The Heroes of Might and Magic franchise had utilized the gamut of fantastical creatures that had appeared in works of entertainment so far in order to create a sophisticated turn-based strategy game. The third entry in the franchise intends to do more of the same, only with enhanced aesthetics and more refinements to the gameplay.
The Heroes of Might and Magic franchise (at least the original one) was known for its expansive lore and background, and the third game intends to build on that.
The backstory concerns a fantastical world populated by kingdoms and empires both virtuous and vile (with a few being somewhere in between). Two particular kingdoms that had joined in a union via the marriage of their members of royalty had been recently left in upheaval.
The kingdom that was founded by the Ironfist dynasty found itself missing a king who had mysteriously disappeared, leaving its queen to reign. To compound matters further, the kingdom that this queen had belonged to also lost its ruling male monarch, albeit by deadly treachery.
Therefore, this entry in the series is set within the now-anarchic kingdom of Erathia, with Queen Catherine Gryphonheart as the main protagonist who attempts to restore order in her homeland.
Unlike the previous title, where there are two opposing campaigns (each belonging to a faction that opposes the other), there are many more for this entry. Just about every playable faction in the game gets to have their own campaign, albeit that they still share the same main protagonist(s) and main antagonist(s), though the side characters change for each subsequent tale.
The story in the game appears to be of satisfactory caliber to this reviewer, but the main purpose of the campaigns is to introduce to the player the nuances of each subsequent faction. Every preceding campaign may have given the player a taste of how the factions that are not in play feel like , but the campaigns associated with them are intended to familiarize the player with these factions in an in-depth, hands-on manner.
However, the game does not exactly perform this well. The missions in the campaign often leave the player on his/her lonesome to deal with whatever obstacles that had been placed in the missions, with few hints, if any, on what the player should best do.
Fortunately, for missions with time limits (i.e. they have to be completed within a certain number of turns), their maps often have signboards or locations that when reached will trigger messages that inform the player of what to do, though there isn't any way for the player to conveniently re-examine whatever information that has been revealed thus far during such missions or any other for that matter.
Like the stories in the previous titles, they are likely not to be able to impress players easily.
Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest reason that a player may have in playing this game is the sheer number of fantastical factions in this game, followed by its interestingly peculiar storybook aesthetics.
The factions are numbered at a staggering eight, more than that in the previous title. They are loosely categorized into three alignments: "good", "neutral" and "evil". These alignments actually matter during gameplay, as will be explained later in a more relevant circumstance, but generally, the designs of the units available to any faction are intended to give them the same functions as those of units in other factions.
Every faction will have a cheap low-tier unit that can be recruited in the dozens, if not hundreds, quite easily and quickly in order to give each army a "meat-shield" division. Every faction also generally has at least one unit that can cover distances quickly to get at vulnerable points in the opposing army, and at least one unit that can circumvent the usual rules of maneuvering around the battlefield (and this usually occurs via flight). There is also at least one unit with a ranged attack for each faction. To conclude their unit designs, any faction will have a powerful top-tier unit that is exceptionally devastating even in very small numbers.
This general approach to the design of the units of different factions had worked well before, and it still works in this entry.
Following the tradition of Heroes of Might and Magic, the armies are raised (mainly) at cities. Each city will be aligned to a certain faction, so if the player wishes to raise an army of a certain sort, he/she has to capture such a city. Regardless of the factional allegiance, every city requires resources to be developed. Players can initially only place a few basic buildings, such as the dwellings for the lowest-tiered units. In order to gain access to more expensive buildings that will unlock units of higher tiers, the player will have to upgrade the administrative building of the city.
Heroes of Might and Magic III follows a trend in game design that started in the previous title, and this trend is to have a city of a certain faction being able to build unique non-unit-producing structures, instead of the usual utilitarian buildings like taverns and wells. For example, the Necropolis can have buildings which can convert units of other factions into undead ones (which can a bit gruesome to imagine, if one considers that these formerly living units would willingly march into such buildings).
Also following a trend that started in the previous title, creature dwellings can be upgraded to produce upgraded versions of said units. However, unlike the previous title, upgrades do not mainly just bolster the statistical capabilities of the affected units; most of the upgraded units in this entry have special traits that open up new tactical possibilities. For example, the Tower faction's meat-shield unit, which is the Gremlin, can initially only use its iron-ball shackles as a flail of sorts. Once upgraded to the Master Gremlin, it gains a ranged attack by throwing its now-detached iron-ball, changing the way that the player usually uses this meat-shield unit.
These significant differences in the capabilities of default and upgraded units certainly enrich the gameplay in this game, namely that of the battles.
Like in the previous titles, cities have to be developed by investing resources in them; there are still the usual seven types of resources for veterans to worry about.
With the addition of more factions and the overhauling of old ones, the resources needed to advance now vary quite wildly from one faction to the next. This adds some additional factors to consider when selecting the appropriate build strategies; the player may not have the needed resources nearby his/her settlements to raise certain buildings.
