Genre: Turned-Based Strategy
Developer: Nival Interactive
Release Date: May 19, 2006
There are, in the collected works of the computer entertainment industry, few genres as potentially mind-numbing as turn-based strategy. With the notable exception of a handful of titles, TBS games rarely manage to make any sort of splash and are usually simply ignored by the gaming community entirely. One of these exceptions, of course, is the oft-pined-for old-school favorite, X-com. Mention that title in the vicinity of any gamer over the age of 25, and you will invariably induce a haze of euphoric nostalgia. The same can be said of the Heroes of Might and Magic games, a series of fantasy titles that put players in the shoes of a menagerie of creatures as they wage war against demons, armor-clad knights, or any number of fantasy staples.
So when Heroes of Might and Magic V hit shelves in May, it could not, like other TBS games, be summarily dismissed. As a member in the genre's most infamous franchise, the title was met with no small amount of anticipation and had a virtual mountain of expectation to meet. It does so admirably, with a slew of features that are not only interesting and fun, but also provide hours of challenging gameplay interspersed with moments of edge-of-your-seat action. It achieves this, largely, by sticking to the concepts that made the original games great while throwing in just enough new flair to set this HoMM on a tier above its predecessors.
In each of the game's six (!) single-player campaigns, the player is given control of a mounted hero, who in turn controls a small army. In addition, through the capture of towns on certain maps, the player can hire additional heroes (and armies) to assist in the conquest. Each army is organized into a series of stacks based upon the various creature types that comprise it. For instance, a group of 10 lance-wielding cavalrymen will be portrayed not as 10 separate bodies, but as one single model with a tag denoting the number of troops occupying this specific stack. Stacks can be managed, which is to say that they can be split, merged, added or dropped, depending on the specific needs of an imminent battle.
Battles themselves are organized into two phases, the first of which is a tactical fielding stage that allows the player to configure and place his stacks on a small grid in front of the controlling hero. Terrain plays a major role in the decision-making process, since stones and tree stumps can provide an advance halting barricade for your ranged troops, but can also stymie the forward progress of your own soldiers. As soon as this is complete, the attack can begin in earnest.
Initiatives are tracked via a sliding bar on the bottom of the screen, with faster creatures moving before slower ones, as is logical insofar as physics is concerned. The fighting is fast-paced and fun, with nicely modeled animations detailing the actions of each attack. One particularly interesting strategic facet of combat is that once the player selects a stack, he can mouse over an opposing stack to see approximately how many creatures within it that his selected soldiers will kill. This means that attacks can be organized in the manner most efficient before the sword is even swung. An encounter is resolved when either all of the opposing creatures have been skewered, or the same fate has met the player's army. There is also an option to surrender, but this invariably costs a hero his troops and possibly even a sum of gold for ransom of said hero.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about HoMM V is that, while combat is an obvious focus of the game, it isn't where the player will spend most of his time. Instead, the game consists of a great deal of exploration during which the hero will discover troops to add to his army, gold, spells, and even experienced-filled treasure chests. Using this experience, the hero will level up and begin to learn new talents which pass various upgrades and skills down the line to every creature under his control. While the combat is a ton of fun, I honestly had a better time with the exploration of the map and the discovery of the treasures which littered it, each of which conferred some bonus or power to assist in the more visceral aspects of the game.
All of this takes place in a world that is graphically quite pleasing, with bright colors and cartoonish models supplemented by foliage that sways gently in the breeze and attack animations that emphasize each dent in the armor of a paladin's mount. Though the intermittent CG sequences that serve to advance the story are themselves rather blocky, the game graphics are on par with the current gaming standards. While they may not be especially superb, they are nonetheless fun. The sound, on the other hand, is nigh unto perfect. Clashes of steel and flesh are brilliantly realized, and the hoofbeats of a maneuvering hero pound a staccato beat that hearkens back to the drummers of ancient battle. Aside from the outstanding sound effects, the music is wonderful and chilling, exactly as it should be in any medium devoted to fantasy. The sounds design of HoMM V is without a doubt one of its more shining features.
There are, unfortunately, a few problems with the game that dampen what could be a near-perfect experience. Not the least of these problems is a list of bugs that are, in a few cases, crippling. One such bug occurs at the end of the fourth map of the first campaign. After having played for about 30 minutes without saving (because I am an idiot), I had finally defeated the demon armies and conquered the map. The screen popped up to indicate that I was, indeed, a winner. Oddly, when I clicked on the "okay" button, I was immediately treated as if I had lost the fight, and my last save was loaded. While I was able to play through again and avoid the bug, it was nonetheless terribly frustrating.
Another major problem is the game's insane difficulty. Now, I am no greenie to war games. I understand that a slowly ramping difficulty is necessary to keep such a game interesting, but HoMM V's challenge is variable, with one map being intensely hard and the next being ridiculously easy. This is compounded by the fact that the game is extremely long. While that is, in and of itself, a good thing, it can lead to maddening replays of entire maps in an attempt to prepare differently for a large encounter. Also, it is for some unfathomable reason, impossible to quit a fight unless there is a town nearby. This means that if you haven't yet discovered a base, you are forced to watch as you are mercilessly slaughtered, only to quick load as soon as the fight is complete. This seems counterintuitive, since it would be much easier to simply allow a quick load mid-combat.
The last complaint against HoMM V is that while the game includes a multiplayer component, the internet portion of it is clunky, difficult to connect to, and feels rather like an afterthought tacked onto an excellent single-player game. The hot-seat mode, a game in which two players on one computer take turns duking it out, is intriguing, but takes so much time and energy that it's by far less fun than it should be.
Regardless of these minor concerns, HoMM V is a shining example of how a turn-based strategy should be executed, and it will no doubt set the standard for generations of the genre to come. Engaging, challenging, and fun, the game captures just enough of what made its predecessors great while adding enough new material to capture a new demographic. Add to this the fact that the Collector's Edition is packaged with full versions of both HoMM III and HoMM IV, and you have a title that begs for an addition to your library.