Might and Magic Heroes Online (not to be confused with the recently closed Heroes Of Might And Magic Online) looks a hell of a lot like regular Might and Magic Heroes. That's a good thing. It's got microtransactions and maps where you'll see other players running around, but when battle starts, it's to that familiar zoomed-in view you'll be taken, and the same strategy that awaits. There's simply more to conquer. Potentially much, much more.
Like all of Ubisoft’s recent online announcements, Might and Magic Heroes Online is a free to play game that runs directly in your browser and, like the salvation of the planet Mongo, is based on Flash. You take control of a hero unit (which at launch will likely have to come from the bright and shiny Haven or creepy and spiky Necropolis factions, though more are planned) who has to travel the length and breadth of their fantasy world to raise mighty armies, then crush all those who get in your way by mastering hex-based, turn-by-turn combat.
The demo I saw was promising, though can largely be summed up as simply "Might And Magic Heroes Only In A Web Browser". There was only one character running around the map for most of it, fighting enemies alone, and not showing off any social encounters, dungeons, raids, or the towns that you can establish around the world to help fund your bloody campaign.
These things are going to be in the game, they simply weren't in the demo - and while it's not difficult to guess how things will work out, there were no hard details on specifically how adding things like more players and microtransactions were going to make the previously single-player focused action better rather than simply more crowded. Likewise, while there was talk of teaming up against tough monsters on the map, there was very little on how the mechanics have changed to, say, share out the enemies you'd normally have sole eviscerating rights to.
The basic action looks solid enough though - starting with a pretty looking real-time map with monsters standing around, patiently waiting for a hero to run up and challenge them to a fight. The actual fights take place on a different map entirely, with the troops you've assembled lining up to take on the enemy, and your hero unit bravely sitting on the sidelines out of face-punching range. The challenge is two-fold; not simply giving your army the right orders, but assembling the right armies from the world's races and units in the first place. They don't all have to be from the same faction, though there are bonuses for sticking to what you know - at least early on.
As far as why you're beating all everyone up, I have no idea. Ubisoft promises that whatever's going on will be canon with Heroes V and VI, but isn't talking about the details. The closest thing to a plot so far is this CG teaser movie, which consists of a knight in plate armour and a woman whose name I believe is Lady Spiderqueen von Underboob sternly facing off on a dusty plane, before being distracted by an incoming tornado and deciding "Bugger that!"
I'm assuming the story will be a little more epic than this though, or at the very least, a mite longer. Whatever the big picture though, fighting looks tight - modelled down to a level of being able to turn on a hex to avoid backstabs, and with a decent range of encounters in the demo. In a simple case, you might get a a Necropolis hero in a straight-up fight with some nasties. A more complex one involved one enemy heavy-hitter backed up with a few weak mooks, with the aim being to mop up his friends before he finished lumbering over to crack skulls.
Probably the most interesting though was a battle set on a bridge, which was an example of a custom map being wheeled out to better fit the encounter. Here, instead of simply facing an generic field, the bridge and river were brought into the fight to create a chokepoint. These are the exception to the rule, but will show up from time to time for key battles.
Watching a demo, especially one sped up for the sake of time, it's impossible to know how the AI, range of units, tactical variety and so forth compare to the standard games. On the surface though, there's no reason it shouldn't be able to at least match the existing games - especially when you factor in how easily more quests, factions and maps can be patched in.
More pressingly, the cash-shop side of the game was completely glossed over in the demo, save that it will obviously exist. Progress boosters are a dead cert though, and it's a fairly safe bet that Towns won't just be economic hubs for your hero. Again, none of this was shown in the demo itself, but I was promised that "You'll have your town and your town will do right by you."
Specifically, you'll be able to customise it with assorted buildings, gather resources for both direct use and crafting, recruit units to your army, and set up trade routes. This has 'monetisation' scrawled across its forehead in expensive lipstick, though hopefully not to the point that you'll feel like you've slipped into Might and Magic Settlers Online every time your gold purse runs dry. The focus on PvE (at least for the moment, though PvP in discussion) means that things like progress boosters can work fine without disrupting anyone else's game. I'm nervous though at just how much other elements like the speed of army recruiting could so easily be squeezed for cash if Ubisoft chooses to go down that route. Like so much, we'll have to wait and see there.
Provided the monetisation side is fair though, Might and Magic Heroes Online does look like a tempting package. Ubisoft promises that you can play it antisocially if you like, and I always approve of that. Assuming it's true, and not followed by a little asterisk leading to the words "If you spend a hundred squillion pounds", I can see the scale of the game alone being a massive draw - probably not at launch, but as content is added to the world over the next few years.
If that can be funded by people willing to drop a fortune on XP boosts, faction purchases and cosmetic gubbins, then fantastic. I suspect it's going to go a little deeper than that though, and would feel a lot better about that if I knew exactly what the "Online" was going to add.