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Wot I Think: Might & Magic Heroes VI

VI: Magic & Heroes of Might

I've spent the last week, on and off, peering at the latest in the Heroes of Might and Magic series. These are some words that express how I feel about this videogame. Disclaimer, I guess: I don’t think I’ve ever played a Heroes of Might & Magic game before, somehow. Maybe a demo in the 90s? I dunno. There you go, anyway: I am writing this from a position of ignorance. Hello, yes, ignorant, that’s me. Hence, I must address you as if you, too, were ignorant regarding this series. You IGNORAMUS, don’t you know ANYTHING?

Might and Magic: Heroes VI, irritatingly and pointlessly renamed from the handy HoMM title the series has borne for years (that much I do know already), is a turn-based strategy / roleplaying hybrid. You raise an army and upgrade the heroes that lead it, you seize towns and resources from across a wide, explorable map, and you complete what could loosely be called quests but really are but one, usually mandatory facet of the real quest - for more money, more resources and more experience points.

The game pings between zoomed-out movement of a handful of hero units around the levels and tile-based battles between the heroes’ armies. That’s pretty much it, in a sense, only the last thing HoMM6 (yes, I’m sticking with that) feels is simple and small. It is huge and slow-paced and escalating in complexity. It is the kind of game that’s designed to ensnare your attention for long weeks, or months, or the rest of your mortal life, and the reverential passing of your savegames onto your next of kin come your death.

So, despite having put the best part of a week into playing HoMM6, I weirdly don’t feel at all ready to offer a verdict on it. Until I’ve tried every faction and unit and upgrade and item and spell and all six of its campaigns and every kind of multiplayer and all the annoying online unlockable stuff I’m worried I haven’t got the game’s measure.

But of course I have. It’s the roaming across the map collecting stuff and starting fights with anything I think I can beat, and it’s the turn-based fights where I carefully weigh causing maximum damage with suffering minimum loss. It’s a far more elaborate game than my most immediate point of reference, Katauri’s King’s Bounty games, given the requirement for four types of resources, for creating multiple buildings in multiple towns before you can recruit the various units, and a wide spread of battle-affecting statistics to alter for your heroes. In a way, I find it a little overcomplicated: there’s a lot to remember to do and a lot of waiting that gets in the way of building up your army and going to kick some rival heroes in the nose.

Quite often, I’d find I didn’t really have anything to do of a turn (map exploration too is turn-based, with each hero having a limited number of movement points and each city only allowing one new construction before you must progress to the next day) beyond hero movementbecause I was short on something or other and had no way to get more of it without waiting. That’s part and parcel of the game, and perhaps speaks to my ever-shortening attention span, but I did feel like I was dragging my heels more often than I’d have liked.

This is despite, incidentally, the game having reduced its number of resources to four - I can’t speak for how this compares in practice to earlier games, but generally it was the case that I was doing just dandy for three resources and short on one. One that was necessary for making new buildings, usually. Deliberate limitations in this regard are one way in which the game enforces careful, efficient planning on you, as opposed to megalomaniacal ‘I’ll have EVERYthing, and RIGHT NOW!’ It’s a far more serious affair than the King’s Bounties, with the roleplaying stuff a definite second-fiddle to furrow-browed strategising.

Fortunately, it's a good old looker once you're into the fights, with some imaginative backdrops, an engine that doesn't skimp on detail or animation and an impressive variety of unit types. I’ve certainly enjoyed it, despite an itching sense that I either hadn’t truly broken its back or that it’s a big tease. The real joy of HoMM6 - and indeed other games in the same vein - is slowly learning to recognise the many dozens of different units on sight, without having to consult some external lexicon or peer at their stats. Your first few encounters against a new type foe will be a clumsy, brute-force attempt to whittle them down, but a little later you’ll know that one teleports, that one retaliates twice, that one can resurrect other units, that one’s a double-hard bastard you need to stay the hell away from…

You will know them because they have cost you dearly, and you do not want to suffer that again. So you’ll work out, without the game telling you anything, strategies to manage all these orcs and demons and undead and archers and vampires and goblins and angels and paladins and cyclopes and hellhounds, well, a truckload of fantasy creatures ranging from the deeply generic to the super-weird.

