glory.
Heroes of Might and Magic, on the other hand, was a spin-off series, first created in 1995 as Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest. Instead of being a first-person RPG, Heroes was a top-down, isometric, turn based strategy game centered around controlling heroes at the head of various armies. Players would use these heroes to capture resources, artifacts (which could augment their heroes) and towns, which could produce more units and offer other benefits. Upon engaging an enemy (monsters or heroes) the game would change to a side-camera turn based combat encounter, with each type of unit lined up on both sides of the screen. The game was deep, lengthy, and extremely fun, and culminated in Heroes III in 1999, widely considered to be the best game in the series. By this time New World Computing was owned by the ill-fated 3DO Company, and the series took a serious nosedive with Heroes IV: the game changed many elements that series fans were used to.
It was not until 2006, after Ubisoft had purchased the rights to the Might and Magic franchise from the now defunct 3DO Company, that Heroes returned with Heroes V. The game was developed by Nival Interactive, a Russian game developer with limited international success. This entry marked the first time the series had been converted into 3D graphics, as opposed to sprites, and reactions were somewhat mixed. The game placed a heavier emphasis on story than the previous entries, complete with fully rendered cutscenes in missions, but the game was slow, clunky, and it just didn’t feel right. One of the great joys (and ironies) about the original games was how quickly things could move while at the same time how long missions could take. The game was certainly better than Heroes IV, but did not live up to the expectations of long time series fans, nor did it seem to attract many new fans to the fold. It was a passable, but not spectacular, rebirth for the franchise.
Finally, we come to the present day . Ubisoft shifted the Heroes franchise from Nival Interactive to Black Hole Entertainment, the Budapest based developer of the critically underrated Armies of Exigo and Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. Simply put, the sixth time was the charm.
In every way, the newly rebranded Might and Magic: Heroes VI is a wonderful turn based strategy game that manages to both innovate and improve on its predecessors while still capitalizing on what made the original games so good. The game is quick, gorgeous, well-polished, fun to play and manages to tell a complex and compelling story throughout its lengthy five main campaigns (plus one tutorial campaign and a climactic “final” campaign).
By the way, when I say lengthy, I am not exaggerating. A single mission might take you as long as 3-4 hours depending on the difficulty level, and each campaign is made up of 5 to 6 of these. As such, I need to be direct with you: I did not finish the game before writing this review. It is simply too long for me to finish it and write a review in any timely fashion (as we got the game when it was released on Steam). A single campaign can take up over 15 hours, and there are 7 of these. However, each campaign is meant as an independent experience, telling the same story through different perspectives, and finishing all of them is not necessary to render a positive judgment on the game as a whole.
There is also, of course, a robust multiplayer mode, along with a persistent “Dynasty” system. It’s somewhat complicated to understand, but basically every player has their own persistent persona that transcends whatever single player character they are playing. Everything you do in the game, be in in single or multiplayer, adds points to your dynasty level, allowing you to unlock new perks, portraits, and titles that can be used in either single or multiplayer. It’s a neat system, and the achievements are plentiful.
This persistence extends to a neat little feature that Heroes VI took straight from Demons’ Souls/Dark Souls: the orb system. Basically, as you explore the various maps, you will come across blue orbs that, when activated, show messages left by other players in their single player games on that map. These messages can include tips and advice, and each message can be rated and sorted by said rating. It’s a great little addition and I found it genuinely useful on some of the tougher maps.
The game really does look gorgeous. In Heroes V, the move to 3D was not graceful: whereas the sprites of the previous games were bright and full of character, the models in Heroes V looked clunky and prematurely outdated. Heroes VI manages to side-step this problem by both vastly improving on the 3D modeling, but also by changing the perspective to more closely mimic the isometric views of the early Heroes games. The result of which is smooth 3D animation that actually surpasses the great imagery of the earlier sprite-based games.
Likewise, the gameplay of Heroes V was slow and plodding, and Heroes VI has fixed this problem by both allowing players more control over how fast units move on the overworld and in battle, as well as by vastly improving loading times. Despite playing the game for hours, I never felt like I was waiting around overlong.
Finally, mechanically, the game feels spot on. In fact, it feels a great deal like Heroes III, with a few notable changes, which I will get to in the next section. The game features a good tutorial campaign that both introduces players to the basic mechanics as well as the story, though I do feel like it could do a better job in explaining what some of the more obscure hero stats mean. Also, the hero customization is deep but simple to use. There are a huge number of options when it comes to leveling up your heroes, and assigning them new skills and perks. Because of a large number of classes, as well as a “Blood and Tears” morality system, no two heroes will likely play exactly the same.
Change Is Always Hard
So the game is great, and I have no hesitation recommending it to both new players looking for a deep turn based strategy experience as well as old fans of the Heroes franchise who were disenchanted with the offerings of IV and V. That being said, Heroes VI makes some fairly big changes that, while I do believe they improve the game, are going to serve to alienate some long-time fans. If you are not familiar with the Heroes franchise in general, you might as well skip this section, since none of this will matter to you.
The first, and most significant, of these changes is the revamped town system. Whereas in previous Heroes games the player would slowly build up their towns with new buildings, and would see the progress on the town screen itself, this process has been simplified down into a very basic menu system. Gone are the ever evolving town screens, though the 3D models of the towns on the overworld do change as they are upgraded.
