Saturday, October 15, 2011

PC: Heroes of Might and Magic 6

Like several of my kinsmen I’m not ashamed of my longstanding dedication to the masterpiece known as the ‘Heroes of Might and Magic franchise’. Not an avid follower from the very start, however, the endless amount of hours I’ve spent on the third and fifth installment of the series is beyond counting. For the same reason you can likely figure out that my expectations for the now released sixth journey into Erathia were pretty above standard.
And it has indeed been some journey, 25 years by counting, which undoubtedly leaves us with the burning question; where are we going now?
HOMM6 is first and foremost a study of the ever relevant question; how much can you actually change in a game before it ceases to be what you used to know? How does one walk the extremely thin line between not alienating the established fan base while still bringing something new to the table?

Well, on the fluff-side everything is pretty much what you’d expect from a game like this. The intro is decent, good looking and as usual sets the stage for powerful armies clashing together. We plunge into a world set 400 years before the event of HOMM5 in which Duke Slatan gets into serious trouble with the Griffin Emperor for allying with the orcs in order to slay demons. If this somehow brings out memories of Warcraft 3, I’ll just spare you the fact that the orc is named Krall.
Things quickly set in motion and Duke Slatan is soon after slain, leaving behind his five children who are all now in control of one of the five factions currently available in the game. You take control of each in turn as events unfold, and provided you’re willing to take the time the single player campaign isn’t over in just one night.
The flaws we learned to live with from the fifth game are back, though. The story is not particularly involving, often reduced to still standing dialogue read out loud. The few in game cutscenes are bearable whereas the voice acting is most certainly not. I never liked it much in HOMM5 but this time it’s downright abysmal at times and boring at best. Listening to monotone orcs telling they should bring back a decapitated head of their enemy with absolutely zero enthusiasm is something that should be downright illegal within fantasy conventions.

But the story has always been a secondary element in the HOMM-games and what we really wanted to see was how the gameplay has evolved.
To sum it up short the best answer would definitely be; if it works, don’t fix it. HOMM6 knows that there is no need to change a working system (start taking notes, Dragon Age 2) and what you should therefore expect is the classical Might & Magic experience. You purchase a hero, build a town, train your troops, develop your hero as he gains xp and crushes the opposition either through might or magic. So there, you can breathe easily now.
That being said, there are some quite essential changes this time and whether they be for good or for worse is really up to the individual to decide. Whereas a lot of them actually seem more like tweaks that should’ve been made to the fifth game, others force you to rethink your usual approach to the formula.
Not surprisingly we see a faction revamp leaving Haven (knights and angels), Sanctuary (an aquatic themed side), Inferno (demons), Necropolis (undead) and Stronghold (orcs and brutes) as the available options. Some players will be put off to see their former favorite faction left out (in my case, the Dungeon) but it’s not unrealistic to hope for a later expansion. Dedicated fans will remember how HOMM5 to some extent remedied the ridiculous imbalances in HOMM3 and luckily much of this balance is retained. The factions have their respective strengths and weaknesses and troopwise there are enough old and new faces to make it worthwhile.

A sad drawback, though, is the simplification of the city interface that has now been pretty much reduced to nothing but a minimalistic snapshot of your base with a ‘city talent tree’. Whereas HOMM5 really provided us with a feeling of a bustling metropolis this time “it’s only a model…”. I have heard rumors about Ubisoft wanting to address this issue in the future, so it might be viable to take heart and wait.
The process in itself is not changed. You upgrade, fortify and purchase new troops from your hard earned cash and resources.
As for the latter there is not nearly as much hassle as in earlier games since one of the more radical initiatives involve reducing the total number of resources to four. Wood, stone, crystals and gold. I’m personally not a fan of it, but several times I was actually relieved that I didn’t have to scour the entire map for the annoyingly well hidden mercury lab. At the same time, once you’ve secured your resources they’re pretty much yours till one of the nearby military structures have been defeated. In other words, resource sniping with that pesky little level 1 hero is not viable, and I can’t appreciate that enough. You can lay siege on a single outpost but once you abandon it it returns to your enemy.
Another really nifty detail is that you’re now finally able to convert captured towns into your own faction. On top of that, recruiting troops has been made a lot easier since you can now purchase all of them from one point, instead of running all over the map to every city.

Players with mentality like my own will also be perplexed to see that mage guilds are no longer available for construction in town. This is a direct result of the much revamped hero system that is now much more complex and yet involving than you’re used to.
As your hero levels up you spend talent points in various talent trees, distributed between Might or Magic respectively. Your knight could for example specialize in War Cries or Realm, or your necromancer in Air Magic or Death Magic. This also has indirect consequences later on, as various powers are also related to an alignment-axis varying from Tears (good, forgiveness, empathy) to Blood (evil, ruthlessness, destruction). Whenever casting spells or using abilities in combat you’ll gain reputation from the associated path, which will have additional impacts on the game. In the campaign this choice between good and evil serves as your moral compass as it will often influence your hero’s RP-decisions.

It’s not a thoroughly complex system but if you want to tailor your hero 100% to your play style it takes some dedication. There are a lot of skill-trees to manage and some of them are unique to certain factions. Some players might miss the randomization element, but all in all this newfound sense of control certainly suits the game in many ways.
And you see; that is basically it. The rest of the big hits are pretty much to explore and be thrilled about the small details that improve the game and give it an edge.  You will notice that you’re now able to replay a battle which you thought could’ve gone better. The AI seems to think a lot faster than it did in HOMM5, and some of the factions have gained unique abilities that can heavily influence the course of battle, such as the necromancers’ raise-ability.

The musical score is great, some of it actually consisting of improved tracks from the former games, in addition the sounds do what they’re supposed to although they certainly don’t surpass the fifth game in this regard.
There’s not that much to put a finger on regarding graphics either. The animations are good as always, especially the heroes are great. But all in all, the leap is not that massive from the predecessor. It’s not ugly by any means but it doesn’t really excel either.

Multiplayer-wise the game is solid as ever, if not even more so. With a good amount of maps to chose from and great online support it’s easy to hook up with some friends and battle it out. For those of you wishing for a more intimate experiences the old faithful hotseat option luckily returns.
All said and done, HOMM6 is a solid game that will greet you with open arms and treat you what you like while still keeping a few surprises in store. Whether it will keep your attention for much longer than any of the previous games is a matter for debate though. It will likely feel more like a reunion than a new friendship, but for as long as you can stand doing just what you did many years ago(now looking better and a lot more mature) you’ll be in for a great experience.

Verdict: 7.5/10
Is it worth the retail price?: For fans of the series, perhaps yes. The rest of you might want to wait a bit.
Once completed, will I play it again?: Likely not. I still prefer HOMM 5.

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