When they bring you out retirement for just one more job, you don't expect it to be the same job they retired you from. The last time I wrote for Eurogamer, I wrote about HOMMV, praising the new developers Nival Interactive for recreating almost exactly all the hallmarks of the franchise and recognising what the hardcore wanted. Since then Nival have released an expansion pack called the Anvil Chorus or the Hammered Fete or something, which your friend and mine the award-winning Kieron Gillen reviewed last December. (Bloody hell, this history lesson is turning into hypertext overload.)
Anyway, going back to the game reminds exactly what I didn't like about it more than what I did. Which may turn this into something of a mea culpa, for which I apologise. First, I'd better point out that Tribes of the East isn't strictly speaking an expansion pack; it's one of those irritating packages that some clever bod in marketing thought up to diddle joe public out of a few more sponduliks. That is, it's an expansion pack that's comes with the full game. For free! How joyous for us all.
Of course, it's not really free, it's Ł20, and you can buy the original for about Ł9 from Amazon. Or the original and the other expansion for Ł12. Moreover, if you wanted to buy the game before, you would have already bought it; the paltry extra nobs and polish in this aren't going to sway you over to it. Finally, the people who are going to buy it, the frothing-at-the-mouth HOMM mob, already have the game. And the expansion. So they're shelling out yet again for the original game. It's a desperate repurposing of a rapidly-withered product, further confirming Ubisoft's position in this reviewer's eyes as the new EA.
Sorry, yes, the expansion. It contains a wodge of new campaigns, a new faction, some new minor new mechanics and some minor graphical updates. All of which are more derivative than a measurement of how a function changes when the values of its inputs change. (Yes, a maths joke. Who'd have thunk it? Don't worry, there'll be a bit of blue for the dads later.)
So as a new faction you've got... Orcs! Whose use of the word "Waaaagh" would have Games Workshop calling their lawyers if they hadn't nicked the Orcs from D&D, who nicked them from old father Tolkien anyway. The faction is more the traditional GW goblinoids anyway, featuring sneaky, cowardly goblins, solid orcs, rampant giants, bow-equipped centaurs and more, though they all feel very familiar, like they've been put together from the other factions and reskinned. They work passably as an army, though the Cyclops (like most of the giant units) seemed slightly overpowered to me.
The army's special trait is their Blood Rage ("borrowed" from World of Warcraft's warrior class, if I remember correctly.) The more damage that the Stronghold faction causes in battle the more blood points their units get. These blood points act as both a defensive barrier, being used up in the place of damage, or are used to level up Blood Rage, which we guess gives you damage bonuses. Unfortunately, we found it very hard to find out exactly what effect this has, as it differs from unit to unit. (We even looked at the manual to try and work it out, a desperate step for a reviewer) It's a perfectly solid mechanic, forcing you to attack relentlessly with units rather than defending, it's also just a little too obscure as you don't know how much it's helping.
Likewise, you can now retrain heroes' skills at your towns, sell artefacts at the marketplace, and get artefact sets (which stack to give you even more bonuses, if you can manage to collect all the bits), all of which are exceedingly minor updates that could have been addressed in a patch if they were an issue. They're also all more familiar than a wizard's imp, being derived mainly from WoW. More important is the new ability to upgrade creatures in two different ways, which effectively doubles the number of high-end units available to the faction, even if they're all a bit similar.
The addictiveness is still there; 12 hours sitting in front of the PC on a Saturday night with nowt but penny sweets for company testifies to that. But now the difficulty is so amazingly high, it's a struggle to get through the campaigns; that 12 hours was spent in one mission, which I couldn't even finish because the game is tougher than Gillen's Zebu steaks (tough, believe us). Yes, this might be designed for the hardcore HOMMV players. But then why is it bundled solely with the original game?
How is it so tough? Well, even on the normal difficulty level you start with very few troops and the enemy creeps are just slightly too high-level. You bleed soldiers in every encounter, and every enemy stack seems rather too high-level, so you have to choose your fights exceedingly carefully. Weirdly, the new campaigns give you a taster of all the factions, which indicates that the expansion was aimed at luring new gamers into the franchise before the inevitable sequel in the next twelve months or so. I just can't reconcile this difference.
So this is pretty much the same game again, with a few new missions and multiplayer maps, a couple of new mechanics and a new faction. After a year and a half. If this is the best the world has to throw at me, I might just retire again.