This additional complexity would be much welcome if there had been greater allowance at exploiting it for the purpose of planning a player's progress. For example, the maps in the game could have started with a less opaque fog-of-war so that the player will be able to see where the resource nodes are. However, the fog-of-war is initially solidly thick; short of having memorized the layout of the map by either having played it repeatedly or looking it up via the map editor, there is no way to know about the locations of the resource nodes without sending dispensable Heroes to scout them out.
This can lead to certain defeat if the player has the misfortune of having sent scouts in the direction of nodes that could not be easily claimed, thus wasting a lot of turns early on in a session that could have been used to capture easier resource nodes. This problem had been prevalent in earlier games, but it is even more acute now that certain low-tiered buildings require resources that usually higher-tiered buildings need.
To somewhat ease this problem of scarcity of specific resources, the developers have introduced the Resource Silo building to every faction. This building generates a single unit of a rare resource every turn, and its type is usually the sort that the faction's particular city sorely needs. This is not a very elegant solution; practically, it confers too little to be of much help to any build strategy, and thematically, how it generates the resource is inexplicable, making it feel like an expediently included game design.
A new introduction to the series that is not so hastily thought out however is the addition of the Grail artifact. If a map has one (and it can ever only have one), players can attempt to piece together treasure maps that they gain from Grail Obelisks (whose only function is to provide the map pieces) and then proceed to dig up the Grail artifact (but only after all map pieces have been gained; the scripts that trigger the obtaining of the artifact will not work otherwise).
Returning the Grail to a city of any particular faction gives the owning player an opportunity to build a special structure, which will confer bonuses that are unique to that faction. These bonuses are very powerful and are often practically game-enders, so this gives another way for players to end matches that would drag on if progress happens to stalemate.
If there is any flaw to be had with this system, it is that Heroes have access to the "Dig" action that is pretty much useless for nothing else other than digging up the Grail (unless the map in play contains items that had been deliberately designed into it as buried treasure).
The Heroes, who will be the ones to lead the player's armies and propagate his/her conquest of the World map, have their functions remained unchanged in this entry. They still gain experience and subsequently levels, gather and equip all sorts of artifacts, etc. Only Heroes who are capable of casting spells can actively and effectively affect the outcome of the battle, as is usual.
However, there are new skills to be had, as well as overhauls of old ones (and removal of a few that had become obsolete). Heroes now have Specialties, which practically give them a free secondary skill and boost its effects. There are also new skills that serve to empower heroes further, such as Magic proficiency in one of the four elemental schools of spells. Indeed, one of the joys of this franchise, which is watching Heroes grow more powerful, is even more enhanced in this entry.
The repertoire of spells available to spell-casting heroes has also been expanded. Most of the new additions are de-buffing and buffing spells that are intended to be used on stacks of units that otherwise cannot be affected much by spells that damage or heal them. These new spells fill a gap that had been in the series for the past few games: access to effective means to deal with seemingly unstoppable stacks of enemy units.
There is also a new category of units, called War Machines, whose effectiveness is mainly derived from the Hero/Heroine that has them. Previously, there is only the Catapult, which was ever only used in sieges. Now, there are three other machines that will always come in play in any battle, each of which is intended to aid the battle in a way that the Hero or his/her army may not.
However, the effectiveness of War Machines, and the skills associated with them, only seem to matter in battles involving small- to medium-sized armies. In grand battles, these contribute too little.
Moving on to other game mechanics, this entry in the franchise still uses two major and different gameplay screens: the 'World' map screen and the Battle screen.
The World map screen still functions much like the ones in previous games: players move Heroes around the map, collecting resources and removing opposing armies/warbands (through battle, scaring them off or absorbing them into the player's own armies), capturing resource nodes and other buildings that confer benefits on the player's empire, visiting 'neutral' structures that offer services either for free (usually for that turn only) or in return for monetary fees or resources.
The major difference this time around is that there is the addition of another "layer" to the World map. In previous titles, the World map usually consists of a map that is only ever explored on the surface. This entry now has a functioning underground portion, which can be entered via gateways or caves that connect the surface and underworld together.
This underworld layer is for all purposes a re-skin of the surface world. Many structures, including cities, that can exist on the surface can also exist underground, though either layer has buildings that are unique to it (e.g. tower-like structures are usually located on the surface). However, there is a caveat here: player-controlled armies usually have limited sight range through the fog-of-war when traveling underground, making this underworld layer much harder to scout and monitor.
This, of course, opens up the strategic possibilities of being able to sneak armies past those of enemies, especially in multiplayer matches.
However, there appears to be some technical hurdles in switching between the surface and the underworld; the game practically needs to reload either that is to be viewed when the player switches from one to the other.
The other screen is of course the Battle screen, where two opposing armies fight with each other in an attempt to eradicate the other or force the other to flee/surrender.
The playing grid would appear not to have changed much; armies still duke it out across relatively open terrain, units can attack in one (or more) of eight directions, sieges of cities still have one army deploying behind walls and the other outside. There are still a few changes, such as objects that appear to give cover from enemy fire actually doing so more effectively than before in previous games.
Otherwise, the functional designs of battlefields have remained unaltered. After all, it appears to be quite satisfactory in accommodating battles between two armies already.
