Your typical game developer specializes at a particular genre, leaving New World Computing as an uncommon exception that excels on not one but two fronts. Best known for its long running Might and Magic role-playing series, New World has since created the offshoot Heroes of Might and Magic turn-based strategy series, which has nearly eclipsed its role-playing progenitor with the sheer amount of critical and popular acclaim it's earned. It's no coincidence - the Heroes formula is one of the most brilliant strategy game designs ever conceived, with its careful blend of micro- and macromanagement within a distinctive fantasy setting.
And so, the big question with Heroes of Might and Magic III is whether the formula is good enough to hold up three games in a row. After all, while Heroes III overhauls the appearance and otherwise expands upon its predecessors, its gameplay remains fundamentally similar. Nevertheless, spending even a short time with the game quells any doubt that it's anything but an excellent sequel and a first-rate strategy game in its own right. But you'll notice its new look before everything else.
The first two games were especially notable for their colorful storybook-style graphics, which lent either one a quirky sense of humor in spite of the epic subject. You'd witness hundreds of peasants being slaughtered by, for instance, a pack of minotaurs. But because both the peasants and the minotaurs looked silly, and because their numbers were graphically abstracted onscreen with just a single unit representing the army, it was difficult to take the combat too seriously.
Even though it plays about the same, a veteran of the first two Heroes games will initially suspect that Heroes of Might and Magic III is a departure from the series because of its face-lift. Specifically, it tries to look a little more serious. Many of the units seem more dangerous than before, and at first, the look can put you off. The 3D-rendered units seem to lack some of the charm and character of the previous games, in part because the higher resolution graphics mean all the creatures appear smaller onscreen than before. Still, further inspection reveals that the old flame still burns - just take a look at the new units like the devils (complete with scythes, ram horns, and sideburns) or the behemoths (lots of hair, teeth, and claws) and you'll see that the series still retains its trademark sense of humor.
While not all of the monsters in Heroes III look interesting, most of its graphics are beautiful, especially for a genre that typically neglects its appearance for the sake of gameplay. Heroes of Might and Magic III sounds even more impressive, with incredible and well-suited orchestral themes for each castle, although the operatic vocals from Heroes II are conspicuously absent.
The turn-based gameplay has you recruiting mercenary heroes, whom you then guide about an overhead map jam-packed with resources, treasure, magical artifacts, mysterious landmarks, monsters, and more. Using the resources your heroes acquire, you augment your towns so that they can produce more powerful units, or still more resources. Meanwhile your heroes gain experience, skills, and spells, and you put them in command of the largest armies that you can afford in an ultimate effort to defeat the enemy mercenaries looking to conquer you first. As your heroes earn experience through combat and exploration, you'll want to utilize some for castle sieges, while others will make far better scouts or magic users. All the while, you need to balance resources between recruiting new troops and heroes, and building new facilities in your castles.
Half the game is spent exploring and building, and the other half is spent in battle. The overhead map switches to a side view when you engage in combat, at which point you must command your various creatures against their enemies, taking turns moving unit stacks one by one depending on their speed. You can have up to seven types of creatures serving under a hero (as opposed to five in the previous games), with seven unique creatures available in each of the eight castles. Every creature can also be upgraded, making it more powerful yet more expensive to recruit. Each castle is meticulously balanced, and although the units roughly correlate between castles, most of them are unique. In fact, many of the creatures (both old and new) now have special abilities; archangels can resurrect their fallen comrades, unicorns create a defensive anti-magic aura, and cavaliers deal more damage if they charge their target. Combat plays out simply, but a great deal of complexity lies beneath the surface, as your hero's attributes and spells tend to sway the course of a battle.
The single player game spans six campaigns detailing the war to claim the kingdom of Erathia from the perspective of good, evil, and mercenary leaders alike. The story isn't played up too much, but the campaign missions themselves are well designed and appear deceptively small. In fact, many contain subterranean caverns as well as the usual overworld territory, often demanding hundreds of turns across many hours of play. And if you can finish the campaigns, you still have dozens of single player maps to try, with the promise of many more to come thanks to the map editor included with the game. Meanwhile, Heroes III is a much better multiplayer game than its predecessors, as you can scroll around the map and review your forces when it's not your turn.
Heroes of Might and Magic III doesn't alter the formula set forth by its ancestors, but represents a refinement and improvement on caliber with the finest sequels ever released. The promise of much more of everything - heroes, castles, creatures, artifacts, skills, spells - is gracefully accomplished so as to accentuate the game's complexity, style, and strategy without making it feel excessive. Much like its predecessors, Heroes of Might and Magic III successfully combines a number of elements that are enjoyable and accessible on their own, but when combined and weighed as a whole, they add up to a game that's both entertaining and rewarding.