Might and Magic Heroes VI

"For me, the greatest pleasure I got out of MMH6 was finally deciding to stop playing."

What made Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth an engrossing, polished experience was its reliance on formulaic, mechanical "strategy." Place one unit out a tile too far from a ledge and enjoy pincushiony demise at the hands of – oh – one archer. Okay, so that's not really a "pincushiony" death, but more of an exploding arrow of destruction. Anyway, in this scenario, you could revive the ally and continue on your merry way having learned your lesson, right? Negative. Enjoy perma-death goodness served piping hot, Fire Emblem style. Wait, was that a story-critical character that I've grown to love? Yeah, just reset the game and do it again. And again. And again.

Might & Magic Heroes VI (MMH6) isn't quite that bad, but Ubisoft certainly tried. However, before we get into the carefully tested, nuanced game design, I need to warn of DRM and other technical obstructions to fun. Yes, piracy is terrible and needs to be crushed (because that's a battle that can be won). Piracy deprives our community of critically acclaimed titles due to publishers' inability to confidently back their products. I, for one, haven't played a quality title since the 90s. Except for Dragon Age, Deux Ex, The World Ends With You, Devil Survivor, Bastion, Radiant Historia, Mass Effect, The Witcher, Torchlight, and many, many other titles. For this reason, publishers like Ubisoft simply must include DRM that forces people to play online if they want to enjoy the uninspired achievements and point system offered. What happens if Ubisoft's servers go down, or, Xenu forbid, your own connection is lost? Haha, well, I hope you saved recently, or have auto-saves turned on for every turn, because all progress is lost. In the middle of a heated battle? Immersion's overrated, anyway. When the servers finally come back up – after having prevented you from playing the $50 game you just paid for legitimately – don't be surprised to find your most recent save corrupted.

Okay, so that's a small price to pay as long as it keeps thieves out (except it totally hasn't), but what about the actual game? How does that fare? Aside from long load times and invisible units running around the map, MMH6 occasionally locks map scrolling after loading a game, forcing players to scroll around the minimap if they want to look elsewhere. The only way to remedy this is to close the game completely and open it up again. This is a well-documented problem that still hasn't been patched, but I guess Ubisoft figures this game is a lost cause. And who can blame them? The only thing players will be slaying is their time.

At its heart, MMH6 tries to be a turn-based strategy game in the King's Bounty style. The player controls a hero who governs an army of units. This hero that roams linear maps may run into other traveling heroes or static neutral camps guarding goodies, resulting in battle. Heroes can cast spells and directly attack enemy units in fights, but most battles are won through units. Some units have extra abilities they can use during battle, but most of a unit's specialty derives from passive attributes, such as heightened defense when standing next to other troops. After battles conclude, players earn experience, which levels up the hero. Upon leveling, a hero's stats increase, and they gain one ability point. Players must choose between spells or might abilities, and although the illusion of choice is presented attractively, continued failures reveal that the only way to beat scenarios is by picking imbalanced abilities. By "imbalanced" I mean that only a couple abilities are viable, while the others spell instant doom at the very end of the scenario after several hours have been invested. Get ready to hit that "Restart Map" button for more hours of fun!

Remember how I said MMH6 tries to be a turn-based strategy game? Well, that's because MMH6 is actually a puzzle game. The puzzle is to figure out that no units can be lost. Ever. Once that puzzle is solved, the game is easy, but not fun at all. In fact, the game practically tells you that's what needs to be done because at the end of each battle there's a "Restart" button. Admittedly, balancing so many abilities and units is hard, and allowing for several different strategies in such a long game is almost definitely a monumental task. But that's why we pay publishers for their shiny new game. Through a frustrating series of trial and error, I learned that most battles need to be won with as few casualties as possible. Now, I'm no expert on the game, nor do I believe that this is literally the only way to beat the game (which I haven't, by the way). However, after I decided that I was done with the game, I researched what others had to say about it, and I found that most people recommended the same tactic I learned. The problem here is that no choice is offered. Direct damage spells, the ability to steal from enemy mines, and other tactics are dead-ends. Individual unit traits are garnishes for this same tactic; different races in all of the campaigns require slightly altered versions of the same strategy. Collecting resources and conquering cities are important, but they add little depth.

