The interface did it!
Interface aside, Heroes 2 is an astonishingly good looking game. It simply has no competition for a game released in 1996 and it still retains its flavor even after all these years. What really makes it a graphical success though, is the use of style, color and monster design which is paralleled by no other game in this genre. Everything from the castles to the heroes of HOMM2 are expertly drawn and animated: Black dragons spewing out magma-infused destruction, Cyclops with their one eye and slightly limping walk and castle skylines that illustrate the greatness of their tyrannical kings. Despite the fact that the monsters aren't 3D, but rather 2D characters with very sleek animation, they still look good. Creatures are big, richly detailed and colorful, their animation being one among many of the top notch elements of Heroes 2's graphical design. The variety in style for both tile sets and creatures is astounding, ranging from the aforementioned dragons and Cyclopes to trolls, goblins and peasants. The terrain too ranges from the usual fantasy fare (dirt, grass, snow) to more bizarre settings like beaches or magma lands and features the same richly detailed animation as the creatures.
Heroes 2's resolution is also pleasant to the eye. It can't be changed, unfortunately, but there isn't any noticeable pixelation in any of the game's 3 screens. And speaking of screens, the castle screen has undergone some serious modifications. The area of the castle is now bigger and more detailed (as well as more colorful) and the animation is top notch during castle building sequences. Furthermore, despite the huge amount of buildings that can be constructed, nothing feels cluttered together and castle-viewing becomes a pleasure in its own as players can simply waste hours just admiring the castles they forged.
Lastly, Heroes 2 works perfectly on almost any system with hardly a hint of slowdown on anything higher than a 486. There are no framerate issues, no graphical bugs, no clipping and no other such imperfections.
Similarly to the graphics, the music in Heroes 2 is terrific; just like in the rest of the series. The uplifting orchestral pieces, fully accompanied by the high pitched notes of tenors, that play when in the castle view, the satisfying "jingles" that act as background for exploration and the hymns of battle are all stupendous to listen to. The tastefulness of Heroes 2's music is beyond words and the developer's choices for its placement are without error. Not surprisingly, the musical pieces are also of the highest quality and performed by seemingly competent orchestras and tenors.
In the sound effects department Heroes 2 fares well, but it could do better. Despite the fact that the howling of the wolf, the battle cry of the orc and the roar of the dragon all sound good and offer a rich, satisfying sound, there are some problems: The biggest of these problems is the quality of the sound which ranges greatly from one creature to another. While a dragon sounds good, a Cyclops sounds horrible by comparison. These differences are mostly concerned with battle sounds (such as screams or roars) and don't affect the clashing of swords or the sizzle of the Cyclops' red gaze, but, never the less they are noticeable enough to detract from the overall feel.
In all my years of playing Heroes 2, there is one aspect of the game I never actually experienced: The story. Ironically, for a game so truly packed with creativity, this is one the weakest points of Heroes 2 – I have never actually found out what the story was, even after hundreds of ours of gameplay. Chances are however, than neither will most of the other players since Heroes 2 doesn't exactly feature very enticing campaigns or very appropriate storytelling. The series of missions one goes through isn't all that varied and, unlike in Heroes 3, it's actually a mish-mash of different races, since Heroes 2's campaigns are more generally tied to the scenarios, rather than to the actual sides Furthermore, Heroes 2's campaigns are very difficult and I experienced a horrendously hard time even getting passed the first campaign due to the huge power differences between kingdoms and the limitations with which the player is faced. However, if there is only one defining feature of a Heroes game is that it cannot be judged by its campaigns. Most of them don't allow the player to fully experience the freedom of an open ended scenario, pick his or her nation, and even the victory condition. Luckily, Heroes 2 features a wealth of scenarios that cover all sizes (from Small to Extra Large), all topics (from kill all opponents to capturing a city) and which have much better, more coherent stories than the actual campaign.
The actual gameplay of Heroes 2 takes the exact same premise as the other games in the series: With the help of a number of heroes, players must achieve their goals while managing resources and troops, acquiring artifacts and experience and fighting neutral monsters as well as enemy factions. To make all of this more manageable, Heroes games have always adopted a 3-screen-approach which, just like it sounds, splits Heroes 2 in three distinct gameplay areas: the map (exploration), the castle, and the battle.
