New World Computing is always looking for ways to reinvigorate its hallmark franchise, Might of Magic, and especially so for the RTS variant of this IP. The second game built on the first by introducing upgradeable units, while the third showed (for better or worse) than the franchise can support a huge number of factions from both perspectives of gameplay and story.
For the fourth entry in the series, the most important change is that the game designers have changed the role of Heroes from mere leaders of armies to an actual unit that participates in battle.
This may seem like an odd decision, considering that said Heroes would be a single person facing off against stacks of dozens if not hundreds of enemy units, but New World Computing has designed them to be quite powerful, even against such odds. Unfortunately, New World Computing has also made changes to the mechanic of gathering armies that when coupled with the mechanic of actual Heroes fighting on the battlefield, would diminish the appeal and fun of building up an army but shift these over to developing Heroes instead.
Before elaborating on the changes in gameplay compared to the previous Heroes of Might and Magic game, the premise and story of the game have to be described.
Heroes of Might and Magic III's story did not exactly end well for everyone in the world of Enroth. In fact, Enroth was annihilated, but not before many of its denizens fled through portals that had mysteriously and conveniently appeared to give them an escape route to another world, called Axeoth, that is mysteriously and conveniently a lot like Enroth.
In a way, the refugees have the opportunity to start anew. Most of the leaders of the factions that were once powerful in Enroth are dead or missing, giving those who had served under them a chance to rise to prominence (as well as give New World Computing an opportunity to introduce new characters). However, with the loss of the previous generation of leaders, new problems also arose in the form of multiple claimants to the leadership of the various factions among the refugees and the new orders/governments that arose from the remnants of these. The player will take on the role of characters who are vying for control of leadership, for reasons that are supposedly just or otherwise, in several campaigns.
It is not immediately apparent whether Axeoth already has indigenous populations of its own or not; the game hardly if not never answers this question and the story is also set quite a long time after the destruction of Enroth, when the refugees had more or less settled their new world and practically made Axeoth a(n) (expedient) mirror reflection of Enroth, given how similar both worlds are.
There would be seem to be a lost opportunity to portray conflicts between the refugees and any indigenous populations, but considering that the main theme of this game has to do with the struggle to survive and rebuild after an apocalyptic event, this is really a minor complaint.
Much like the previous games, the story mode of the game offers several campaigns, each concerning the canonical plight of one of the factions in the game and the struggle of the protagonist that would eventually lead the faction. Their respective quests would have been entertaining to follow, if not for the story mode's exceptional dependence on text-laden screens that pop up during the start of a level, many points in the level and the end of the level.
Of course, some of them can be well-written, but skeptical players would point out that completing objectives in missions and reaching pivotal points in the story would be rewarded with text and more text, which may not seem significant to some. The previous games had animated cutscenes with voice-overs for critical points in their stories, but this fourth entry in the series has a dearth of these. Players with little patience - or ability - to read would be hardly satisfied by the story mode.
As for the campaign missions, a lot of them have seemingly cookie-cutter objectives; virtually all of them had appeared in the campaign missions in previous games. These range from the usual town/city-capturing and destruction of an enemy army or warband to collection of certain amounts of resources, retrieval of artifacts and getting certain Heroes to certain locations. Considering how mundane that these goals can be, having text pop-ups as a reward can seem underwhelming.
The gameplay would have more than made up for the potential dreariness of the story campaigns, if not for certain missteps that diluted the signature aspects of gameplay that the series had been known for. These will be elaborated on later in the appropriate segments of this review.
There are six factions in the game, some of which would be familiar to veterans of the series. Each of these factions has access to their own units, heroes and cities, much like the factions in the previous games.
The performance of Units is still governed by statistics such as Health, Damage, Attack, Defence, Speed and Movement, among other factors that are not as common as these. The calculations that use these statistics still work very much in the same way, e.g. the Attack rating of the attacker is divided by the target's Defence rating when determining the multiplier for effective Damage dealt. Generally, the higher these are, the more powerful these units are in combat. Of course, the more powerful ones are balanced with generally costlier recruitment and slower repopulation rates in their dwellings.
However, there are very important changes in the mechanic of fielding units in armies now. There are no longer any upgraded variants of units - and thus any upgraded variants of buildings that allow their recruitment as well. There are also only four tiers of units for any faction now, which is a lower number than that in the previous game. This can be disappointing to a series veteran who had been looking forward to making build strategies oriented around building the right buildings and choosing the right unit upgrades.