The actual entertainment value of participating in battles come from watching the statistics, special abilities and traits of each unit, and the number in its stack, as well as the capabilities of the Heroes commanding the armies come into play.
For example, any Hero/Heroine with the new Tactics skill is able to place his/her unit stacks anywhere within a deployment zone (the size of which is dependent on the efficacy of his/her Tactics) - preferably at locations advantageous to the respective units.
There is also the timely casting of spells that may change the tide of battle. With so many new spells that are more effective on dangerously huge stacks, spell-casting has greater meaning in battle now (though it also rendered warrior-type Heroes much less useful than those that can cast spells).
As mentioned earlier, units have statistics and special properties which give them all varying values and purposes on the battlefield. Having them work effectively with each other against the opposition can be quite fun; the player may get satisfaction from figuring out how best to handle an opposing stack and successfully getting rid of it with acceptable losses, with extra joy to be had if a stroke of luck happened to sweeten the success that had been gained.
Speaking of luck, there are probabilities involved in this game. Each unit type has a range of damage that it can do, and this range can vary wildly from one unit to the next. This is, of course, not a new game design.
Two other major implementations of probability-based features in battle - and that have been in the series for a while - are the systems of morale and luck.
Morale still determines how many times a player may be allowed to make a move with a unit that has a morale statistic. This feature had been around in previous games, but it has a few new sources of complexity in this game.
For example, the aforementioned factional alignments influence the level of morale in armies with units of mixed factions. Units from diametrically opposed factions suffer heavier penalties to morale in particular. A mismatch between the Hero/Heroine type leading the army and the units will also cause a dip in morale. There are racial hatreds that affect morale, such as Dragons and Giants despising each other. There are also spells that can directly affect morale in this game too.
Luck remains a modifier on the damage output of a unit that has this statistic (all units do, in fact), though this feature does not appear to have benefited from any new innovations.
While the implementations of probability-dependent features may not enamour players who have an aversion towards luck-dependent gameplay, the influence of these features are not so great in battles such that they overshadow factors that are more in the control of the player, e.g. the kinds of units that have been brought into battle, the positioning and maneuvering of units and the Heroic abilities in use. This is even less so in this entry, due to the inclusion of units with special traits that are more reliable to exploit than luck-dependent factors.
The graphical designs in this game are still dependent on 2-D sprites and backgrounds, but the quality of the sets of sprites and backdrops for this entry is distinctly greater than that of the previous game. Animations appear far smoother and transitions from frame to frame are less jarring this time around. There are also richer colours to admire.
The showpieces in this game are the highest-tiered creatures of all factions, as they are exceptionally detailed (which is possible due to their large models after all). Of course, this also means that the aesthetic appeal of the lower-tiered units would feel lacking as a result, but they were not too disappointing to look at.
The World Map has also seen upgrades since the last title in the franchise. Sparkling things like sacks of gold and rare resources exceptionally sparkle now, giving them much welcome contrast that makes them stand out from the rest of the map more. Many interactive buildings in the World Map are now animated, so that players would know that something interesting lies around the corner if it happens to be moving. The game designers also have been very liberal with the colour choices, giving the graphics even more of a storybook charm than was possible in previous games without looking too gaudy.
The town screens are works of art that are more impressive than the rest of the game's visual aesthetics. They are effectively static screens, but these are not just mere paintings. The player will be able to see that the placement of buildings have been planned well such that the addition of new buildings to a settlement will not look out-of-place (except the Resource Silo, which never felt like it belonged anywhere regardless of the type of settlement).
With the graphics and gameplay having been refined as such, it therefore comes as a bit of a disappointment that the sound department has not been lavished with the same amount of attention.
Many of the sound effects for the units in the game are used for more than just one creature. For example, creatures that breathe fire tend to have the same fire-breathing sound effects. The typical noises for the clashing of metal against metal is even more heavily used. The sound effects that accompany spells are generally split into categories that go along elemental divisions.
Fortunately the music does not have the same lack of luster as the sound effects. There are plenty of orchestral soundtracks in the game that accentuate town screens and battles, and certain neutral buildings even have their own soundtracks when centered on in the World Map. Going near settlements will play the soundtracks associated with the settlements, albeit in a more muted manner like they are farther away.
Presentation-wise, this entry in the franchise offers some of the best implementation of old-school 2-D sprite-based graphics and music that is associated with themes of fantasy.
Those who are especially attracted to the art-style of this game may find its map editor to be a great delight, as it allows for the creation of maps with great amounts of detail. The map editor also has tools for the creation of script triggers and can also string together maps to create a campaign.
The multiplayer in this game is still very much like that in the previous game: players take turns to play their part in a match involving the standard game modes. The player whose turn has not yet arrived is still not able to do anything that can affect the match directly, but this title does allow the player to look around the map and check scoreboards to keep themselves updated with the progress of their opponents and/or allies (though the fog-of-war still limits vision).
In conclusion, Heroes of Might and Magic III has promised to be an enhanced version of the previous game and to offer more of what had made the previous games so attractive. It fulfills these promises very satisfactorily.