Heroes 2 brings a slew of changes to all of these screens, starting with the castle screen, where the amount of buildings has been roughly doubled since Heroes 1. Each building requires a specific resource or a number of different resources to build, besides the obvious gold requirement. In addition to the already present buildings like the mage guild, the creature dwellings or the well (population +2) Heroes 2 greatly expands the building choices, with the inclusion of a 5th level for the mage guild, upgradeable creature dwellings, a statue which increases revenue and one specific "faction" building. Faction buildings' bonuses can range from morale to gold bonuses or enhanced attributes. Furthermore, castles can now build moats and defensive structures like turrets or the Captain's Quarters which ensures the presence of a hero-like-thing in the castle at all times. A final addition to the castle system is the new marketplace through which resources can be sold for gold or exchanged for other resources. However, castles still suffer from a very damaging problem in Heroes 2: Regardless of how high their income is, a fully built-up castle (i.e. all dwellings) can NEVER build all the troops that it spawns in a week. This becomes very irritating, very quickly
especially if the scenario is devoid of gold mines or other castles.
The second screen, the map, is where most of the game takes place. On the map heroes explore their surroundings, gather resources (ore, wood, sulfur, gems, crystals, mercury and gold) from small piles sprinkled all over the map, visit buildings where they can receive a number of bonuses, flag mines or castles and fight monsters or enemy factions. The additions brought to the map in terms of gameplay are vast. New World has added more of everything to the map, the detail is greater, and there are more buildings to visit with effects ranging from new skills to more experience or resources. In addition, there are now creature dwellings that spawn faction creatures or markets where resources can be sold. Other small changes were made to the interface to indicate movement restrictions (through a system of arrows, the smaller the arrow the more a hero can move)and a new button that allows a hero to now move to a previously selected location by simply clicking it, rather than pointing out the destination each and every turn.
Prior to discussing the battle screen we have to discuss the hero: The heroes underwent the most radical changes in Heroes 2. In addition to the four primary skills (attack, defense, knowledge and spell power), which increase randomly with each level, heroes can now acquire a series of secondary skills. Secondary skills have 3 levels of specialty, basic, advanced and expert, and they come in many different flavors. There are dozens of skills to choose from, in either the might, magic or neutral castes. Some skills, like Logistics boost movement rates, while others such as Ballistics and Wisdom are more specific to the might or magic specialties. Another huge change brought to the heroes' system is in the magic department. Heroes no longer learn all the spells, regardless of specialty when entering a castle, they now need the appropriate Wisdom level. More importantly however, heroes now learn the actual spells and, instead of having a limited number of uses for them based on the amount of knowledge they have (say, a hero with knowledge 4 can cast 4 Bless spells) the amount of spells a hero can cast is dictated by mana. This change to the system is very important as it doesn't assume that a level one spell (Bless) is equal in terms of mana as a level 5 spell (Armageddon).
Obviously enough, these changes have led to new artifacts and structures on the map, along with a few gameplay changes. Heroes can now visit a Witch’s Hut in order to learn a new skill, they can now collect virtually DOZENS of new artifacts or they can bribe creatures on the map to join them, granted they have a high enough diplomacy skill. Luck and morale also return in Heroes 2, but they're now more malleable than they were in Heroes. The alignment of troops may help or detract from morale, there are an endless amounts of shrines and fountains to visit which grant either of the two attributes, there are many artifacts which help (or damage) morale and luck, etc.
Artifacts too have undergone some serious restructuring. Players can still acquire a myriad of artifacts ranging from swords, to bows, to pouches of gold or carts of ore, to medals, to cloaks and whatever else that wasn’t mentioned, but that’s not all. Artifact powers have also been expanded greatly, as a hero can now acquire bonuses like 50% less cold damage, new spells, more movement on land or sea, etc. from artifacts. On the other hand, the system is not perfect. A hero only has 20 slots for artifacts and, as long as an artifact is with a hero, it gets the bonus from it. So, that means that if a hero carries 5 identical swords the bonus is multiplied by 5 times! What's worse though is that if a hero defeats another in combat and he gains some artifacts, he will only store those which he can carry. The problem arises when the first three artifacts the opponent carries are medals that boost morale and the next 10 are all amazingly powerful, unique artifacts that can never be replaced. Those go with the dead hero if his opponent doesn't have the space to carry them.
