It's been years since the last game in the illustrious Heroes of Might and Magic series. In that time, New World Computing, the venerable developer of the Heroes games as well as the Might and Magic role-playing series it spun off from, shuttered its doors. So the fate of subsequent Heroes games became uncertain at best, until publisher Ubisoft announced that it nabbed the rights to the Might and Magic brand last year. Then the question became one of quality. With development reins now in the hands of Moscow-based Nival Interactive, was there any chance that the next Heroes of Might and Magic could stack up to its predecessors? Apparently, yes. Underneath the fancy 3D graphics of this latest Heroes game is an underlying design that's very similar to that of the series' popular favorites, parts II and III. Even a lot of the stylistic touches, which fans probably expected to get lost in translation, are intact here. So, despite some bugs in the retail version, Heroes V comes across like an enhanced remake of a classic. Or if you're unfamiliar with the series, you should know that this is an addictive strategy game with a lot of depth, personality, and lasting value.
The basics of Heroes V are the same as ever. You must command unique hero characters and their armies to explore maps filled with treasure, hostile enemies, castles, and much more. As heroes win battles and gain more experience points, they level up, which grants them new skills and abilities and also makes their armies even stronger. You'll also be taking in various resources with which you'll be training more creatures, as well as expanding your castles to support an ever-growing military and to stave off aggressors. Consider that you can have multiple heroes and castle types to manage, various subquests to undertake, a whole separate subterranean area to explore, and multiple enemy heroes to contend with all within a single scenario, and it should be clear that there's a lot to think about in Heroes V. Good thing this is a turn-based game.
Heroes V presents an intriguing and diverse cast of heroes and creature types to play around with. There are six playable factions, each of which should be more or less familiar to Heroes fans. They'll find a few omissions (the barbarians and their war boars and behemoths are notably absent, for instance), but the game still runs just about the whole gamut of fantasy archetypes: elves, undead, demons, wizards, and knights in shining armor are all in here. Each faction has its own colorful heroes, creatures, and castle type, and while the underlying gameplay is similar no matter which faction (or factions) you're controlling on a given map, each one has distinctive differences. For example, demonic heroes can gain the power to make many of their brethren units summon reinforcements, allowing them to overwhelm the enemy through sheer numbers. Meanwhile, undead heroes may raise some percentage of their defeated foes as skeletons, and they may also bring some of their own fallen creatures back to un-life after winning a battle.
These types of nuances aren't vastly different from what's been offered up by previous Heroes games. But Heroes V introduces many new skills and abilities, giving you more decisions about how to develop your characters as they get stronger, and creating more variety overall. It's too bad that the game's interface and manual don't do a better job of making all the variety more transparent. For instance, many creatures have unique special abilities that are listed in the game, but not explained. What exactly does the horned overseer's "enraged" ability do? Figure it out. Some special artifacts you find have no descriptions either, as if just having an important-sounding name makes it worth wearing a special helmet.
You'll have plenty of time to ponder these types of things since there's no shortage of sheer hours of gameplay in Heroes V. The bulk of the game consists of six interconnected sequential campaigns, each containing five missions--and most missions take more than a few hours to complete. The campaigns let you spend plenty of time focusing on each of the game's different factions, and they're sprinkled with decent 3D cutscenes that weave an engaging-enough story, which should help keep you going even when the missions get tough or start to drag on in spots. It's also nice getting to carry the same hero character through a given campaign, though you might be a little frustrated at having to rebuild your armies practically from scratch every time. Nevertheless, the campaign missions are generally interesting and well designed, in spite of their occasional rough spots or seeming imbalances.
Don't necessarily expect a gradually gentle increase in difficulty. You'll find that the campaign missions vary quite a bit in terms of challenge. You can choose from three difficulty settings for the computer's artificial intelligence, but a scenario's difficulty often comes from resource constraints and other factors, so the aggressiveness of enemy heroes isn't the only thing to worry about. Overall, the game's AI is pretty good, offering up a respectable challenge under most normal circumstances, but acting rather bone-headed under special circumstances. So no, the computer isn't as unpredictable or as intelligent as a human player could be.
