"Revealing an area through the fog of war to find a magical spring, a pot of gold, or just a new enemy to fight kept me engaged and wishing I'd had more movement points that turn to explore further."
The Heroes of Might and Magic franchise occupies an unusual gray space in the minds of many gamers. While the franchise certainly has its fair share of enthusiastic fans, for many who grew up gaming in the late 90s and early naughts, the name "Heroes of Might and Magic" conjures vague, ephemeral recollections of a game they should probably
know but can't quite place. Others know the franchise, but simply do not gravitate to its unique hybrid of turn-based strategy and role-playing game. I fall somewhere in between the rabid fan and senile millennial gamer; I was a big fan of Heroes II and III but later drifted from the series and hadn't played any of the recent releases. Now, Ubisoft and Limbic Entertainment seem keen to bring the franchise out of that gray space and into the fore once again. At a recent Ubisoft event, I got to see how fruitful their efforts have been, and I must say I have not been this excited for the franchise in many years.
The event began with a short presentation about the production process and design philosophy behind Heroes VII. As this year is the franchise's 20th anniversary, a central theme behind the design philosophy has been to combine the "Best of Heroes" into one, modern package. Limbic and Ubisoft heavily touted the "Shadow Council," the website where they communicated with series fans to collect feedback on the development process. Fans were able to vote on certain design points such as the final two factions to include in the campaign, and Limbic said they took feedback about which features from past games qualified as "Best of Heroes." While I am a bit skeptical that the Shadow Council represents some sort of revolution in open game development processes, it is always heartening when a company as large as Ubisoft opens the door for consumer input.
The story revolves around Duke Ivan Griffon as he attempts to reunite a fractured empire. Each campaign is supposed to be a story relayed to the Duke by an advisor from one of six factions. In this way, all the campaigns build on the mythos of Ashan, the game's world, while also contributing to the main story. It's an interesting premise, but frankly, story is not what I remember the Heroes franchise for, but rather gameplay.
Gameplay in Heroes VII sticks to the classic combination that has made the series unique and successful: strategy, economics, combat, and role playing. The basic flow has you fighting neutral monsters and gathering resources to build your hero, army, and fortress. As you grow stronger, you can explore more of the map, capture more towns, and further improve your army. All the while, you must contend with one or more enemy heroes who attack your fortress and raid your resources. Victory comes to the side that wipes out all opposing heroes and controls all fortresses.
Of the four gameplay elements, strategy is perhaps most familiar; the player's units, represented by a hero, roam the map completing a variety of objectives while contending with aggression from AI or human opponents. Maps contain a great deal of variety and players can frequently alter the terrain or otherwise trigger special events. For example, in order to recruit some powerful centaur units, I had to choose between fighting my way past several strong enemies and weakening my army in the process, or triggering a dam collapse and opening a new path. I chose the latter.
The campaigns offer more varied objectives than "kill the bad guy," although that is of course also necessary. The two maps I played had a heavy emphasis on recruiting new allies rather than fighting head on. I enjoyed playing from an underdog position, and the need to dodge overpowered enemies as I explored the map to build my army created an extra layer of intrigue.
Meanwhile, the game's economy consists of seven resources: three basic and four specialized/rare. Players spend resources to build up their fortresses to advance their tech tree and gain access to better units. The fortress is also the primary source of additional units, which again must be purchased with resources. These precious materials are scattered throughout the map for players to grab and also in mines that produce at regular intervals once you capture them. I did not progress far enough to use the specialized resources, but the thrill of rooting around the map for crystals and gems like a greedy anteater was sort of a reward in itself.
Once you've built up your army, it is time to slay some baddies, and this is where Heroes VII has done the most to innovate. Back when I played Heroes II and III, opposing armies whittled away at one another and whichever side had the strongest/most numerous units usually won. The heroes would stand in the back giving orders and lobbing spells, but combat was primarily a numbers game. The basics are all still there; units occupy a grid and must advance to attack. But now, maps have obstacles to navigate/provide cover, and units deal more damage when flanking or attacking from behind. As before, the hero can attack an enemy unit directly or cast a spell, but can never attack the enemy hero; victory must come from routing the opposing army. Siege combat also returns, though I did not have an opportunity to try it out.
Finally there are the RPG elements, which are the reason I was in the room to begin with. Heroes are unique and can level up through combat and completing objectives, but the player can have multiple heroes on a given map. Leveling a hero lets you upgrade their skills, which run the gamut from combat aids to boosts in diplomacy or fortress governance. Much to the delight of veterans, Heroes VII returns to the guild system for magic. Instead of learning magic by leveling up, players must build a magic guild in their fortress, and any allied hero can learn available spells by visiting the guild.
Heroes may also be outfitted with equipment found throughout the map, and the obelisk mini-game returns to grant powerful items to lucky explorers. Campaign maps start you with certain heroes, but you can often recruit more from your fortress. You can also create your own hero and choose between attributes like might or magic, male or female, and one of 6 classes per faction. All in all, the heroes are a vital part of your army, and managing them is an important part of gameplay.
This is obviously a lot of content, but how does it play out on the screen? For me, it felt reminiscent of the old Heroes of Might and Magic that I loved as an adolescent; definitely a good thing. Revealing an area through the fog of war to find a magical spring, a pot of gold, or just a new enemy to fight kept me engaged and wishing I'd had more movement points that turn to explore further. The two maps I saw were large and beautifully rendered, with great attention to detail in the structures and neutral monsters dotting the landscape. The developers said each map should normally take 2-3 hours to fully explore and complete, and each of the six factions has at least 3 or 4 maps.
I played as Imani, a legendary hero from the Stronghold faction of Orcs who led her people to freedom from slavery at the hands of the Wizards. Because I was in the role of a revolutionary, I had very limited resources and units. In fact, in the first map, I had no fortress to supply new units and instead had to rely on allies I recruited from the map. Being limited in this way meant I had to be very selective about picking fights and carefully weigh the potential rewards of combat.
As a result, the game was difficult; I got wiped out by a flock (or a pride?) of griffons midway into the second map. Limbic promised that it was still balancing and play testing, and the maps we were playing were harder than average. I appreciated that I couldn't be too cavalier with my army, but the game also presented some problems that were completely unnecessary.
If I saw one flaw, it was a lack of streamlining and conveyance for the player. There were several times where I blew past map objectives because I did not realize they were necessary to my quest. Menus could also be a pain to navigate or find relevant information. For instance, when I got my fortress, I noticed that I could assign a hero to act as governor and provide a bonus effect, but I had to exit out to the hero menu to learn what that hero's governor ability did. At one point, I spent at least a minute trying to figure out how to exit another menu. When I was a kid, I would have solved this problem by reading the instruction manual after unboxing the game, but those days are long gone. I don't want hand holding, but players need certain basic information in order to enjoy the more rewarding gameplay aspects.
I am confident that Limbic can fix these problems before the game ships. I am also confident that Heroes VII at least has the potential to make the franchise relevant again outside the diehard fan base. This means welcoming new players with no exposure to the storied franchise, as well as older players like me who have lost touch. Ubisoft and Limbic seem to understand that creating a "Best of Heroes" experience is more than simply Frankensteining popular game mechanics together into a graphical update. Rather, it is about capturing that ineffable, engrossing quality of the old and making it relevant to the new. It is no easy task, but so far, I like what I see.