As far as creatures go, Heroes can still carry only 5 of them but their choices have been quadrupled in Heroes 2. Not only are there 6 races instead of 4, ranging from the regular fantasy faire like Humans to the bizarre, like Necromancers; but these factions can now upgrade their troops. Upgrades come in different shapes or forms and they grant troops enhanced attributes, more damage or more hitpoints, as well as raising their price. Only certain troops can be upgraded though and the bonus differences for some of the upgrades is astounding (upgraded archers get double damage and 2 shots per turn) while for others it's totally negligible. Needless to say that Heroes 2 covers just about every single mythological creature in existence. Everything from titans to peasants or from hydras to elves is included: Heroes 2 features, literally, dozens of creatures. What's more, some of the new creatures have special skills, like the Vampire Lord's blood sucking ability which allows them to revive part of their fallen kin.
After much a due, we finally come to the battle system: Battles in Heroes 2 have undergone heavy changes from Heroes. Obviously the new spells, creatures and experience systems have to be taken into account but that only barely scratches the surface. The newly expanded battlefields and the new siege tactics have to also be taken into account: Thanks to the new moats and the new Ballistics skills the defenses of a castle have to seriously be taken into account, since turrets can do copious amounts of damage and archers behind walls are not damage-restricted, unlike those outside of them. The new battlefields also force players to use their utmost abilities when deciding where to fight, as the physical features of the land are now represented in the battle arenas and their influence in battle is huge. Otherwise, battles have usually remained the same as before, forcing players to chose wisely between which spells to use, which creatures to sacrifice and even when to flee.
Since there are no forests without some dead tress however, it's finally time to discuss the problems: Heroes 2's biggest problems arise from balance and from the AI. When discussing the AI, brutal honesty is a must: The AI in Heroes 2 is dead stupid. It's a mere annoyance and, if by some miracle it manages to accumulate enough troops it can prove to be challenging, but otherwise it's a nuisance. The AI will regularly have its heroes prance around flagging already flagged mines; it will split troops so much between its heroes that seeing an enemy hero that poses a challenge becomes a centennial event, etc. Heroes 2’s other big problem is balance or the lack thereof. Unlike in Heroes 3 where weaker nations each had their special abilities or had access to virtually twice the units of the stronger ones, in Heroes 2 this is not the case. That’s not to say weaker nations CANNOT spawn more units that stronger ones but the differences in their attributes are absurd (A crusader has 90 hitpoints, a dragon 300). This leads to serious problems as weaker nations can only win the game if they rush other players or if they control half of the playing field in a short period of time.
Luckily though, just like the other Heroes games, Heroes 2's multiplayer doesn't disappoint and that’s a relief since most, if not all of the balance problems are solved in multiplayer. Human players know how to tackle different races, who must attack first and who must stand back and build up, and they will never flag the same mine 250 times in the course of the game, like the average AI. The multiplayer can also support up to 6 players in a variety of configurations including Hot Seat and LAN play. There's also an option to play via IP, granted anyone still knows what that is and happens to own a copy of Heroes 2. However, Hot Seat is really the mode of choice for most gamers as it’s formidably enticing from start to finish and it makes for some extremely tense and nerve-wrecking matches against similarly skilled opponents.
After the calm glow of the village night fades away, and I come back to reality, there’s still a chocolaty aftertaste that permeates in my brain: That flavor smells and tastes like Heroes 2, and if it wouldn’t be for its idiotic AI and grave imbalances it would be the best TBS game ever. Heroes 2's innovative, easy to learn but impossible to master, it has a great sense of style and it's one of the most complete gaming packages ever. All in all, Heroes 2 is definitely the defining strategy game of the first 3 quarters of the 90s.