The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Finding a long-forgotten
spell in monster-infested ruins could lead to victory over the rival empires
that seek to conquer the world that is rightfully yours. So could rediscovering
the long-forgotten methods of blacksmithing that let your foundries churn out
chainmail armor that shrugs off your enemies' primitive clubs. Learning to
communicate with reclusive storm dragons and charging into battle with the
powerful beasts at your side is another of dozens of ways to emerge victorious
in this fantasy empire-builder. Every one is worth exploring, thanks to the
skill with which Legendary Heroes is executed.
Legendary Heroes is
exactly the kind of quality release that developer Stardock needs to win fans
back after the disastrous 2010 release of Elemental: War of Magic. It isn't perfect,
and the AI has a few glaring blind spots that are hard to forgive, but building
a fantasy empire and developing superhuman heroes to lead magical and monstrous
armies to victory hasn't been this fun in years. This standalone
expansion-to-an-expansion directly addresses the worst issues from last year's
Fallen Enchantress while also fixing dozens of lesser problems and mercilessly
hacking away at tedium. The result is an undeniable improvement on an already
Rather than basing
Legendary Heroes around adding new systems and content as the "expansion"
moniker implies, Stardock instead chose to re-examine Fallen Enchantress from
the ground up. From completely changing the way cities grow to redrawing the
layout of individual battlefields, the developers have improved the game
without adding more stuff to the rich set of interlocking systems. You're still
growing an empire turn by turn, but the process is smoother and more fun across
the board in both the strategic map and in the tactical turn-based battles.
Combat has undergone the
most dramatic change, and not just because it's the flashiest part of the game.
I've conquered empires and slain elemental lords with a variety of strategies,
from summoned monsters screening ice-flinging mages to armored footmen grinding
the enemy down through sheer endurance. Several improvements combine to take it
from the largely trivial sideshow of Fallen Enchantress to a legitimately
interesting tactical puzzle. Redesigned battlefields offer chokepoints that
create meaningful decisions about unit placement. Abilities from
weapon-specific attacks to hero-cast spells offer more interesting wild cards
that are better-balanced than before. Rebalanced attack/defense values and the
swarm mechanic (which gives bonuses for surrounding your enemies) make it
nearly impossible for a few heavily armored units to slaughter entire armies
without taking losses, which was a serious problem in the last game. The
ground-up reworking of units, weapons, armor, spells, and everything else is a
massive success that gives players real choices in how they approach building
and commanding armies to a level far beyond that of the last game.
Many other elements have
been altered, and unanimously for the better. The diplomatic prestige resource
has been removed entirely, as trading gold serves the same function. Heroes now
level along defined trait trees rather than choosing from a randomly generated
list at level-up, which sacrifices diversity between playthroughs for a much
greater gain in terms of balance. The complex, unintuitive encumbrance model has
been scrapped in favor of simple initiative modifiers. The full list is far too
lengthy to address point-by-point, but as a dedicated strategy gamer I found
myself delighted at yet another newly discovered tweak well past the fifty-hour
mark with Legendary Heroes.
(click screen to enlarge)
The AI no longer suffers
from the awful problems it had concentrating armies in Fallen Enchantress -
enemy empires can and will stack up sufficient technologically advanced troops
and powerful heroes to threaten well-defended cities - but it does have disappointing
failures and blind spots. Armies seem to get stuck when their paths are cut off
by a rival or monster unit, often idling for several turns (or much longer on
occasion) before setting off on a new mission. The AI also loves to build tons
of decent-but-not-great units and stack them well beyond the limit for joining
a battle at once. This is a horrendous mismanagement of resources, since
Legendary Heroes still significantly favors smaller numbers of elite troops
over mediocre hordes. The problem is much less pronounced than in Fallen
Enchantress thanks to the combat rework, but the overall higher quality bar
makes the issues the AI still has stick out.
Diplomacy is hardly
present in Legendary Heroes. The vast sums of money required to bribe your way into
a rival faction's good graces can be much better spent conquering them, and the
rudimentary calculations that the AI appears to go through in determining who
its friends and enemies are leave much to be desired. In nearly all cases, it's
not a matter of if you'll go to war with an enemy, but when. I don't
particularly mind the overall effect since Legendary Heroes makes no bones
about being a wargame first and a diplomatic simulation somewhere around 38th,
but be warned that this is about as far from Total War's careful manipulation
of alliances and betrayals as it is from Animal Crossing.
The endgame is rarely
engaging. The peaceful method is as boring as it typically is in
empire-building games, and involves little more than assaulting the end turn
button while the requisite pieces fall into place (bribing the remaining
leaders into alliances or building the towers that enable the Spell of Making).
Conquering the world through force is fun up until the two best stacks in the
game collide; after that point the emphasis on elite troops usually means that
the surviving army can cruise through any remaining resistance. Completing the
Master Quest involves taking on a massive dragon-riding boss, which would be a
cooler fight if it weren't so easy to defeat with any army capable of making it
to that point. None of the options are particularly enthralling, though neither
are they so awful that I find myself abandoning playthroughs once victory is
likely. After Total War: Shogun II and its expansions showed the world what an
exciting strategy endgame can be, I'm no longer as forgiving of the genre's
traditionally boring mop-up phase as I once was.
The better class of
empire-building strategy games is renowned for replayability thanks to randomly
generated maps that present unique challenges on each playthrough. Legendary
Heroes doesn't lead the pack in this regard, but I have thoroughly enjoyed
myself across dozens of restarts. Each city needs to build enough of the same
core buildings that empire development feels roughly equivalent every time,
though experimenting with different tactical approaches and research focuses
makes each game unique to some degree. Every once in a while, a rare hero or
item that changes the rules shows up; obliterating entire enemy armies with a
hero-class wildling shaman's unique flame-throwing attack is a starkly
different experience than anything else I've tried, as is stealing enemy souls
with a one-of-a-kind skeletal mage and then using that mana to raise volcanoes
under enemy strongholds.
None of Legendary
Heroes' rough spots keep it from being an excellent game that I recommend with
no reservations. Stardock has finally delivered on the promise that Elemental
once held, back in the halcyon days of 2009. You don't have to be any kind of
strategy savant to appreciate what this exceptional release has to offer.