Kieron showed you earlier in the week how Arkane studios is making a very different sort of first-person fantasy game, the frankly bemusing Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Well, Heroes of Might and Magic has always been a very different sort of strategy fantasy game, drawn from the long heritage of the M&M games. However, number five also promises to be a very different Heroes game, coming as it does from a new studio and new publisher. Despite their promises of faithfulness to the brand, the community seems wary of what they may produce.
Looking at this preview incarnation of the game, we find it familiar, halfway between Starcraft and Magic the Gathering, with a turn-based split-level world. Your heroes (accompanied by an army consisting of a certain number of stacked soldiers and various war machines) travel the map collecting minions and resources, and claiming buildings and cities. There's the traditional slightly-awkward mechanic of telling your hero to move or attack, followed by a bash on the space bar to execute your order; it feels like something of a throwback when you don't get an instant response to your diktat. Then you remember it's a turn-based strategy game and all becomes clear; this is designed for multiplayer.
When you encounter an enemy army, the map zooms into an eight-by-ten grid-based battlefield where your hero and his or her minions manoeuvre and battle. You move your units so that they strike or shoot your enemy while your general (in a nod to Heroes III) sits back from the battlefield, casting spells and causing small amounts of damage anywhere on the battlefield. Like Magic the Gathering, as your levels go up and your armies expand, battles get increasingly complex, Heroes and their magic become all the time more potent. After you win a battle, your hero gets experience and gets to level up and expand their range of powers. Then you can move some more heroes, gather more troops and hit the End Turn button to give your opponent(s) a go.
You can also recruit heroes and other units at your cities once a week. The city takes the form of a small town, though as you build more and more facilities it expands and fills out. Indeed, this is where Nival seems to have poured the majority of its innovation, with the end result a fulgent city that shines like a newly-minted Euro, displaying expansive turrets, mighty walls and fields as far as the eye stretches (about half an inch, if you've never tried stretching your eye). Much like any RTS base, it allows you to recruit better units (and upgrades of existing units) as you move certain buildings (and the city as a whole) up the tech tree.
Like before, as you play through the game you unlock campaigns for the different factions. Initially, the human campaign is unlocked, with you taking the part of the human Queen, seeking to maintain her empire in the face of a mammoth demonic invasion and the seeming death of her husband, by seeking allies on any front. The second campaign features the Demon leader, and later campaigns indicate Elven, Undead and Wizard factions have been retained.
It's hard to say which of the game's elements is more important. The addictive quality of the game seems to come from this trade-off between advancing your armies bloodily across the land so that you might advance your city, to produce a more spectacular fašade and also so that you can build better units and larger armies, to continue your advance. And sure, the story has been heard before (in twenty Might & Magics, oddly enough), but it's still gripping, fun and well structured, as well as promising a length unseen in current strategy titles. (Anyone else remember how short Dawn of War was?)
The real test for HOMMV will be when it gets out there so that the community can test out the multiplayer and finally see how balanced it is. We have reported before that they seemed aggrieved by the lack of balance in the short-lived open beta. It remains to see whether the rapid alterations made during the short period Ubisoft has held the game back will serve to satisfy fans and newcomers alike.