In addition, a city of any faction can no longer build all the buildings and recruit all the units associated with that faction. Instead, for any tier of unit-producing buildings, there are two mutually exclusive options that the player can take; building one will unlock one of two types of units of that tier while permanently preventing the other from being generated in that city for recruitment. There is no way to undo this decision, apparently to prevent the player from recruiting the other unit without resorting to another city as a source. To somewhat compensate for the lack of variety in units, units now repopulate on a daily basis instead of weekly.
This does encourage the player to go after other cities to be able to have a varied army, but not all official maps appear to have been designed to contain an opportunity to get another city early - if ever. In such maps, where the player is not able to obtain multiple cities easily, he/she would have to depend more on his/her Heroes, which will further exacerbate a consequence of the redesign of Heroes (which will be elaborated on later).
The redesign of the mechanic of units also allows the developers to redesign the layout of settlements. Whereas the previous games had most of the space in a settlement dedicated to creature dwellings, the mutually exclusive options that have been mentioned earlier allowed the game designers to include buildings that benefit the Hero units in their stead. For example, the Haven faction has the Order of Paladins building, which sells items like Plate Mail (an armor item) and Potions of Restoration (i.e. healing potions) and provides training for Heroes in secondary skills like Healing and Mirth (more on skills later).
Such a redesign also happens to further emphasize the power and versatility of Hero units, for better or worse.
Developing settlements, raising armies and purchasing items and training require the expenditure of resources, the whole set of which is not much different from the one in the previous games, such as the usual gold, wood, ore and exotic resources like gems and sulphur. The player still obtains these resources from loose caches that are on the map (and often guarded by armies of unaligned critters) and resource nodes like mines and lumber mills that generate resources on a daily basis.
It has to be noted here too that there are no more resource nodes that require the player to send heroes over to collect resources that they have accumulated over the week, such as windmills and water mills. Instead, all resource nodes, including those that create randomized resources like the aforementioned mills, send their resources automatically into the player's accounts.
The resourcing system still works and works well, perhaps even better with the minor tweak mentioned above. However, the greater emphasis on Heroes means that the resources can be used less on armies than in the previous games but instead used to develop Heroes; considering how powerful well-developed Heroes can be, a shrewd player would be doing this quite often.
As in the previous games, the player has to form armies, and these will be needed to achieve success in the scenario in play. However, unlike the previous games, armies can be formed without heroes at all. However, armies without heroes are incapable of doing certain tasks that those that have heroes can, such as capturing settlements and purchasing/carrying items.
Like in the previous games, armies have limited allowances of movement to be expended per turn to cover ground. This movement is now dependent on the unit type with the lowest movement rating in any army. This design can be conveniently used to create armies that are solely composed of a few number of very fast unit types to perform mundane things, like collecting loose resources and claiming resource nodes.
A new game mechanic that would be tremendously welcome is the Caravan system. Settlements can now build Caravan buildings that allow them to exchange units and heroes very quickly between them without the need for actual armies being moved around the map. In addition, it also allows settlements to receive units from creature dwellings that are not located in the settlement (i.e. they occur on the main map). The times for transits between settlements are calculated using land paths that have been designated between these during the design of the map in play, as well as a fixed factor in the form of "high movement rates", as described in the documentation of this mechanic.
This very convenient system would allow the player to gather armies without much micromanagement, or transfer "courier" Heroes (that is, Heroes that ferry around items) to-and-fro settlements to restock the supplies that the front-liners have. There is also a handy Caravan management screen that can be accessed in either the Town/City or World Map screens in order to monitor transfers.
When two armies/warbands clash, combat occurs, as is to be expected in a Heroes of Might and Magic game. Combat still takes place in a 2D-plane, except that the view is now an isometric one, thus giving each unit eight sets of sprites depending on their facing direction. Of course, this is a graphical improvement.
However, the change in the tile design for the battlefield may not be a good one. The hexagon-based tiles for battlefields in the previous game have been replaced with squares. As a result, the representation of the range of ranged attacks is now a bit awkward, as attacks appear to reach further in diagonal directions without range penalties.
By default, the grid for square tiles is visually turned off, which can make gauging difficult (especially for said diagonally directed ranged attacks). The grid can be turned on, but the player would soon realize another issue with the square-tiled design which involves large sprites.
The square tiles are large and can accommodate big sprites, which is certainly to the advantage of visual designs that emphasize the difference in sizes between units and have extra animations that are more elaborate than those that their predecessors have.
