The Heroes of Might and Magic series is still going today.
It may not be going strong anymore – if the latest barely functional and bug-riddled Heroes VII is anything to go by at least – but this once popular series doesn’t appear to be calling it quits just yet.
Before Ubisoft could start poking their grubby fingers all over the franchise though, Heroes of Might and Magic was the flagship product of the now defunct 3DO company and its talented in-house development team New World Computing.
Largely based off another computer game of theirs (King’s Bounty), Heroes of Might and Magic is an ambitious series of turn-based strategy games with a deep emphasis on role-playing and storytelling.
Players train “stacks” of fantasy themed armies and heroes before sending them on adventures across prebuilt maps set in a fantasy world of monsters and intrigue. Along the way players will conquer cities and depose rival heroes in a quest to further their chosen hero’s dedicated plotline.
Heroes of Might and Magic IV and its subsequent pair of expansion sets were to be the final entries coded by the original developers as 3DO went bankrupt shortly after, thus bringing a company’s long legacy of celebrated strategy games to an abrupt end.
By the time I had a PC of my own, Heroes of Might and Magic III was already being sold on a budget label and whilst I did play that game briefly and enjoyed it, I can remember at the time being quite eager to move on to the more current entry in the series.
To the delight of some and to the chagrin of others, Heroes of Might and Magic IV makes drastic changes to the more familiar elements that the series had become known for.
Whereas in previous games your hero would give orders from the sidelines, they now have a more active role in combat by appearing as an actual unit that you can freely control as you would any other.
It’s also possible to separate regular units, such as footmen and archers, into their own dedicated stack (without an accompanying hero) thus allowing you to explore the new isometric maps at a greater pace and reinforce main armies without them needing to return to a town quite as often.
Going in the opposite direction that Civilization would end up going, Heroes of Might and Magic IV made the jump from a hexagon-based combat grid to a square-based alternative; a big help when it came to accommodating the bigger units such as dragons and behemoths that take up more room than your common bandit or skeleton.
The hero units themselves became a bigger deal than ever before with 36 different skills and 40 class specializations available to choose from when building such a character.
To put it mildly: this isn’t just another run-of-the-mill iterative sequel, but it’s instead a much fresher piece of work that perhaps scales back an element or two in terms of strategy in favour of providing a richer role-playing experience.
To that end, my favourite aspect of this game lies in the quality of the writing and overall storytelling.
Outside of the voice-over introductions and endings, Heroes of Might and Magic IV doesn’t feature cutscenes or animated sequences to drive its plot, but instead relies on walls of prose that routinely appear during gameplay.
Whether it’s the tale of Lord Lysander out to disprove the existence of a lost Gryphonheart heir or the half undead entity Gauldoth seeking to found a necromancer kingdom; the stories on offer here feel original, well realized and often quite philosophical for your typical video game fantasy.
My favourite plot is the Chaos campaign dubbed The Pirate’s Daughter where the strong-willed orphan Tawni Balfour sets out on a journey to become Pirate Queen of the Gold Sea. Told in first-person, we learn of her past as the bastard child of an infamously vicious pirate called Black Balfour. Along the way Tawni must deal with her traumatic memories and survive in a violent world full of danger, intrigue and a near-endless number of enterprising men who seek to usurp her fragile position.
Forcing a player to read through reams of text to fully comprehend these stories is an antiquated practice to be sure – during my recent playthrough my brother wandered by and exclaimed “That’s way too much reading for me!” – but the touch of imagination required here delivers in a big way and it is more than worth the effort in the long-term.
Using The Pirate’s Daughter as a good example, there’s a stretch during the second chapter of the campaign where you’re tasked with finding a city by the name of Bloody Bay. The map for this stage is quite large so there are a lot of turns here spent exploring, developing your cities and building your armies for the big battle to come.
The writers make use of this opportunity though to regularly insert story popups which appear after a certain number of turns have elapsed; popups that don’t advance the plot per se, but simply offer insight into Balfour’s character and the motivations that drive her. We learn of her mother’s neglect, the chance meeting with her equally unsuitable father figure and the many days she spent as a child working in a tavern beset by rowdy sailors.
Other campaigns are similarly interesting in design with the Life campaign narrated not by your stalwart ruler Lysander, but instead by his lowly NPC squire who recounts the heroic deeds he witnessed all those years ago.
There are some bold moves taken here to make the plots both interesting and engaging and any video game writer working today could really learn something from playing this game.
The switch to an isometric viewpoint was a good change too as units don’t tend to obscure each other quite as much as they did with the old side-on perspective – a problem that once again reared its ugly head in Heroes V.
The option for automatic combat (now a genre staple) is a real lifesaver too as it reduces the amount of needless clicking that would otherwise be required to end battles where the overwhelming advantage is in your favour anyway.
