Heroes of Might & Magic games previewed
The "Heroes of Might & Magic" series is something of an enigma - despite an increasingly outdated graphics engine, sticking resolutely to its turn-based roots in this age of real time strategy, and being based in a distinctly unfashionable fantasy world of elves, dwarves and dragons, somehow the yearly additions to the series still manage to sell by the bucket-of-never-ending-water full.
And with good reason. Behind all the stats and the at-time bewildering array of units, shamelessly pilfered from the mythology and fiction of a dozen different cultures, there is an addictive and compelling game.
Now publisher 3DO is trying to bring that classic gameplay to a whole new audience with its "Heroes Chronicles" games, a series of four titles due for release this Autumn, each selling at a budget price of around £15.
The four games each follow a hero with the unlikely name of Tarnum, who must "earn redemption from the gods" by carrying out a series of quests. This equates to a single story-driven campaign of around eight missions for each of the four episodes, and these bite-sized chunks may prove a little less overwhelming than the seemingly endless missions of a full Heroes game.
Each of the eight scenarios is designed to be completed in just one or two sessions, making them rather shorter than usual - I've spent entire days trying to complete a single mission in Heroes III... And while the stories might not win developers New World Computing any prizes for originality, they should keep the games moving along nicely.
In the first episode Tarnum leads his people to freedom and overthrows their tyrannical overlords, before fighting his way through the underworld in the second, and then mastering magic in the third to overcome Elemental Lords. Finally, in the fourth episode he finds himself taking on an entire army of evil dragons.
The story-driven nature of the episodes should give each of the campaigns a focus and coherency that has been lacking from many of the previous Heroes games, which have instead tended to throw masses of unrelated units at you, mixing vampires, centaurs and demons indiscriminately.
For example, the second Chronicle will take place in the underworld, with a mixture of hellish terrain and sprawling cave systems, populated by demons and the shambling undead. The third Chronicle, on the other hand, will be set in the realms of the elemental lords, with themed terrain for the planes of air, earth, fire and water.
And although most of the cities, buildings, heroes and units in the game will look strangely familiar to Heroes veterans (many of them appear to have been lifted directly from Heroes III), these themed campaigns allow the developers to introduce a selection of new characters and terrain types in each of the four episodes.
The idea behind the Chronicles is that players will be able to select which of the four games interests them the most. In fact, each episode will come with playable trailers for the other three titles to give you the chance to try out the other episodes before deciding whether or not to buy them.
Obviously though, 3DO are hoping that you will buy all four, and for hardcore Heroes fans it will be something of a no-brainer. Chronicles might not be the Heroes IV we were expecting, but it is a new dose of the old magic with new campaigns, characters and settings alongside a spattering of new units and buildings to master.
For newcomers to the Heroes games, it should offer a more user-friendly and rather less overwhelming entry point to the series, as well as allowing you to get a real taste for Heroes without having to shell out for a full price game. Will it work? We'll have to wait for playable code to tell for sure, but it certainy looks promising at this stage.