For more than a decade and a half, the Heroes of Might & Magic series has offered players the chance to adventure through fantastical worlds while training heroes, developing towns, and building armies to explore the realm and conquer their enemies. The turn-based titan returns in Might & Magic Heroes VI with the same engrossing and rewarding gameplay that its predecessors served up so well. New creatures, spells, and a lovely new faction help make this visually vibrant game feel fresh, while the restructured skill tree and new dynasty mechanic make hero development more flexible. Progressing through the five lengthy campaigns can drag at times, which is something the new quick combat feature both ameliorates and exacerbates. And the diverse tactical considerations can outpace the game's ability to explain them properly. But the addictive rhythm of building, fighting, and exploring is as powerful as ever, making Might & Magic Heroes VI another compelling entry in this storied series.
Whether you play one of the campaigns, a one-off game, or a multiplayer match, you must choose from one of the five factions. Each faction has a different town in which it can construct unique buildings and recruit seven faction-specific creature types. The medieval Haven, hellish Inferno, and ghoulish Necropolis factions will be instantly familiar to veterans of the series, as might the snarling Stronghold faction introduced in Heroes of Might and Magic V: Tribes of the East. The Sanctuary faction, on the other hand, is entirely new and makes a great addition to the existing roster. The blue and green temples of a Sanctuary town feature the curved eaves of Japanese pagodas and sit atop flowing waterfalls. The creatures also draw on Eastern inspiration, including slithering, four-armed samurais (kenseis) and ethereal, kimono-clad water spirits (snow maidens).
Regardless of which faction you choose, the creatures are all richly detailed and appealing. Some examples include the hulking, skull-fisted jaguar warriors (Stronghold); the floating, feminine radiant glory (Haven); the corpulent, spike-limbed breeder (Inferno); and the desiccated, sphinxian lamasu (Necropolis). The creatures and buildings of a given faction share a strong artistic theme, creating a great sense of cohesion among the ranks and a strong visual opposition between rivals. This artistry also extends to neutral creatures, buildings, and environmental elements that litter each map. The lush forests of Sanctuary regions, the cavernous Inferno depths, and the gloomy plains of Necropolis territory all offer new visual treats for the intrepid explorer.
Into these realms you go, guiding one or more heroes down pathways littered with free-standing creatures, resources, artifacts, and buildings. Though there are only four types of resources (wood, coal, crystal, gold), the variety of artifacts and buildings continues to provide new sights, even hours into the game. Buildings can offer temporary or permanent attribute boosts for your hero, resource-producing mines, challenging arena fights, and a glimpse of distant lands, to name a few. These places can be visited by any hero, and mines can be claimed by a faction. However, rather than simply walking in and flagging a mine as you could previously, you must now control the surrounding area, which requires capturing the town or the fort that controls the region. Defending regions rather than individual mines is a much more logical and viable strategy, though your enemies can still disrupt your production by occupying or sabotaging your mines.
Sabotage requires a special skill, however, which you can find in the expansive and revamped hero ability tree. Rather than making abilities dependent on skills, as in Heroes of Might and Magic V, the ability tree is divided into magic abilities, might abilities, and heroic abilities. Magic abilities (divided into six schools of magic) consist almost entirely of spells that you cast in combat to buff your allies, damage your enemies, or summon new creatures. Might abilities (divided into five categories) include war cries that can be used similarly to spells, as well a broad swath of noncombat abilities that let you, for example, walk farther in a turn, find more resources, confer the benefit of your experience to fellow heroes, or increase many hero attributes. Both might and magic abilities are unlocked with skill points that your heroes earn with each level, and the abilities are divided into three tiers that unlock when your heroes reach a certain level.
The vast majority of abilities are available to all heroes, and choosing one never locks out another. This system gives you more freedom to develop your hero than in past games, allowing you to specialize or generalize at any point along the way. There are restrictions, however. Heroes have an affinity--either might or magic--and they can only access the powerful third-tier abilities within their given affinity (some artifacts are also restricted by affinity). Furthermore, certain factions don't have access to certain schools of magic, and each faction has a unique faction ability that can be periodically used during combat to buff allies (Sanctuary), summon new creatures (Inferno), or resurrect the dead (Necropolis). Heroes can also earn a reputation through their actions (what spells you cast, how you treat fleeing armies) to eventually become aligned with the path of blood or tears. Progress down these paths grants new abilities that are unique to each faction as well.
All of these varying abilities can be daunting, initially. When you add the abilities conferred by dynasty traits and weapons (more on your dynasty shortly), as well as the potential to equip up to 13 artifacts, there is a lot going on with your hero. Though every ability will tell you what it does when you mouse over the icon, some abilities mention status effects or other consequences that are only explained elsewhere. The case with creatures is similar; you can find out about a creature by right-clicking on it, but if you're trying to decide which creature to upgrade first, even the bestiary (accessible only from the main menu) won't tell you the upgraded stats unless you've encountered that creature before. Most of the information you need to make smart decisions in Might & Magic Heroes VI is somewhere in the game, but it's a shame it isn't more easily and universally accessible.