From what I’ve said so far you might imagine Heroes of Might and Magic IV to be the definitive Might and Magic experience and a sequel for the ages, but the truth is not quite so clear-cut.
Professional critics gave the game a warm reception when it released in 2002, but whilst it’s true that the game introduced many welcome refinements to a tried and true formula, Heroes of Might and Magic IV is widely condemned by certain fans for taking the series in the wrong direction.
As someone who never devoted a huge amount of time to the universally acclaimed Heroes of Might and Magic III, the often vociferous negativity towards this follow up left me puzzled the first time I caught wind of it.
I remember liking Heroes IV for its incomparable narrative heft, its lush environments and sheer variety and I thought it impossible to believe that so many people were bitterly disappointed with the hours upon hours of strategic gameplay that it offered.
But after reading up on the troubled development of Heroes IV and then replaying a chunk of its campaign mode, I can now appreciate where these more critical sentiments were coming from.
3DO was rapidly hemorrhaging cash about this time and the development team at New World Computing was subsequently under intense pressure to get the game finished.
As such, there are many areas here that lack necessary polish. Even by the standards of the time, the animation work is a bit slow and jilted and the heroes all have generic designs instead of dedicated character models.
Heroes of Might and Magic IV feels remarkably imbalanced at times too with the upper echelons of the ‘stealth’ skill tree being a particular offender as it allows you to essentially avoid most combat encounters altogether and rinse the map of resources before your opponent can even get off the starting block.
Necromancy magic is also a bit silly as the all-important attrition factor to combat becomes less of a concern when you can keep resurrecting your troops and the less said about those incredibly tough self-healing vampires the better…
The added focus on the heroes also seems to have compromised the development of the regular troops as they’ve inexplicably lost the ability to upgrade into more powerful forms and now come in 4 ascending tiers of strength as opposed to the 7 seen in previous installments.
It’s also annoying how building a certain type of unit restricts you from building another. Adding a labyrinth to your city allows you to recruit minotaurs for example, but then this prevents you from then producing medusas; a puzzling dampener on the gameplay that only seeks to limit your strategic options and force you into developing only the most powerful units wherever possible.
I also think that introducing heroes as a unique battlefield unit was a bad idea. Not only is it hugely unthematic – I mean, how does one soldier, no matter how heroic, take on a unit stack representing 15 sea monsters!? – but it also makes for some rather annoying defeats as losing your main hero almost always means losing the scenario and thus forcing you to reload or otherwise restart the battle.
The later stages of the game get seriously imbalanced too as the heroes constantly sling hugely powerful spells that can sometimes downplay the importance of positioning and battlefield tactics. Whilst the game’s AI is reasonably adept during combat, it seriously struggles to manage its affairs on the adventure map; frequently blundering the concept of multiple hero stacks and often letting them wander the map underfunded and vulnerable.
If there is one thing that even the detractors of this game can agree on though; it’s the music. This is because Heroes of Might and Magic IV comes with a superb original soundtrack full of fantastical tunes that punctuate your journey with both a hint of wonder and elegance.
This quality extends to the SFX too, whether it’s the audible flapping of wings as your imps fly about the field or the clinking of stirrups as your cavalry of paladins descend into an undiscovered tunnel network.
Heroes of Might and Magic IV is the most divisive video game I’ve ever come across, so recommending it today is a tough call to say the least.
Although I enjoy the more RPG feel to this entry in the series, I still lament the amount of micro management that’s required in order for you to do really well.
Keeping track of half a dozen separate armies all scouring the map in different directions is enough to frustrate me more often than not and if you try playing with just one huge ‘stack of doom’ then you have to be so careful in minimizing your losses during combat that it can quickly get tedious.
It’s not uncommon for a more casual player – who simply wants to leisurely cruise the map for resources and enjoy the story – to wind up in a protracted stalemate with an AI player who has built up an unchecked base of operations that will take many boring hours of play to bring down.
Because of this, the ideal solution in most scenarios is to simply rush the nearest enemy keep into submission early so that you don’t have to deal with it later, thus placing an uncomfortable emphasis on speed and trial and error planning rather than the more exciting facets of exploration and discovery.
Ultimately I don’t think I’ll be returning to the game any time soon as the quality of the overall play just doesn’t match that of the stories being told; stories which can in fact be downloaded from various fan sites to be read independently of the software they’re featured in.
If you do manage to get into Heroes of Might and Magic IV though – or any of the games in the series for that matter – you’ll discover a ton of gameplay waiting for you. There’s a huge amount of raw content and worthwhile stories here and the various fan-made patches, balance mods and custom maps do go some way towards smoothing over the noticeable rough edges.
Just don’t trust Pete Girly!