No More Heroes
The Heroes Of Might & Magic series has always been something of a triumph of gameplay over graphics, with an addictive combination of role-playing and strategy elements overcoming the antiquated visuals. With Heroes IV the franchise has had something of a make-over, sporting updates to both graphics and gameplay, but sadly the changes aren't always for the best.
Like previous games in the series, Heroes IV lets you control one or more hero characters who wander around a map hoovering up resources and artifacts, capturing towns and production centers, and visiting special areas which can permanently or temporarily boost their abilities. Maps are also dotted with neutral armies which you must defeat to access new areas, and most missions include one or more rival factions to see off, complete with their own towns, resource centers and heroes.
Which brings us to the game's biggest and perhaps most controversial change - hero characters and rank-and-file creatures are now treated equally. In the past your armies had to be led by a hero, but now you can move your troops around without a leader, or have a party made up entirely of heroes with no troops to escort them. This means that heroes are now treated as just another unit on the battlefield, instead of standing safely on the sidelines lobbing spells at the enemy and using their special abilities to boost their army's chances.
Making Life Easier
In practice this is less flexible than it sounds, because heroes still completely dominate the game. A small army led by a powerful hero can easily destroy a much bigger force, as their own ability scores are added to those of their troops.
Because of this armies without a leader are ineffective against all but the weakest of foes. They can't capture towns or buildings either, which relegates them to mopping up stray resources. The only real advantage of this new system is that you can now easily transfer fresh troops to your heroes without having to go back to the nearest city to collect them. This is aided by the addition of caravans, which can move units from one city to another automatically, or even allow you to buy troops from remote barracks under your control and have them delivered to the town of your choice without having to mess around visiting the barracks in person.
The creation of new units has been simplified as well, with a slightly less bewildering array of options open to you. New buildings can still be added to cities to give you access to new types of unit, with each faction having its own unique city graphics and selection of troops. But whereas in Heroes III you could upgrade most types of barracks to unlock a more powerful version of the unit generated by that building, Heroes IV does away with this. While this reduces the choice of units on offer it does speed up the expansion of your towns, and it's not a great loss as the cheaper versions of units were rarely used once you had upgraded anyway, unless you were really skint.
This streamlining of the familiar Heroes gameplay makes the later stages of the game far less tedious and simplifies the management of your armies and cities. Combined with a proper in-game tutorial, the changes help to make the game a little less overwhelming for newcomers to the series.
Unfortunately these benefits are soon thrown away, as Heroes IV suffers from some familiar problems, the biggest of which is mission balance. I found the first campaign almost ridiculously easy, with most of the missions virtually impossible to lose, but this is just to lull you into a false sense of security. Some of the later campaigns proved incredibly hard even on the lowest difficulty setting, and given that I've played through Heroes III and its various expansion packs as well as the more recent Heroes Chronicles mini-games, I hate to think what a Heroes neophyte would make of these missions.
The relegation of your heroes to standard combat units doesn't help matters either. In previous games your heroes could only die if their entire army was obliterated in battle. In Heroes IV your enemy might decide, completely at random, to throw everything it's got at one of your heroes, and there's absolutely nothing you can do to stop them. Battlefields are still too small and cramped to allow any real tactics to come into play, and there's no room for your hero to run away if he comes under attack. This tends to lead to frustrating reloading as you have to restart a battle that you should have won, because one of your key heroes was attacked on the first round by fast moving flying units or missile fire before you could move a single unit.
What makes this even more annoying is that the AI is fairly feeble most of the time. You know that your hero's death is the result of a random number generator buried somewhere deep inside the code rather than part of some spectacular strategy your opponent has dreamed up.
Your enemy is equally inept on the campaign map, running right up to your towns with a huge army and then turning away at the last moment for no obvious good reason, leaving their own cities undefended, ignoring resource centers, and generally acting like they don't know what they're doing. Despite this they still seem to level up their heroes and gather armies faster than you can, and all too often you will get two or three hours into a mission only for an all-powerful enemy hero to appear without warning from the fog of war with a vast army at his side. Until this happens you have no real way of knowing whether or not you're managing to keep up with your opponent, and as some of the maps are absolutely huge, winning missions can be a time-consuming business, even if you do come out of the initial levelling race on top.
And if you get sick of playing against the AI, I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. Heroes IV has no multiplayer support. Apparently it will be added in with a patch at some unspecified later date, but given the drastic job cuts which recently took place at New World Computing we might have to wait until the first inevitable add-on pack arrives. In the meantime you will want to download the latest patch, which fixes some nasty bugs including skipping music and memory leaks, as well as adding an optional grid for the battle map. This was a standard feature in Heroes III and incredibly useful, so the mind boggles as at how NWC managed to leave it out of the sequel.
Heroes IV might offer prettier graphics than its predecessors, although the unit animations are still laughable in many cases, but the gameplay is, if anything, a step backwards. Mission balance is still a mess, the designers still can't write decent dialogue, multiplayer support has gone AWOL, and battles can be incredibly frustrating now that your heroes are just another battlefield unit, wide open to attack. The old Heroes magic is still in there, and it's sure to provide a reasonable challenge for hardcore fans of the series, but it's not the leap forwards for the series that we were hoping for.