Resource sources are also handled differently now. In past Heroes games, you could capture any mine, sawmill, or ore pit and you would see those resources get added to your stock for as long as you owned it. Now, maps are divided into areas, with each area controlled by a fort or town. In order to capture the resources of that area, you must control the fort or town, or the second you walk away from the mine, it will revert into enemy hands.
Speaking of forts, not every town is capable of being upgraded. Some are simply forts, controlling areas and their resources, and allowing for some limited recruitment of soldiers. Upon capturing these, you may convert them to your race, or leave it as is and recruit units from different races, but that’s about it. No upgrading, no fortifying, etc. These are useful primarily as additional sources of units, resources, as defensive structures if you come under attack, and as locations your heroes can teleport to with the use of the “Town Portal” spell.
Finally, unit recruitment is vastly different from old Heroes games. In the past, each town produced a certain number of units based on the buildings in that town, and these units had to be recruited from those towns in particular. Now, each town (and other unit producing building that you may capture on the over world map) adds to your potential unit total. In short: you can recruit all of your units from any town, instead of having to gather them from each town in turn. This makes the game far faster, but I am sure longtime fans will scoff at the alteration.
There are some other changes as well, but apart from these major additions/alterations, the game really does look and feel like a classic Heroes game, and in my opinion the changes serve to improve upon the core design.
A Song of Might and Magic
I would be remiss if I ended the review without discussing the story, since it is featured so prominently in the game. I joked about this before on Twitter and in our podcast, but it’s pretty clear, at least from the setup, that the game’s writers were fans of George R. R. Martin. The basic set-up goes like this: Slava, the Duke of Griffin, has five children, including one illegitimate son. Due to a series of political and mystical intriques, he is killed, throwing the land into chaos. Sound familiar? I suppose if you are going to steal, steal from the best. Thankfully, the story becomes more original from this point forward.
The main game is broken into five campaigns, each following one of Duke Slava’s five children. Each campaign takes place simultaneously in the story, essentially telling different sides of the story from different perspectives. While each of these campaigns can be played in any order, they are presented as a linear progression, at least visually, and that’s how I chose to proceed through them.
These campaigns are not just a random collection of cut scenes giving the player an excuse to play through skirmish maps. The map design, objectives, sub-missions, and in-game cut scenes make it clear that the game’s story is deeply integrated into the actual gameplay. Your character always has purpose, and, as a nice touch, your character’s levels and abilities do carry over into their next maps.
The writing is decent. At times, I found it enthralling, and was genuinely interested to see where the story was going, but at other times, particularly in some of the dialogue, I was not very impressed. At least in the tutorial and the Anastasya campaign, the writers rely far too much on a particular wise-ass bird for comic relief, to ill effect. Also, while the story is deep and complicated, some of the events move by so quickly that it isn’t always clear what’s going on. Eventually you will figure it out, but the story could have been organized better.
Ultimately, these are nitpicks. The game’s story is great, especially for a game of this type, and the idea of telling the same story from five separate perspectives, leading to a final conflict, is a good one. As I mentioned, there is also a morality system in the game, essentially like Renegade and Paragon from Mass Effect: decisions favoring power are “Blood” and decisions favoring peace are “Tears.” It was clear that some of these decisions effected the storyline in minor ways, but I was unable to play through a campaign twice with opposite alignments, so I am not sure if a max Blood character experiences something vastly different from a max Tears character, other than a different set of abilities and artifacts.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Of course, nothing is perfect, and Heroes VI does suffer from some significant problems. The first of which are bugs. Upon release, the game had a number of these that ranged from annoying to game-breaking. One particularly awful bug caused the mouse to flicker constantly, and even disappear at times. In order to fix this I had to go and download an unofficial hotfix from the Ubisoft forums. I also saw certain missions objectives break, not allowing my Hero to activate them and complete their mission. These were fixed upon reloading the game. Other players, through the forums and the orb system, have reported a variety of other annoyances, including crashes.
A particularly incidious issue with the game is Ubisoft’s now standard DRM, requiring that the player maintain a persistent connection to the internet. Now, I have a good router and a good wireless adapter, I also have a decent internet connection through XFinity, but sometimes these things fail, and when they do, the game unceremoniously kicks you out to the main menu without delay. You could be in the middle of a huge climactic battle, finally having turned the tide, and the game will kick you out. Upon re-establishing your connection, your only option is to reload the last save game, most likely before the battle even started.
Considering that the game requires registration codes and an online activation, this system is onerous and unnecessary. It honestly ruined the experience for me, at least temporarily, and I hope that Ubisoft follows their own lead and removes this specific type of DRM in the future.
Sometimes You Can Come Home
So that’s all of it, the good and the bad. As I said before, if you ever played a Heroes game and enjoyed it, you should pick up Heroes VI, no questions asked. It is a fantastic game in its own right and a wonderful return to form for a venerable turn based strategy series. For gamers who are looking for a different kind of strategy game, perhaps one that is turn based but less Civilization’y, Heroes VI may very well scratch that itch. It certainly has that “one more turn” drive that the best turn based games thrive on. More than anything though, on a personal level, it’s great to see the series come back so strong. I loved playing the Heroes games in my youth, and playing Heroes VI brought all of those good feelings right back. If you hadn’t already figured it out, I highly recommend this game.