However, New World Computing may have gotten carried away with the opportunity to create better sprites: they have created some sprites that are so large (especially for Tier 4 units), they overlap other square tiles. The changes in the cursor is context-sensitive, so a player would find it hard to position a unit stack in these overlapped tiles instead of having the stack does something to the stacks represented by these large sprites. This issue also extends to sprites of large terrain objects.
There are buttons for forcing the cursor to go into certain modes, but the issue of large sprites overlapping tiles will continue to be an annoyance throughout the game's combat mode, albeit a minor one. Otherwise, combat still plays very much like the previous Heroes games, satisfactorily enough.
Another big change in combat involves the retaliation mechanic. In previous games, the attacking unit stack has the advantage of being able to do damage first before the attacked unit can retaliate, thus causing the latter to lose some damage potential (as well as inflict debuffs) before it is their turn to deal damage. In this entry in the series, the damage done by both stacks are calculated based on their numbers and status before actual damage is inflicted on either stack.
This does appear to make combat appear somewhat fairer and also gives the game designers the opportunity to introduce unit abilities that circumvent this rule (e.g. the First Strike ability that allows the unit to deal damage first), yet it also retracts from the need to plan which enemy stack to hit with which player-owned stack, which is itself an activity that some series veterans would consider a welcome contribution to the complexity of battles.
Another major change is how sieges play out. Walls no longer provide as much protection as they did, as all units can now bring down the gates of walls without the need for siege units like the Catapult. This does make sieges a lot easier for the attacker, but it has also diminished the value of upgrading the defenses of a settlement.
War Machines, as in the siege engines, ammo carts and first-aid tents from the previous game, are also gone from the battlefield, together with the namesake Hero skill that these units benefit from. While this change appears to make battles simpler and remove the criticism of low-level armies with War Machines having an unfair advantage over enemies that do not, it forces armies to depend even more on Heroes for support that the game's units cannot provide themselves.
Having mentioned the overview of the fundamentals of the game, this review will move on to the designs for units of the various factions.
The Haven faction returns to infuse the world of Axeoth with its brand of righteousness and justice. Like the previous games, it has an army consisting of units that portray its tradition of honour and martial valour.
The most notable changes in the Haven faction are the introduction of the Squires and the reassigning of Ballistae as actual army units instead of War Machines.
Squires now serve as the "meat-shield" unit. Their low stats would hint that they are the revamped versions of Peasants, who had the dubious reputation for being one of the worst units to have in a Heroes of Might and Magic game. However, the Squires' ability to stun enemies makes them much more useful than Peasants ever will.
The Ballistae represent the elimination of the War Machine skills from the list of skills that Heroes can have. Instead of being the individual War Machine that they were in previous Heroes of Might and Magic games, they are now recruitable units. This change may or may not be welcome to series veterans, depending on their perception of the Ballista of the previous games. Players who favored the Ballista and War Machine skill as an early-game trump card would not be satisfied with the changes. Yet, those players who have a dim view of these would welcome this change, as the Ballista is now a low-level unit that can be fielded in large numbers instead of being a next-to-useless stand-alone unit for a high-level, late-game army that is facing battle with another.
The Stronghold faction emphasizes brutality and eagerness to do battle over anything else; they also have a dim view of magic (especially more so now that they know that Enroth was destroyed by a magical calamity). Consequently, a lot of their units look crude and are straight-forward in giving battle to their enemies, though many of them also have special abilities and advantages, such as comparatively higher HPs compared to units of other factions of the same tiers.
For better or worse, the Berserker is a Tier 1 unit that is very different from the rest. Being the epitome of the Stronghold faction's barbaric tendencies, the Berserker is a unit that is permanently out of the control of the owning player; this unit also appears to be an experiment of New World Computing's, as there had been no unit that is out of the player's control by default design in the Heroes of Might and Magic series.
Unfortunately, a player whose playstyle depends on having his/her units well under control would realize the reason for the series having nothing like the Berserkers before: they are very unreliable. Of course, they have the advantage of being tougher, more numerous, cheaper and fiercer than most other Tier 1 units, but a shrewd player would find himself/herself eschewing the use of Berserkers because they could not be depended to go after the most optimal target.
The other units would be much more reliable to any player. The Harpies give the Stronghold faction a no-retaliation "ranged-melee" capability. The willful Centaurs have switched their allegiance to the nature-inclined faction of the previous game, now offering high hitpoints and a short-ranged ranged-attack solution to the Stronghold. Nomads reprise the role of the previous game's Wolf Riders, but the bonus of having First Strike.
