Might & Magic Heroes VI
The changes to the Heroes formula for this latest iteration of the strategy franchise look dramatic on paper. Zones of control on the strategic map? Wide-open hero skill trees? Just three creature tiers? Boss fights? Madness! After dozens of hours with the game, though, it becomes clear that the ultimate effect of all of these departures is remarkably small. Might & Magic Heroes VI is a better game than Heroes V in many respects, but for all its re-envisioned systems it’s really just another title in the franchise for better and for worse. Don’t worry if you haven’t played the other five games, though – this is as fine a time to jump into the series as any.
The lowest-level building blocks of the game are intact: a strategic map with neutral armies guarding towns, forts, mines, artifacts, and treasure; tactical combat with stacks of creatures beating on each other while heroes fling powerful magic and abilities around the battlefield, and heroes growing to godlike power by leveling up and collecting items. I quickly fell back into the comfortable rhythms of building up my cities every day, recruiting troops out of them each week, and defending my empire from biweekly enemy incursions while conquering new territory as quickly as possible.
The turn-based tactical battles are familiar as well, even if the troops are the biggest departure from Heroes canon in franchise history. I appreciate the many unit abilities that shake up combat like the Kenshi’s challenge that dramatically reduces an enemy stack’s damage against anything except for the Kenshi, or the Praetorian’s ability to shield adjacent allies from damage and counterattack on their behalf. Heroes VI emphasizes healing and resurrection to a much greater degree than previous games while moving away from dominating ranged units, so you can still minimize attrition while mixing it up in melee. Heroes themselves are less all-powerful than before as well; even a level-capped hero with awesome equipment can’t wave her hand and decimate an equal-strength enemy army. The wide variety of unit and hero abilities makes as much tactical space to experiment with as the series has ever had.
Like most of the series’ fans, I spend the majority of my time with Heroes on skirmish maps. The fourteen that come with Heroes VI are well-crafted, but the number feels low to me. Fourteen maps isn’t that much, especially with lackluster multiplayer support – no simultaneous turns is a dealbreaker for me. At least the selection on offer presents a wide range of sizes and styles. I would have liked more options to customize the difficulty, as it’s hard to find a sweet spot that’s winnable without being a pushover, but that’s not out of line with the franchise. The AI retains many of its foibles and cheats from earlier games, like having automatic vision of the whole map and an easily exploited tendency to overcommit heroes to attack undefended castles far from the front line, but it’s otherwise reasonably competent.
The campaigns (which will take somewhere around 100 hours to fully complete if you take your time and explore the maps) are leagues better than Heroes V’s, though they can’t top the classic adventures from Heroes II and III. The writing and plots are not actively stupid, and the cutscenes are solidly mediocre instead of historically terrible. Gameplay-wise they’re perfectly competent at providing a backdrop to taking your main hero from a green commander to a legendary empire-crushing general. The few times the scenarios stray from typical Heroes gameplay with unusual objectives or setups are reasonably well executed; I had a fine time diving into a necromancer’s head to help her confront her personal demons (as personified as armies on battlefields, of course). The scripting goes a little too far in cheating up free armies for the AI to invade you with out of thin air at times, but I was able to conquer everything coming my way without too much trouble – except for the boss fights.
Oh, the boss fights. What an awful implementation of what could have been an interesting addition to the series. These one-off encounters throw half the rules out the window (debuffs, a huge part of the tactical game, just flat-out don’t work. Hope you didn’t rely on those as a core part of your build!) and have arbitrary mechanics that force you to abandon sound tactics, like a boss that gets extra actions if you don’t kill his minions who he will resurrect to full health anyway. Most of the time I gave up and brute forced my way through by clearing the map and then hitting the end turn button for a month to come at the boss with an absurd stack of troops.
Black Hole’s redesign of several mechanics feels natural to me, though you can’t go five clicks on the Internet without finding fans of the franchise screaming bloody murder. They mostly boil down to reducing micromanagement without having any discernable effect on overall gameplay or strategy. Recruiting all troops in your empire from any town with the matching building just means I don’t have to keep six level one heroes around to run troops from one end of the map to the other. Tying mine control to forts means less running around chasing off small AI heroes from your mines and more epic battles between fully stacked armies. Letting heroes pick their skills on level up is fantastic; it wasn’t ever hard to pick which skill you wanted, and this way you don’t get screwed into taking something terrible like Eagle Eye or Diplomacy on your main hero. Moving creatures to the core/elite/champion tiers instead of having six distinct levels makes everything tighter, more balanced, and accessible. Despite how radical these changes are, Heroes VI plays just like a Heroes game ought to – and I’m as big a nerd for the series as anyone.
Heroes VI isn’t better than my memory of Heroes III – which is, to be fair, one of my top handful of games of all time. I can’t imagine going back to the older games and missing out on Black Hole’s innovations, though, and Heroes VI is more than good enough in its other aspects to keep me coming back here for my Heroes fix rather than firing up the classics. The nature of the franchise itself makes Heroes VI an excellent title for gamers who don’t typically spend much time in the strategy genre, and if Black Hole and Ubisoft can entice an old hand like me to stick around as well, I consider it a success.