Heroes of Might & Magic is a series that has barely changed its formula since its inception twenty years ago. Hardcore fans might be able to spot a few variations (Heroes VI was notable because it eschewed the familiar city construction screen, and also because nobody liked it all that much), but largely the model has always been the same – choose a hero, march around a world map hovering up resources, and above all never, ever actually enter the field of battle. Just sit safely at the back ordering things to their death in the great tradition of successful General-ing.
Heroes of Might & Magic VII, which sees Might & Magic X: Legacy team Limbic Entertainment take over development duties for the first time, doesn’t look like it will be taking to many risks with that well-established formula.
The first level I got to play was not the best one the developers could have chosen, in all honesty. Orc heroine Imani is one of a number of the brawny warriors who decided to stay behind and fight the wizards of the Academy faction when their fellow tribesmen left for more relaxing climes (the orcs were created by wizards to fight demons, but subsequently rebelled against their masters). She finds herself crossing swords with Jengo, her orc chieftain, whose bloodlust and reckless military campaigns are putting his people’s dwindling population at risk.
Imani’s first mission is one of those ones in which several core mechanics of the game are put aside in favour of a tightly scripted, RPG-like structure. You’re tasked with recruiting the orcs’ trademark bestial buddies – harpies, centaurs, gnolls and ogres. To do so you’ll have to follow an exact path, one that’s not immediately highlighted but that you come to discover after a few disastrous, failed attempts. Though you are at no point given a base of operations, there are scattered resources across the map. This triggers an automatic response from anyone who’s ever played a Heroes game before; I must hoover up all those goodies. Except if you attempt to do so, and deviate from the path Limbic wants you to take, you’re dead meat.
It’s a strange level, and certainly an odd one for the developers to use to demo their game. An AI opponent with a superior army dogs you as you travel. I managed to beat him and his squad of horrifically deadly tomb-spiders, and thought that might let me explore a little at my leisure. The very next turn he came back with exactly the same army setup, and ground me into dust. The cheating sod. There’s a dam that needs to be destroyed at the end of the level. Smart money suggests you need to battle your way through the hideously overpowered enemy forces to get next to it, then find a way to break it. Actually, as one of the team pointed out, you need to destroy a big floating pyramid to the right instead. How could I possibly have missed that?
An awkward introduction to the game then, and one that suggests Limbic still has a lot of work to do in terms of successfully deviating from the base-building and slow build-up of power that the series is known for. The second level featured a far more traditional setup, and flowed all the better for it. Here I got to dig in to a new level-up system, in the shape of a wheel, that gives you more initial choice in where you want to direct your hero’s skills – rather than locking away certain skills for higher levels or randomising your progression choices, as the series has done in the past, here you can pick any direction from the start. I experimented with city construction, which features the series’ trademark pretty, painted backdrops and deviating building paths. Here I even got to arrange my own armies, which largely involved packing my ranks with an ungodly amount of centaur archers.
Fans of the game’s charmingly overblown lore will enjoy another chapter of heroic derring-do from each of the game’s seven factions. Each franchise brings another iteration in the visual design for each race, and both the Arabian-inspired wizards of the Academy and their desert camo orc rivals are looking very stylish thanks to the game’s solid (if a little generic high fantasy at times) visual design and good use of the Unreal 3 engine. Combat brings a few new tricks and skills, but largely remains as tactically complex and enjoyable as ever; there’s lots here to master, including a revised ‘Bloodlust’ mechanics for the orcs which can be exploited with the right hero skills, allowing your troops to do more damage or benefit from various other buffs. There’s set to be a huge amount of content, with six campaign plus twenty-five singleplayer skirmish maps.
All this is good stuff, but it’s telling that the series is far more comfortable when it sticks to its roots. The nature of Heroes’ open, trinket-cluttered maps sit very poorly with any attempt to push the player down a specific route, especially when the objectives are vague and the solutions unintuitive. That first level felt like Limbic attempting to push a different, more story-driven style of play, but being held back by the very mechanics of the game. Trying to do something different within a very strict framework that really doesn’t allow for deviation.
It’s a strange position that the series finds itself in; beholden to a vocal minority of hardcore fans who know exactly what they want, and therefore unable to really stretch itself and innovate at the risk of losing that audience. An anecdote from the developers neatly summed up that dilemma; as part of the game’s community outreach, the team put out a poll asking the fans to pick two races that would be added to the game. Their choices? Wood elves… and dark elves. “Our fans have an elf tendency,” creative director Erwan Le Breton told me, somewhat ruefully I thought.
The team are quick to point out that at the end of the day this game is for the fans, and that they really value their community’s creative input and passion for the franchise (a quick visit to the game’s website shows just how closely Limbic is working with their fans on the development of Heroes VII), but I can’t help but feel this is a series which needs to take a few risks. Perhaps the twentieth anniversary of the first game in the franchise didn’t feel like the right time to do that. Despite my reservations and a few spots of dodgy missions design, it does look like Limbic will provide some solid, reliable Heroes of Might & Magic action. Just expect refinement rather than innovation.
Most Anticipated Moment: Building up a mega-stack of war ogres and marching across the land obliterating your rivals is usually pretty fun.