Returning units for the Stronghold include the Ogre Magi, who is the only source of magic for the player who prefers to have purely Stronghold-themed armies. The Cyclops provides artillery support and is also still a unit that is ideal for both regular and siege combat. Finally, the Thunderbird and Behemoth give the faction tremendous assault prowess.
The Academy faction is mostly the Tower faction from the previous game. However, some of the races in Enroth, in the turmoil of the escape into Axeoth, had realigned themselves. Thus, the Academy's make-up, like the Stronghold, also includes units that were previously not of the faction.
(This is worth noting as these returning units still very much function like their predecessors in the previous games, and thus would affect the balancing designs of the factions concerned - for better or worse.)
The Dwarves are now the meat-shield units of the Academy faction, providing an effective screen for another unit of similarly low physical stature, the Halflings. The Halfings replace the role of the Gremlins in the previous game, but they also have the advantage of being able to do enhanced damage against Tier 4 units, thus making indispensable both early- and late-match (which is a good design).
The Academy's Tier 2 units have the player making a tough choice between having anti-magic and magical capabilities. The Gold Golem gives the player an advantage against an opposing army with a lot of magical de-buffs and direct-damage capabilities. On the other hand, the Archmage gives the player's army additional magical versatility with his spells, though very limited mana and no ranged capability at all make him quite impractical for long battles. Tier 3 gives a similar choice, this time between the assault-oriented Naga and magically-inclined Genie.
The Dragon Golem and Titan are the powerhouses of the Academy. The Dragon Golem is the gift of the technically-minded Dwarfs to this faction, giving it a simile of a dragon that the Academy and its predecessor factions had sorely lacked - or so it seems to be. It isn't a flying unit and doesn't have the ability to breathe flames, which can be disappointing to those who had believed that the Academy faction would be given a flight-capable unit. However, like actual dragons, they are still devastating assault units that have abilities that grant it First Strike always.
The Titan is still the all-rounded melee and ranged power-house that he was in previous games, though he now also has an advantage against units from the Asylum faction in the form of bonuses to his defenses and spell resistance specifically targeted against them. This makes the Titan a hard-counter against the Asylum faction, for better or worse.
If there is a faction that would have generated severe controversy in the fourth entry in the series, it would be the Necropolis. In previous games, this faction had been canonically known to harbour only the Undead. In the aftermath of the exodus to Axeoth, the remnants of the Inferno faction banded together with the Necropolis, resulting in a mish-mash of units that would likely look awkward to many series veterans.
Aesthetics and canonical changes aside, the result would still appear to give the Necropolis functional gameplay balance (though its Tier 1 units appear to be more versatile than the others).
Their Tier 1 units include the Imp, which retains its ability to drain mana from enemy spell-casters and give it to allied spell-casters, especially Heroes. However, unlike its predecessor's, this ability is no longer an ability that automatically triggers when an enemy spell-caster casts a spell (and therefore its victims can prevent their mana from being absorbed as long as they refrain from casting spells). Instead, the Imp will automatically trigger this ability when its turn arrives, if there are enemies with mana reserves on the battlefield. Any stack of Imp can perform this ability and the number of the stack will not influence the amount of mana leeched (thus giving the Necropolis player a potentially useful strategy of splitting up stacks to maximize mana drain), but the amount leeched by each stack is randomized.
Other than this, the Imp would appear to be a rather weak Tier 1 unit, though unlike its more pathetic predecessors, its wings actually give it the capability of Flight now, thus providing the Necropolis with an early-game advantage of mobility in battles.
The Skeleton returns as the Necropolis' main (proverbial) meat-shield; it now also has natural defense bonuses against ranged attacks of all kinds, thus giving it an advantage against enemy armies that are dependent on ranged attacks. (The official description was that this bonus is only supposed to be effective against arrow-based attacks; however, it appears that programming limitations resulted in an all-encompassing advantage that can be considered unfair.)
The Tier 2 units give the player a choice between a traditional (in the Heroes of Might and Magic series) Undead unit and a Demonic one. The Ghost from the second entry in the series returns (now fully aligned with the Necropolis faction), retaining its flight (and Undead) capabilities. It has lost its ability to convert slain enemies into more Ghosts (which was considered by some to be an overpowered ability), but in return for this loss, the Ghost has obtained the always-active ability of immaterial form, which increases its defenses naturally and makes it immune to spells that would have locked down otherwise corporeal units. It also has a chance to age the target unit (if it is mortal), generally making the latter slower and weaker.