You become a better general organically, a leader who knows the battlefield and how to respond to it. You build your own force accordingly and, slowly, you build your heroes (you start each map with one ‘you’ hero, but end up recruiting more as a game wears on) to suit your favoured tactics and spells. Much depends on chance, especially in terms of the magic items you find, but all-told you’ll work out where you want to get to and be able to focus on getting there. There’ll be some enemy heroes to best and some towns to conquer before the game’s script either ends the level or opens up a new section of it, but really it’s all one big toybox to use as you will. Except your rivals keep trying to take your toys away from you, of course.

The game does try and shove an uninspiring plot in your way, however. It’s sectioned into a half-dozen four-or-five map campaigns (and most maps take a good couple of hours to beat), each documenting a different piece of the overarching plot, revolving around some human nobility and their destiny and their conflict with the other factions of the world and demons and whatever. It makes a better fist of storytelling than a great many strategy games do, but it’s weirdly characterless despite clear attempts to have lots of character. Blame the strangely smug voice acting, blame Captain Exposition having a stranglehold on the writing, blame the fact it’s mostly just talking heads popping up at random, blame that your interest in this game are your personal goals of upgrading that city or getting your character to level 15 or finding 7 more Crystal in a hurry.

It tries hard, and I do appreciate the splintered but intertwining nature of the narrative, that it offers a ton of gametime and that it grants you free rein to try out each of the game’s major factions as soon as you’re out of the not entirely helpful tutorial rather than have to wait to progress to a new area a la King’s Bounty. But it’s just a bit flat, and as such in the way. The time and money spent on it would have been far better put into making cities more characterful - as it is, the only sense you get of building stuff in them is how many icons light up on a menu screen. It would have been lovely to see them visibly grow and evolve with each new addition.

Then there’s the online stuff. Not multiplayer, which I can’t yet speak for (quite fancy a crack at the hotseat mode, mind), but what appears to be an attempt by Ubisoft to make their infamous horror-DRM have some kind of merit. You can play the game offline, but bits of it are switched off. This includes a Dark Souls-like ability to leave and read in-game message orbs for other players, the worth of which I am most dubious of, given the game itself is pretty good at advising you how dangerous a prospective enemy is. It also includes Ubi-specific achievements and their overcooked UPlay virtual currency thing, and more irritatingly certain starting bonus skills and items. Their benefits are, in the grand scheme of monster-biffing, fairly minor, but the net result is that the game is slightly harder if you have the temerity to play it offline. I think I could only possibly express my feelings about this with a gesture, a short of shrug and headshake and sigh and sad, confused, smile. Oh, and if you play it online it syncs all your savegames to the cloud, but sometimes takes a bloody age to start and leave the game as a result of the server presumably having a moan at the other end. All a bit tiresome and unncessary, frankly.

It does, admittedly, tie into a system whereby yet another layer of point-scoring can be spent on bigger and better starting bonuses, but like so much of the game it just feeds into this irksome mass of over-complication layered on top of what’s actually a straightforward and highly satisfying game. That game, the real HoMM6 underneath the ocean of pointless numbers that don’t, ultimately, meaningfully affect your fighting, is confident and slick and good-looking; I wish I could wave away all the surface crap and just get on with it. I can, mostly, but there’s always that nagging fear of missing something important.

So, my affections remain very much with the simpler, cheerier King’s Bounty, though I would love to see a hybrid of both games' take on things. I’ve had a good enough time with HoMM6, I greatly admire its generosity of content and I’d certainly recommend it as a worthwhile enough purchase in this rarely-serviced genre, but I wish it weren’t so caught up in 2011’s faddish spew of social networking and unlocks. It just doesn’t suit the introspection and masterplanning inherent in a title like this.

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