|Dev: Black Hole Games|
|Release: October 13, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Mild Language, Sexual Themes, Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
It's been a long wait, but at last, Might & Magic: Heroes VI is with us. Fans of the series—which is celebrating its 25th year—will be thrilled to know that developer Black Hole Entertainment has kept to the classic gameplay while adding just enough new features to keep everything fresh. While the game certainly has its flaws, players can look forward to an incredibly deep campaign that can last up to 80 hours including side quests, not to mention some serious multiplayer action.
For the uninitiated, Heroes of Might & Magic—that's the order the words used to go in, which is why Heroes VI is sometimes referred to as HOMM VI—is like Total War in a sense. Your play time is divided between exploring a Civilization-style overworld (with resources, fog of war, and towns for you to capture and recruit soldiers from) and fighting tactical battles. But whereas Total War's battles delve into the real-time strategy genre, the fights in Heroes of Might & Magic are a combination of chess and Dungeons & Dragons—they're turn-based, on a grid, with you and your opponent trying desperately to outmaneuver each other using monsters with different abilities. Like D&D, Heroes VI uses a dice system to determine how much damage each attack deals.
There's a lot more to the battles than that, however. Each of your units is actually a stack of identical creatures (think the "stacks of doom" from Civilization IV), and they get weaker with every blow they take. Like many RPGs, Heroes VI places a great deal of emphasis on counterattacks; oftentimes, it does more harm than good to have a weaker unit use its turn to attack a stronger one. Further, the character that represents you, the "hero," sits off to the side of the battle, and while he can't be attacked directly, he can attack enemy pieces and cast helpful spells on your creatures once per turn. Each battle ends when one side or the other runs out of fighters.
To newcomers, it can be frustrating at first to work out the intricate details of this system. For example, if you place two of your monsters on adjacent squares, they might get a defense boost, but it will become easier for an enemy to attack them both with a single blow. You always have to make careful tradeoffs between dealing damage, healing, and avoiding enemy fire. Between battles, you can split up or combine your stacks, which has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The huge boss fights pose their own challenges as well. And a few hours into the game, you gain the ability to place your units on the battlefield before the fight starts.
Sometimes you're just plain outgunned, thanks to Heroes VI's various RPG elements—maybe you let your most valuable units get killed in a previous fight and have no way to recruit more, or maybe you didn't progress quickly enough and the enemy heroes got ahead of you. (Yes, the enemy heroes get better every turn, and they will leave you behind if you spend too many turns walking around without fighting anything.) You might need to load an earlier save game, so make sure to keep plenty of them handy. For n00bs, I would highly recommend choosing "Easy" from the difficulty menu before starting your first campaign.
This series is known for its factions, but when you begin the game, you won't be given a choice—instead, you're put in the shoes of Duke Slava, who is tasked with defending his society from a demon invasion. Not only does this set up the story, but it provides an excellent chance to learn the ropes without suffering through a traditional tutorial. Despite a few frustrating parts, the mission strikes a good balance between hand-holding and challenge in the end. You'll be given numerous primary and side quests—as in an MMO, each of your tasks is given to you explicitly, with a prescribed reward that can include experience, gold, and gear. And while you accomplish your goals, Heroes VI gradually introduces all of the gameplay elements so that you can master them without too much trouble.
It's only after this mission, and a turn of events I won't spoil, that you can explore the five different factions ruled by Slava's sons. Through the game's five interlocking campaigns, you'll experience life as a member of the Haven, Sanctuary, Stronghold, Inferno, and Necropolis. In each campaign, using the ability points you earn from leveling up, you'll mold your hero into a unique entity that fits your playing style. Yes, this is a huge game, with plenty of options to make replaying worthwhile.
Plotwise, this game takes place several hundred years before Heroes V, and unfortunately, storytelling is not Heroes VI's strong suit. While a few of the cutscenes have intensely detailed graphics, most of them are just text boxes accompanied by absolutely horrible fantasy voice acting. It's an embarrassing collection of caveman grunts, pretentious old-school English, and even animal noises. The plot may make sense to the Might & Magic faithful, but I got lost in the sea of cheesy-sounding proper nouns. ("Groknathe go to Hӱgermesh!" Okay, I made that one up.) The entire production feels like a Saturday Night Live skit mocking the fantasy genre, and I found myself just skipping the story scenes altogether.
Of course, longtime fans of the series will want to know what has and hasn't changed since the last installment. For sure, there have been lots of aesthetic updates. The menus are slicker and easier to navigate. The graphics have kept up with the times with the aforementioned photorealistic cutscenes, though the in-game visuals aren't nearly as impressive. The score is classical and world music, a great backdrop for this type of game that never gets repetitive.