The Cerberus retains its ability to attack all enemies in an arc in front of it, as well as its no-retaliation bonus. It is otherwise not tremendously anymore different from its predecessors in previous games.
Tier 3 is where the Necropolis faction's first ranged unit can be found, though the alternative is not a ranged unit.
The Venom Spawn is the only unit with ranged attacks in the Necropolis faction, and is also a relatively new unit to the series. For a Tier 3 unit, it is not exactly an overwhelmingly powerful ranged unit, but it does have the bonus of being able to poison enemy targets (if they can be poisoned), causing additional damage every turn. It also has a lot of hitpoints for a Tier 3, making the Venom Spawn a great unit for battles of attrition.
The Vampire returns, looking tremendously more dapper than his Nosferatu-inspired predecessor (but no less inhuman and monstrous). Otherwise, he retains the ability to convert damage that he has dealt on enemies into health replenishments and even resurrection opportunities for his own stack.
The Bone Dragon returns, still the Undead's way of mocking the otherwise regal creatures that are dragons. Like the Skeleton, it has enhanced defense against ranged attacks. The all-encompassing de-buff to the enemy army's morale that its predecessor has is gone, but is replaced with the ability to cause the targeted enemy stack to not just forfeit its retaliatory attack, but also run away a short distance from the Bone Dragon. This makes the Bone Dragon a potent assault unit, though its speed is not as good as other Tier 4 units.
The Devil returns in this game, not the worse for wear (as far as he would be concerned) despite the entropic effect of aligning himself with the Undead. He returns with his ability to teleport around the battlefield, circumventing any terrain-based defenses that the enemy has. He no longer has the de-buff on the enemy army's luck, but has a more practical substitute power instead: he can summon Ice Demons, which act as additional units in battle that augment the numbers of the Necropolis army (and further bolstering the perception of it being an army that is geared for attrition strategies). He also has resistance bonuses against units from the Haven faction, making him a hard-counter against Haven armies.
In the aftermath of the exodus, there are malignant creatures and misfits that could not find refuge in other factions due to their very nature. These found protection under the Asylum faction, which promptly exploited their tendency to do evil to oppose the others. Like the Necropolis faction, they are composed of creatures that would have made for a seemingly shaky alliance at best.
At Tier 1, there are the Bandits and Orcs. Being the sneaky scoundrels that they are, Bandits are invisible to enemy armies that comprise of low-level units and Heroes who lack advanced Scouting skills. This can be useful in multiplayer, where keeping an eye on enemies without them realizing so or having unseen unit stacks in an army can be a great advantage. However, this ability is quite useless in the single-player campaigns. Also, without this ability, they are otherwise very unremarkable Tier 1 units.
The Orcs now look more like boar-men than the greenskins that they were; this can be off-putting to some series veterans. Other than this change, they remain ranged units which can still engage in melee combat normally.
At Tier 2, the player is given a choice between a ranged unit and a melee brute. The Medusa is no longer a unit with an awkward ranged attack and an ability that only works in melee combat. (In the previous game, she was an archer, which is a profession that does not fit the lore of the Medusa.) Instead, her gaze is now a ranged attack of its own, giving her unlimited shots; she also does not suffer any penalty in melee combat, and her Stone Gaze ability is active in both melee and ranged combat.
Her Stone Gaze ability no longer causes targeted enemy stacks to be taken out of combat temporarily. Instead, it simply gives any of her attacks a chance to inflict instant kills (the number of instant kills being dependent on the number in her stack.) This change may be welcomed by some who considered the petrifying effects of her predecessor's ability to be overpowered, but other series veterans would consider this a reduction in her tactical value.
The Minotaur is a straight-forward melee brute, considering its high health and melee damage (for a Tier 2 unit) and its chance of blocking enemy attacks entirely.
At Tier 3, there is capricious Efreet, who has since detached himself from the demonic legions and now sides with the Asylum. Like his predecessor, he is a flight-capable creature of flame and can automatically reflect some of the damage dealt onto him in close combat back onto his attacker. However, unlike the previous version of the Efreet, he is no longer completely immune to fire, in an apparent attempt to introduce gameplay balance. Instead of rejecting fire-based damage entirely, he has to take half the damage inflicted from fire-based attacks, though he retains complete immunity to fiery spells and area-effect fire damage.
