Heroes of Might and Magic V Hands-On: Single- and Multiplayer, Adventuring, and Duels

We finally get our hands on the single-player and multiplayer options in next game in this beloved PC strategy series.

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Is there anything more heroic than traveling across the land in search of foul villains and fabulous treasures? Maybe, but later this year, would-be heroes will be able to jump back in the saddle and conquer the countryside with Heroes of Might and Magic V. The next chapter in the long-running strategy series will attempt to faithfully re-create and enhance its accessible but enthralling gameplay. If you've been a fan of the series for a while, you might have found the new game to be perplexing, considering that Heroes V is being developed by a completely new team of developers (Russian studio Nival Interactive with production assistance from publisher Ubisoft), and because it's using fully 3D graphics for a series that has traditionally used 2D renders or hand-drawn sprites. We've had a chance to get up close and personal with the game, and we're pleased to report that the Heroes series doesn't seem to have lost a step. The new game will add intriguing new features that could make the classic Heroes formula even better, and more addictive, than ever.

The fiery denizens of the 'inferno' town return for a new adventure.
The fiery denizens of the 'inferno' town return for a new adventure.

At its core, Heroes V is built on a refined version of the same classic gameplay that fans have come to know and love. As Ubisoft marketing manager Guillaume de Butler explains, the team has been "very focused on creating a great Heroes game, using the very popular Heroes III as a model." This is good news for Heroes fans (many of whom consider the third game to have been the best in the series so far), and from what we can tell, the new game has all the makings of being a great successor to Heroes III. You'll still play the game as a disembodied lord of the land who belongs to one of six different factions, each of which can build armies by recruiting different stables of fantastic creatures. You'll explore and conquer all you survey by hiring hero characters, who will either be "might" heroes that specialize in fighting battles, or "magic" heroes, who are experts in the use of sorcery. These heroes will still gain experience through battle or by recovering treasures, and each time your heroes gain experience levels, they'll gain new and appropriate skills from an updated list...minus the crucially important "tactics" skill that used to let players arrange their armies on the battlefield before the fight actually began.

Why can't individual heroes learn tactics anymore? Because the skill is now an inherent part of all battles, so all heroes essentially have this ability before any fight. This addition is one of only a few changes that are being made to the Heroes V tactical combat system. Though both you and your enemies will still be able to recruit troops that can use ranged attacks (such as the "haven" town's archers), these ranged troops won't suffer a damage penalty when firing from all the way across the battlefield. Also, even though heroes won't actually take the field like they did in Heroes IV, they'll still be able to stand on the sidelines and cast magic spells, just like in the previous Heroes games. "Might" heroes will also be able to charge onto the field to deliver a direct attack of their own (presumably, this ability was added so that now both types of heroes can take direct action in battle, and not just "magic" heroes with spells).

Combat itself will have a number of minor enhancements. The combat system will continue to be based on "initiative"--that is, a sequence of turns in which the fastest creatures get to move and attack first, followed by slower ones. Heroes V will now also display a series of iconic portraits for each unit at the bottom of the screen that clearly shows which critter is up next.

Heroes V will still pit armies of fantastical critters against each other in battle.
Heroes V will still pit armies of fantastical critters against each other in battle.

Otherwise, the tactical combat seems very similar to that of Heroes III, which, as most Heroes fans will tell you, is absolutely, positively not a bad thing. Battles take place on a large field divided into tiles on which the ranks of each army sit, and individual units can advance on enemy units and do battle with them, exchanging hits and dealing damage until one side takes enough damage to be wiped out. Since this is a Heroes game, armies can and will consist of knights in shining armor, as well as fantastical creatures like demons, dragons, and undead thralls. You'll be able to quickly tell at a glance exactly how much health each unit on the battlefield has, how much damage each can deal, how quickly each can move, and which special abilities they possess. You can expect to see several classic creature abilities make their return in Heroes V. For instance, sprite units, while still incredibly weak, are still extremely fast and, when they're on the offensive, they can't be counterattacked.