When players aren't gnashing their teeth and becoming existentially concerned about what they're doing with their lives, they can enjoy the occasional quip or witty exchange between characters. Honestly, the dialogue serves as a welcomed break between repetitious battle after repetitious battle. Aside from that, the writing isn't great, and the MacGuffins are trite. As far as fantasy lore is concerned, nothing new is accomplished here, and anything resembling a plot twist can be spotted a mile away. Granted, I haven't completed the game, so the ending could be revolutionary, but I somehow doubt that based on the flow and lack of subtlety.

The deceptively entertaining introductory campaign follows Slava, Duke of the Griffins and open-minded friend of orcs. Through this two-episode campaign, Slava butts heads with Duke Gerhart who has been ordered by the Emperor who was ordered by Angels to exterminate all orcs, who have a history with Demons. Slava discovers the hard way that fighting power can jeopardize family. After finishing the only fun part of the game, players may choose from several different campaigns that aren't offered in chronological order. Each of the campaigns hosts one of Slava's children and the result of Slava's decisions. Honestly, the play order doesn't matter because the tale isn't exactly gripping, I just don't understand why they're chronologically out of place.

However, any scriptwriter knows that powerful acting can bring a story to life. Unfortunately, in MMH6's case, this doesn't happen. The voice acting is painfully bad most of the time, and I wonder if some of the voice actors knew what they were reading when the dialogue was recorded. Occasionally, the actors deliver some lines that obviously need to be read in a certain way, but the intonation, emphasis, and pausing are so off that the dialogue goes full circle and becomes entertaining – just for the wrong reasons. What's? punctuation. The only positive remark I can leave here is that it's not as bad as the original Resident Evil's voice acting.

MMH6's music is so forgettable that I can't remember one tune while sitting here writing this, and when I take into account just how much time I wasted on this game, that's pretty bad. The music is never bad or grating, it just lacks body. Sound effects in battle are appropriate. Some of the screams of pain are delightful and the galloping of horse hooves rings pleasantly; however, these comforts are too few and too small to make up for atrocious voice acting and mediocre melodies.

The controls make traversing the map a chore. Players can expect to mistakenly move to somewhere they didn't want more than once due to overly sensitive hit areas. The puzzling thing about this is that some parts of the map require careful navigation due to the location of enemies and pickups, but a redo option could easily remedy this lack of proper control – which also doesn't exist. Additionally, units in combat may accidentally move inappropriately to attack due to cursor blinking and sensitivity.

Fortunately, cursor blinking is where the graphical complaints end, though this seems more like a technical problem than a graphical issue. MMH6 is a beautiful game with fantastic artwork. From detailed map design to glowing items on the field to fluid attacking animations in battle, MMH6 is at least pleasant to look at. Overused, repetitive lucky strikes in battle and transforming territories, while eye-catching initially, quickly lose their luster after several views. That said, this seems like a constant mistake that all developers make – a little bit of variation does wonders to a gamer's experience, devs. I know the publishers are pushing you to work on this or that by a certain deadline, but please try to at least sneak in some random fort destruction animation. Please?

Might & Magic Heroes VI's entire experience is driven by repetitious, mechanical tactics; it should be reserved for those with masochistic tendencies. The average gamer should definitely pass this up. For fans of this sub-genre, I recommend King's Bounty: Armored Princess. MMH6 crosses the taboo threshold that even bad games should never tread: when gaming likens to work. For me, the greatest pleasure I got out of MMH6 was finally deciding to stop playing.

© 2011 Ubisoft, Black Hole Games. All rights reserved.

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