The willful otherworldly equine that is the Nightmare is a relatively new addition to the series, apparently a by-product of the cataclysm that destroyed Enroth. It can cast the Terror spell on enemy targets in lieu of going on the attack, causing the target to forfeit its turn completely. However, that it has only enough mana for one casting can be a disappointment. Otherwise, it is a straight-forward melee brute.
Tier 4 offers the Hydra and Black Dragon. The Hydra returns from the second game in the series, retaining its ability to attack all enemy units around it without any retaliation and its high hit-points. The iconic Black Dragon also returns with its powerful breath attack and flight capability, but its complete immunity to magic both good and bad – and rather high costs - would have players thinking twice in choosing it over the Hydra, which can benefit greatly from buffing spells.
The Preserve is the successor of the Rampart faction, and true to its name, it gives refuge to exotic creatures (though these end up in its armies anyway, to be committed to war).
The Sprite returns from the second game, retaining her abilities to fly and attack without retaliation. The Wolf is the other Tier 1 unit, having two attacks instead of just one in addition to tremendous mobility; this is in turn balanced by high recruitment costs (for a Tier 1 unit), though there is a Hero skill that can generate Wolves for free (as will be mentioned later).
Much like the other factions' Tier 3, the Preserve's options are between a ranged capability for its army and an assault solution.
The Elf was the best archer Enroth had seen, and is still the best in Axeoth. The change in the retaliation mechanic allows the Elf to have the ability to always strike first in ranged combat with a ranged enemy target; this can be potent, considering that the Elf shoots twice (and retaliates twice).
The White Tiger is a new unit to the Heroes of Might and Magic series. Having terrifying mobility and First Strike grants the Preserve faction terrific assault prowess.
The Griffin returns as a Tier 3 unit, retaining its ability for unlimited retaliations. The new retaliation mechanic makes this unit an especially potent assault unit, especially when its flight capability is considered. The Tier 3 alternative, the Unicorn, is not as impressive in assault, though having a chance to blind enemy stacks can be tactically beneficial - if the chance goes in favor of the player.
The Preserve's Tier 4 units grant its armies very fast and tactically versatile units, which can seem to make the Preserve appear overpowered. However, in return, they have relatively lower stats.
The Faerie Dragon is the antithesis of the Black Dragon. Having the ability to reflect hostile spells back at enemy spell-casters and a relatively vast mana reserve to cast up to five different spells gives the Preserve much-welcome magical support. The Phoenix may not have the attack and defense stats of other Tier 4 units, but its Rebirth ability (which is very much in control of the player) allows it to return to the fray and also help counter attrition from battles. Naturally, it also has resistances towards fire and immunity to fire-based spells.
In addition to the units that the factions have, there are some neutral units that can only be recruited from creature dwellings that are in the main map. These are actually units that were supposed to be incorporated in the factions, but were ultimately removed to accommodate for the game design of having mutually exclusive unit options. In fact, the absence of some of these units from the faction rosters can be quite glaring; this is the case for the Mummy and Zombie, which were Undead mainstays but are now considered "neutral" creatures.
Some of these units are returning creatures from the previous games, and have changes that are interesting. For example, the Peasant returns, still as pathetic as ever, but now has the ability to generate a bit of gold daily, though their his cost offsets this bonus and pay-off would only occur two weeks after his conscripting. Then, there is the Troglodyte, which is another pathetic unit whose only advantage is immunity to Blindness, which isn't that much useful.
Some are red herrings, such as the Pirate, who is only useful in ship-to-ship battles. Others are more useful, such as the Troll with its regeneration ability and the Evil Eye, which casts random harmful spells on its targets.
Despite the removal of the unit upgrade mechanic, the units in this game can still provide enough variety in tactics and strategies for series veterans who can stomach the feature of mutually exclusive creature dwellings. However, the same cannot be said of Heroes, whose revamped gameplay mechanic can easily eclipse that of the regular units'.
Heroes are still categorized into several types according to their inclinations towards Might or Magic (which is the namesake tradition of the series) and factional allegiances. Different Heroes start with different default skills at Basic levels, but this is where the differences end; they can be considered clones of each other as far as their advancement options are concerned.
Any Hero can learn any skill, resulting in oddball permutations such as a Haven Knight knowing about Death Magic. These permutations do have significance, in that the order in which skills are attained and advanced can result in the Hero changing his/her profession into another, obtaining special bonuses in turn. However, again, any Hero can achieve any profession and thus said special bonuses.