In addition to the campaigns, Heroes V features a number of stand-alone scenarios, each of which is given context with fully voiced 3D cutscenes much like in the campaign missions. You can also opt to play the multiplayer maps against the computer, or against other players in a hot-seat mode, over a LAN, or online through Ubisoft's ubi.com service. Turn-based games such as this don't necessarily lend themselves well to online play, but Heroes V makes a few efforts to speed things up by offering options for quick stat-based combat resolution, timed turns, straight hero-versus-hero duels, and something called "ghost mode." In ghost mode, you get to control ghost units during your opponent's phase, and you'll use these guys to muck things up for everyone else. Ghosts can be used to tamper with enemy units and resources, but more importantly, they give you something to do when you're waiting for your next turn to come around. As for the duel mode, it lets you throw two high-level heroes and their armies against each other, if you're looking for relatively quick multiplayer fix.
Multiplayer still doesn't seem like it'll be the main draw of this game for most players, since even just the few seconds it takes for the computer to resolve its turn in a typical single-player match may test your patience. But these additional options are certainly welcome. Unfortunately, the online multiplayer seems to have some connectivity issues out of the box, as version mismatch errors and disconnects seem to be a real problem (and even if you don't run into those, you'll have to cross your fingers that your opponent will be willing to stick around for an entire match). At least there's really no shortage of content to explore in Heroes V, though on top of the online issues, the game is notably missing a scenario editor for making your own missions.
When you're not exploring the map in Heroes V, which can take a surprisingly long time on one of the bigger maps, you'll be in combat. Again, the combat mostly stays true to the classic Heroes formula by pitting your forces on one side against the enemy forces on the other side. You then trade turns with your opponent and move your creatures based on their initiative. A single creature with a number on it represents a "stack" of that many creatures, which moves and attacks as a single unit. Faster units strike first, but most units on the receiving end get a chance to retaliate (if they survive), forcing you to be careful about which enemies you attack, in what order, and even from which angle (there can be terrain obstacles to take into consideration, as well as your army's luck and morale). As for the heroes, though they can't be attacked directly from their position on the battlefield's sidelines, they still get to participate in battle by striking enemy units, casting spells, or using special abilities when their turn comes up. There are around a hundred creature types overall, and they all have their own unique properties. How well they fight noticeably depends on the powers of any heroes involved in combat, and this makes for some complex and fun-filled battles. Yet these creatures are very simple and easy to control just by pointing and clicking with the mouse and using a few keystrokes.
The combat does have a few minor problems. During castle sieges or when some of the flashier spells are firing off, the frame rate can bog down pretty badly, though this is only a cosmetic issue due to the turn-based nature of the game. What's more of a distraction is the initiative bar scrolling across the bottom of the screen, which generally helps you to see which unit has a turn coming up next. If you accelerate the default speed of the combat animations (after some number of hours, you'll certainly want to), the initiative bar can't quite keep up, so you might get confused as to whose turn is next when you're rapidly clicking through a typical battle.
Another minor-but-noticeable flaw is that the result of each combat action is given away in the initiative bar before the combat action plays out onscreen. For instance, if you were to make 200 peasants attack five arch-devils and only one peasant were to survive the counterattack, you'd see the number of peasants drop from 200 to one in the initiative bar the very instant you clicked to attack the devils. This ruins the surprise of the little combat animation that subsequently plays out, but it's not that big of a deal. One other superficial issue with the combat is that, for as great as many of the 3D units look up close, the camera angle during battle is mostly static and manual control over the camera angle is awkward. You'll end up viewing the battles from a raised, isometric perspective, rarely getting to appreciate the detail that went into all these imaginative creatures. At least you get a nice close-up look at every creature when you double-click on its portrait. Longtime Heroes fans should also appreciate that, despite how pretty the 3D units and castle graphics are, there's still some great-looking hand-drawn artwork in the game.
A fantastic presentation helps make the hours you'll likely spend with this game seem to fly by. In addition to the bright, colorful 3D graphics, the musical score in Heroes V is a real treat. Consisting of orchestral and operatic pieces, the soundtrack does an excellent job of setting the tone for the game and even for each individual faction. The tracks also blend well from one into the next, though in practice, by frequently switching between combat, exploration, and castle management, you'll end up hearing the beginning part of each track over and over. The rest of the sound effects are fine, and while the hammy voice acting during the cutscenes isn't exactly award-worthy, it fits the game's half-serious tone well enough.
Diehard Heroes fans will find other things to nitpick about in this latest game in the series, but taken on its own merits, Heroes of Might and Magic V is a big, deep, lavishly produced turn-based strategy game that's got a lot of great qualities. And that's especially good news considering this series very nearly died off altogether. Skeptical Heroes fans, as well as anyone looking for a fun, long-lasting turn-based strategy game, will likely be pleasantly surprised by this one.