The series formerly known as Heroes of Might & Magic returns, with a confusingly rearranged name, to a post-King's Bounty landscape. Without access to publishers' long and tedious spreadsheets, I of course couldn't begin to guess whether 1C's good-natured, wilfully silly turn-based strategy/semi-roleplaying game presents any kind of financial threat to HoMM. KB's certainly made hay during HoMM's six-year absence, however. Now daddy's coming back for his crown - but what has he learned? I've been tinkering with some preview code to find out.
I have, I must confess, relatively limited experience with prior HoMMs, but it's pretty obvious that this one's a serious rethink after the lukewarm reception to game V. It's intended to harken back to HoMM 2 and 3, oft-believed the series' glory years, but with a thoroughly 21st century paintjob and interface. The essential structure - roam a map, acquiring units for your army and boshing assorted fantasy monsters in the face in tile-based battles - is along very familiar lines, but... oh, I'm just dancing around a few key words, trying to buy time, trying to prevent anyone getting the wrong end of the stick...
So: it is a bit simpler, ok? There, I said it. But only a bit. Unlike KB - and again, that's my primary frame of reference here, so you're going to have to put up with a few more comparisons, I'm sure - there's a strong emphasis on gathering resources, building up settlements, touring your holdings to check in on what's become ready for collection and construction, and even having ancillary heroes and their armies roaming the map or defending your strongholds from enemies. Actually fighting stuff only takes up a portion of your time. Managing, upgrading and protecting your kingdom covers the rest of it. It's big on numbers and short on explanation - you'll work it out if you're new to HoMMery, but the existing fans seem to be the group VI is mainly making eyes at.
From the preview code, I'm getting a strong sense that despite superficial visual similarities it's a less characterful game than 1C's King's Bounty titles, and certainly one that's terribly caught up in its own long-running lore - which of course it treats deadly seriously. However, it's much more elaborate, with a beefy choice of strategies, skill trees and build options. While the number of resources you need to gather has mercifully cut from seven to four, you're still presented with a battery of choices whenever you poke your nose into a city. It's a game of careful planning and a great many statistics, and while the turn-based nature of everything - including movement across the world map - tends to put the initiative in your hands (in singleplayer at least) I'm not convinced that this is a game that could be bludgeoned through. It's shed a bit of bloat, but it's not interested in anything other than proudly being a true-blue PC strategy game.
While the meat of your mightiness and magicking is setting armies of assorted fantasy tropes against other, and trying to mitigate losses so you don't have to spend a fortune replenishing for the next fight, the hero leading your silent armies provides structure and strategic nuance. Each turn, you can have him/her/it dole out either a straight-up attack, free from the risk of damaging retaliation which your units suffer when landing a turn's first blow on each enemy, or a spell. On top of that, your actions and choice of spells dictate whether you generate Blood or Tears, which are the game's reputation system and in turn open up new stuff. (The reputation system also extends to out-of-battle choices, such as whether you prevent a weaker enemy from fleeing from you or even giving you the fabled choice to talk to the monsters.)
The magic I dabbled in wasn't terribly interesting on a whizzbang level, focusing on buffs and debuffs rather than big, crazy, wild mayhem, which rather speaks to the nature of HoMM6. Its flashy in its way - particularly in the occasional cuts from the standard isometric perspective to close-up, dramatic mega-stabs starring highly-detailed character models - but primarily its interest is in tactics, not bombast or the silliness of King's Bounty. This numbers first/showing off second philosophy even extends to the city building, which isn't much more than buttons on a flat image. I'm the kind of guy who likes to see the results of his building, to see his settlement visibly improving, not just have an icon turn a different colour.
As such, HoMM6 perhaps not terribly immediate and certainly isn't speedily-paced, but it isn't short on depth and tactical thoughtfulness, and that's endearing me to it even through the vague bewilderment I feel when browsing its page upon page of skills. It's a game to be gradually learned, not ground through or bounced off. Take the siege battles, when you're trying to wrest a city out of enemy hands. A huge wall will separate both armies, which your catapult will slowly and automatically break down over time, but in the meantime you'll need to make the absolute best of your ranged units while trying to protect your melee units from the enemy's archers and spellcasters. You should probably also get someone guarding the one-way gate in the middle of the wall, which the enemy could send a unit through whenever it wishes, otherwise you'll likely end up with your own ranged guys suddenly squished into the ground.
Meantime, there's all sorts of special attacks I don't yet entirely understand being delivered to me in all sorts of exciting/annoy ways with all sorts of exciting/annoying side effects, with my guys apparently taking damage from some force I can't even see and enemies somehow able to splat half my army simultaneously. In time, I'll learn how best to place them to avoid this, what spells and upgrades I need to mitigate the particular foes I'm up against. But that'll take a while, because while HoMM 6 might have trimmed a little fat, it sure isn't compromising itself for the sake of new players. I certainly don't feel any doors are closed to me as a relative HoMM newcomer, though.
Ubisoft have just announced that the game's been 11th-hour delayed from September to October 13 in order to give the devs more time, which I suspect is the right decision. They're definitely onto something here - a whittling away of feature creep, a gentle stepping up of the roleplaying, a few lessons learned from King's Bounty but without sacrificing HoMM's own identity - but given it's a few weeks from the originally-mooted release, the code I have is a little unstable and the HoMM community seems to have similar concerns. A few more weeks in order to help be sure they'redefinitely getting HoMM back on track after six years away seems only sensible.