At least the skills have plenty of variety, as to be expected from a Heroes of Might and Magic game. There are nine primary skills, each having three secondary skills in turn. A Hero can only have up to five primary skills, so there can never be a Hero that is a master at everything.
As mentioned earlier, Heroes are now actual units that fight on the battlefield. They have statistics like Attack and Defence, but unlike the previous games, their statistics do not stack with those of regular units anymore; these are strictly only for themselves. Instead, the army that they are leading will only benefit from the Tactics skill, which has been turned into a Primary one and no longer grants the ability to place units as the player sees fit before the commencing of battle.
(In fact, there is no such skill that can do this anymore in this fourth game. This can be a disappointment to players who want to have a way to win the battle right from the first turn.)
There are also peculiar changes in skills. For example, the secondary skill of Leadership is now an amalgam of the Leadership and Luck of yore.
Another Hero skill that is specifically designed to support army-oriented strategies is Nobility, which increases creature re-population rates and offers secondary skills that help the gathering of resources. However, this skill is only useful if the player has a lot of resources to spend on armies; by the time the player has managed to do so, he/she would be winning anyway, thus rendering this skill less useful than it seems.
Scouting works very much like it used to, but it is now associated with the new Stealth secondary skill. Stealth generally hides the presence of the Hero unit in an army from enemies' view, which is very handy in multiplayer games but is next-to-useless in the single-player campaigns.
Then, there are skills for the magically inclined. The magical primary skills are little more than spell-unlocking mechanisms and two out of the three secondary skills associated with each of them are mundane (they improve the effectiveness of spells and enhances the spell-casting capacity of their practitioner). The third secondary skills are perhaps the most interesting ones in the game. Coincidentally, most of these bolster the player's armies.
For example, Life Magic offers a secondary skill that allows the player to recover a portion of combat casualties, if they are not Undead, Mechanical or Elemental in nature. Death Magic's Necromancy allows the Hero to convert enemy losses into more Skeletons or Ghosts (like its predecessors), and Nature Magic's Summoning allows the Hero to obtain units for free every turn. The only exception is Destruction Magic's Sorcery skill, which enhances the power of all damaging spells.
For better or worse, the Combat primary skill is perhaps the most representative of the changes in this game; this is the skill that turns Heroes into overwhelming powerhouses that can sweep armies off the battlefield single-handedly.
Each level of the primary skill significantly increases the defences of the Hero, effectively making him/her much more difficult to defeat via unit attacks. The secondary skills concern the Hero's offensive capabilities: Melee increases the Hero's attack rating in melee and reduces the defence of the targeted enemy, while at Grandmaster level (the highest level that a skill can be advanced to), the Hero gains First Strike and Two Attacks; Archery is the ranged equivalent of the Melee skill; and finally, Magic Resistance gives the hero the chance to shrug off hostile spells, with the Grandmaster level of the skill granting complete immunity.
The Combat primary skill is meant to level the playing field between individual Heroes and the stacks of enemy units that they will face (and often outnumber them). Yet, if it is not apparent already, the bonuses granted by the advancement of this skill bring potential for very severe gameplay imbalances. In the same note, the introduction of the Sorcery secondary magical skill can also be considered to have similar consequences.
Like in the previous games, Heroes can gain permanent increases in their statistics by visiting special locations like shrines and through the bonuses that they gain from level-ups. If a player manages the advancement of their statistics right, he/she can have Heroes with terrifically inflated stats, making them very difficult to defeat with regular units. With their skills, they can be considered even more unfairly formidable.
Pushing the imbalance even further is the equipment that the Hero can take. The inventory system that Heroes have is nothing new, but in this entry of the series, they generally grant bonuses that render them tougher and deadlier, giving benefits that range from mundane increases of statistics and emulation of skills to devastating ones like immunities to certain elements and instant-kill attacks.
Of course, developing a Hero to Grandmaster levels of Combat and other skills and gaining powerful gear and permanent bonus statistic increases can take a lot of effort and luck, but when a player does achieve this, he/she attains Hero that is very difficult to defeat, if at all. The imbalance is even more apparent if the player had developed multiple Heroes to form a party consisting of powered-up individuals, which is even more difficult to deal with, especially if they have been developed to support each other.
The consequence of the massive empowerment of Heroes can be seen in the single-player campaigns, where certain Heroes will be carried forward from one mission to the next. The next mission will anticipate this by having much tougher enemy armies to contend with from the onset, but a well-nurtured Hero can remove these without much thought from the player - even the (usual) scenario restriction of requiring the Hero to remain undefeated would not be much of an issue.