A Strategic Quest

The adventure elements also seem more or less intact from previous games, with a few minor enhancements. Heroes V is, like the other games in the series, turn-based, and like in previous games, each turn takes a day of game time. Like in Heroes III, you'll be able to command your hero to cover a certain amount of ground each day, except that the ground, and the rest of the environment, is rendered in lush and colorful 3D graphics. The 3D graphics aren't just for show, either. As de Butler explains, even though the most useful view of the adventure map will be a zoomed-out perspective that lets you see as much of the area (and treasures and resource mills you can capture) as possible, you'll still want to zoom in your view occasionally to discover hidden treasure caches that might be concealed under trees or other objects that will block out your view from afar.

You'll be able to lay claim to everything you see on the adventure map, as long as you can back up that claim with enough griffins.
You'll be able to lay claim to everything you see on the adventure map, as long as you can back up that claim with enough griffins.

In our time with the adventure map, we got the impression that the team truly did look to Heroes III for inspiration, as there are still random treasures guarded by squads of neutral monsters, as well as learning stones that give experience bonuses, among other fixtures. Yet the development team has also added one new feature--color-coded "trails" that individual hero characters will leave in their wake. These trails will not only indicate at a glance what sort of hero left them (heroes of different factions will leave different trails), but they'll also grow larger and more distinct when left by more-powerful heroes. In the game, you'll be able to use these trails as a good indicator for which enemy faction has been claiming your territory, and whether or not you stand a chance of defeating the interlopers.

And just like in previous games in the series, you'll build your empire out of a single castle, which you can expand by building specific upgrades that will either produce new minions for your armies or expand your town in other ways, such as improving its output of gold or building out a mage's tower to research more-powerful spells for your heroes. Other than an attractive graphical overhaul that puts your entire town in 3D, this system seems largely unchanged in Heroes V. You'll still be able to use an in-game quick reference to view which structures you've built and which you haven't, as well as which basic structures must be built before you can go on to advanced structures.

Yet even though much of the Heroes formula will remain intact, Nival and Ubisoft are making a few other changes that should hopefully be for the better. For starters, Heroes V will have an entirely new story with all-new characters, and it will take place in an entirely new world. The teams apparently came to this decision after looking back at the series' history, which was tied both to previous Heroes games and to the previous Might & Magic role-playing games. Though these classic series did offer a great deal of history and interesting characters, the teams apparently felt that the games jumped around too much between different worlds and characters. Heroes V will be the first game that takes place in this new world, followed by the Source-engine-powered action game, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, which will take place some 20 years after the events in Heroes V.

In addition, the development teams have decided to enhance Heroes V's multiplayer options. No, this doesn't mean they're taking anything away--the game will still offer Internet, LAN, and hotseat options for those faithful players, as well as a new simultaneous-turns option, similar to the Warlords and Age of Wonders series.

However, the game will also feature two entirely new multiplayer modes, one of which is designed to let you sit down and play a game of Heroes in no more than half an hour. The duel mode will focus exclusively on tactical battles, and it will let you choose from a set of preconfigured armies with a certain makeup of different units, after which you can go at it in head-to-head multiplayer. Each of these armies will be fine-tuned to provide an interesting, but balanced, side to play. We tried out our own duel, and found it to be similar to challenging preconfigured chess games, only slightly faster with 100 percent more fire-breathing dragons.

You can play as a sneaky, treasure-stealing ghost in Heroes V's new multiplayer modes.
You can play as a sneaky, treasure-stealing ghost in Heroes V's new multiplayer modes.

The second new multiplayer mode, which we were unfortunately not able to see, will be called "ghost," and it will take place like a normal multiplayer game, except that once you've finished your turn, and you're waiting for your opponent to move, you'll actually be able to control invisible "ghost" units that can spy on your opponent, steal his treasures and resources, and even fight in battles (though ghosts won't be able to gain experience levels and skills in the same way heroes do). Both multiplayer modes seem very intriguing and should make the prospect of playing Heroes' multiplayer--traditionally the domain of fanatical players willing to devote days and weeks on end to going back and forth between turns--much more appealing to just about anyone.

Considering the series' pedigree, the next Heroes of Might and Magic game has a lot to live up to. But from what we've seen, the game is on the right track. If all the pieces come together, Heroes V will offer all the classic gameplay you've come to expect from the series, plus exciting new features that will be appealing to both beginners and veterans who are looking for something new. The game is scheduled for release later this year. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates.

[Editor's Note 1/25/06 - This story previously suggested that Heroes V's initiative system was significantly different from that of Heroes III, when in fact, it is not. GameSpot regrets the error.]

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