Though the strategic nuances may take some time to discover and master, it's easy to enjoy the game right from the start. A tutorial campaign gets you started with the basics, providing pop-up hints that ease newcomers into the mechanics of exploring, fighting, and building. The town interface has received a visual overhaul but retains the simple tiered structure that makes it easy to learn about each building, evaluate your construction priorities, and plan your future developments. You can drag small buttons from the town menu into the bottom-right corner of the screen to create some helpful shortcuts, but the most helpful streamlining comes in the form of creature recruitment. In previous games, you had to caravan creatures from your various towns to a single point or simply go on a tour of your whole kingdom if you wanted a strong army. In Might & Magic Heroes VI, you can recruit a given type of creature from your kingdom-wide production pool in any town that produces that type of creature. This is an immense time-saver, and it makes the aforementioned forts even more valuable as strategic outposts.
Maintaining a strong army is crucial to your success because victory can only come through combat. The turn-based battles take place on a grid of square tiles. Your armies can be arrayed in up to seven stacks, from a single towering cyclops to hundreds of crossbowmen. Creatures act in order of initiative, though like many attributes, this can be boosted or dampened by a number of factors. Your hero can act during combat as well, and effectively using your abilities is one of the most enjoyable parts of battle. Sure, it's fun to cast implosion and severely damage an enemy stack, but what if you choose to first unleash a war cry that makes your entire army counterattack with renewed vigor? Blinding a powerful stack can take it out of the game while you tackle your lesser foes, but casting a retribution aura will cause each melee attack on your stack to damage the attacker. Wielding your arsenal is a blast, and the opposing hero is likely to feel the same way about his or her own abilities.
Combat gets even deeper when you consider the individual attributes of the creatures on the field. Knowing your own armies is as important as knowing your opponent's capabilities, and you can easily learn about each creature and its unique abilities in the midst of combat. Strategic considerations include who can fly, who can shoot, who should wait to attack later, who benefits most from certain buffs, who is weak to which spells, how many retaliations a creature can deliver, and who is worth resurrecting. The tactical challenges start off simple and get more complex as creatures get more advanced and your enemies get tougher. In a well-matched battle, making smart moves can mean the difference between life and death. In a not-so-well-matched battle, smart moves can help you rout the enemy with zero friendly casualties.
Seeing the creatures take the field gives you another chance to appreciate the excellent character design, especially when a lucky hit results in a close-up view of the action. Tough matches are almost always engaging, but most battles are not very tough. Taking the time to manually stomp out every creature stack that stands in the way of your exploration can be tiresome, and this is when the quick combat option comes in handy. With this option on, all fights are resolved with the single click of a button. If you right-click on an enemy, you can see the threat it poses to you and decide whether the fight will go your way. If you don't like the outcome, you can repeatedly play it manually until you do (just once in multiplayer), though the AI usually does a good job of battling on your behalf.
Quick combat is a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it allows you to skip tedious combat and progress more quickly through a given game. Players who prefer the noncombative aspects of the game can play almost the entire game without fighting. Though you may be tempted to delegate combat to the AI, fighting is one of the most appealing elements of Might & Magic Heroes VI. Relying on quick combat can drain much of the excitement out of the action, making you feel more like a risk-management assessor than a powerful adventurer.
It's best to use this feature in moderation, especially during the lengthy campaigns. Each of the five factions has a multi-mission story arc to follow that happens more or less concurrently with the others. They follow the Duke of Griffin's children who have been scattered throughout the realm of Ashan. Though they take place in the same realm as previous games, the stories here are new and varied. Following twin siblings on their divergent journeys into the Inferno and Necropolis worlds provides a different narrative experience than joining their brother's righteous Haven crusade. The stories are serviceable and feature some thoughtful moments, along with some dull filler, and the voice acting is similarly hit or miss. Intermittent cutscenes add some nice context, and on the whole, these campaigns feel more varied and well-developed than previous campaigns in the series.
You can also play a single-player or multiplayer custom game on any of the 14 skirmish maps with up to eight players. Human turns take much longer than AI turns, naturally, and though you can impose time limits if you host a game, multiplayer matches still take many hours to complete. You'll want to find opponents who are on the same page as you in terms of time commitment and play frequency (matches can be saved and reloaded at a later time) because joining a random game often results in opponents quitting early. Fortunately, Might & Magic Heroes VI features Skype integration and a friends list to help you connect with friends, and there's always the tried-and-true local hotseat play. If you want a shorter contest, you can compete in a one-off battle with a preset army against an opponent. These duels are a great way to get a quick combat fix without the investment of having spent time and resources building up your army.
Be warned, though: Before you challenge anyone to an online match, you need to spend some time setting up your dynasty. Here, you can create and edit heroes to use in your online play, assigning ability points, dynasty traits, and dynasty weapons. These ability points are crucial in one-on-one duels because if you haven't assigned them, your opponent will outclass you with spells and abilities. Dynasty weapons and traits offer smaller bonuses, but they can also be used in single-player. The weapons gain experience as you use them, leveling up and conferring bonus abilities that persist across modes. There are also a lot of achievements that chronicle your successes and earn you currency that you can spend by unlocking things (extra heroes, dynasty gear, online titles) in the altar of wishes.
Whether you're embarking on an epic contest with friends or adventuring through the dozens and dozens of hours of campaigns, Might & Magic Heroes VI is very entertaining. The appeal of Heroes games has always come from the three pillars of exploration, development, and combat, and the action is in fine form here. Beautiful new lands and creatures provide a welcoming world to explore, streamlined development makes it a pleasure to build up your towns and heroes, and tactically rich combat fills your fights with potential. Though the name may have changed, the allure is the same, and Might & Magic Heroes VI is bound to entice both veterans and newcomers alike.