Multiplayer in Heroes of Might and Magic IV is not much different from the previous, at least from the perspective of selecting maps (and their built-in scenarios) and starting matches. However, the imbalances brought about by the major re-design of Heroes would appear in multiplayer as well.
In the previous games, a defeated Hero returns to the Tavern to be re-hired. All the player needs to do is to gather the necessary funds to re-hire the Hero before the turn of the week. This can, of course, be a serious problem in defeating a player who has chosen to invest time and resources into nurturing a powerful Hero in this game; he/she can re-hire this Hero with the necessary resources, and chances are that his/her Hero would have done serious damage to his/her opponent's capability to prevent him/her from gathering the necessary funds.
The game designers have thought of this issue somewhat by introducing the Prison building for settlements. This Prison is completely free and comes with every settlement. It can be used to hold enemy Heroes (the number is indefinite) that have been defeated in battle, thus preventing them from being re-hired. Yet, the Heroes are held indefinitely (i.e. they do not perish) and they can be rescued by capturing the necessary settlements.
As a further balancing design, the Hero is returned to the Tavern and has to be re-hired at a cost proportional to his/her level, but this does not change the fact that the Hero can be re-acquired much quicker than a depleted army that had taken an equivalent amount of effort to nurture.
The redesign of the Hero mechanic and its consequences would give the impression that New World Computing had not thought this through well to a series veteran who is aghast at how powerful Heroes can become.
Fortunately, the non-gameplay aspects of the game are better refined, though not without some minor complaints.
The graphics is perhaps the most apparent improvement. As mentioned earlier, the view of anything in the game has switched from an oblique 2-D angle to an isometric one. This has given the opportunity for the game designers to replace the sprites with new ones, as mentioned earlier.
The animations of these sprites are a lot more varied than those in the previous games, due to the isometric view that allowed for sprites with more postures and poses. The new sprites also allow the game designers to include animations for special abilities, such as the Imp's Mana Leech animation, that look different from the usual ones used for attacking and defending (whereas the previous game repetitively used these).
The environments also have benefited from new sprites and textures, such that the game no longer resembles cartoons or heavily stylized art like the previous games were. The new textures and images that depict objects and terrain features on the main map and the battlefield look a lot more sophisticated, up to par with other strategy games that used 2-D isometric perspectives. Magical effects also benefited from the graphical update; for example, fireballs look much rounder and brighter, as they should, than their incarnations in the previous games.
There are some awkward discrepancies that can be seen in the graphical design of the game though. The description of a hero does not match his/her in-game models; the starkest examples can be seen in the Necropolis faction, where Heroes that are supposed to be demonic appear to be represented with the same Necromancer sprite that hardly looks demonic and that is used by other Heroes that are more associated with necromancy, such as liches and sapient zombies.
This is a discrepancy that has been in the series for a long time, but the changes in the canon in the fourth game, such as the demons turning over to the Necropolis faction to gain refuge in the new world of Axeoth and to gain power through necromancy, have particularly exacerbated this aesthetic mismatch.
Another minor complaint is how animations and sprites for some Heroes appear not to have been completely designed. An example is the Barbarian Hero, the only Hero for the Stronghold faction. By default the Barbarian is only armed with a melee weapon; having the Barbarian learns Archery switches his/her sprite over to one having a bow, the melee weapon being replaced. The Barbarian kicks his/her enemies in melee combat instead, though his/her melee prowess remains very much the same. This can result in amusingly oddball scenes, such as (powerful) Barbarians kicking stacks of Black Dragons to death.
Most of the audio designs in the game are invested in musical soundtracks, sound effects (and voiced utterances) for battles and ambient noises. Many of these sound very much as they would in a Heroes of Might and Magic game, though they can also be considered not remarkable; they are more than satisfactory to project the themes of the Heroes of Might and Magic series, but no more than this.
The overall presentation of the game is plenty appropriate for a Heroes of Might and Magic game, but they do little to hide the consequences of the major re-design of the namesake mechanic of Heroes.
In conclusion, Heroes of Might and Magic IV would appear to continue the tradition of the previous games by retaining a lot of the fundamentals of the series. However, the revamped army unit mechanics and the elevation of heroes into powerful units detracts from the series' tradition of having players raising high-fantasy armies led by specialized Heroes that cater to their playstyles. Instead, they may have shifted considerable focus onto developing Heroes into one-man armies instead.