The Heroes of Might and Magic strategy series is famous for its colorful graphics, engaging turn-based strategy, and, to a lesser extent, its continuous expansion packs and its repackaged compilations. When Heroes of Might and Magic IV--the latest chapter in the series--was released earlier this year, it caused a great deal of controversy among loyal Heroes fans, since it made many changes to the series' basic formula and shipped to retail without multiplayer support, in spite of the fact that it was still an enjoyable game on its own merits. And the latest expansion pack for Heroes IV, The Gathering Storm, adds a good deal of new content to play through: six massive single-player campaign games and a whopping 30 additional scenarios. But not much else.
If you're familiar with the series, you'll know that each of the Heroes games has been a colorful, fantasy-themed, turn-based strategy game in which you explore huge maps with an army of monsters in search of treasures and artifacts, as well as enemies to fight in order to make your hero characters wealthier and more powerful. In this regard, The Gathering Storm offers more of the same in the form of six single-player campaigns that should take most players many, many hours to complete. Five of the game's campaigns are immediately available, and the sixth and final campaign may be unlocked only when the previous five have been completed, but among themselves, they offer a good mix of the series' traditional challenges: conquering maps with only a small starting army, exploring a map with a lone hero, and engaging in explore-and-conquer missions in which you have an established hero and must take over your enemies' strongholds. The expansion also has an impressive 30 new single scenarios to play through, which should be enough to keep any Heroes fan busy for some time.
However, the game's box suggests that the expansion also has new creatures, new heroes, new items, and a new editor, which is a bit misleading. Yes, The Gathering Storm has new items and new event buildings you can find on the map. Yet the only new heroes you'll find in the game are those you play as in the campaigns, and the only new creatures in the game are those that belong to the game's main villain; they can't normally be recruited into your own ranks. And although The Gathering Storm has an updated map editor that includes the new items, buildings, and creatures, as well as all of the existing items from Heroes IV, your maps can be used only by players who also own the expansion--players who own only Heroes IV can't use them, so if you use the expansion's map editor to make new maps, and you play Heroes IV regularly with a group of friends, everyone else will have to buy and install the expansion too.
Otherwise, The Gathering Storm doesn't offer much in the way of audio or visual refinement over Heroes IV. In fact, it doesn't offer any. At a glance, it's difficult to tell the difference between The Gathering Storm and the original Heroes IV because the expansion has no truly significant, different-looking additions, like a new playable faction. Instead, The Gathering Storm has the same monsters, same interface, same special effects, and same animations from Heroes IV. The game's battles still take place on isometric battlefields between prerendered enemies that move and fight with an odd stop-motion camera-like blur effect. And even though the expansion is said to have some new music, you'll rarely if ever hear it; most of the time, you'll be listening to the same operatic and symphonic themes you've already heard in Heroes IV, which are as grandiose and as overbearing as ever.
The Gathering Storm also features the Heroes IV multiplayer patch, which was released some time ago. The patch lets players play online via a LAN, direct TCP/IP connection, or through a third-party application. As you might expect from a turn-based game, playing a multiplayer game of Heroes IV can be time-consuming, even though you can limit the amount of time each player is allowed per turn.
If you had only a casual interest in the Heroes series, and you weren't especially enchanted by Heroes IV to begin with, you may want to think twice about getting the expansion, since it's really just more of the same--though to be fair, it's quite a bit more. On the other hand, if you're a serious fan of Heroes IV, you've probably already bought and installed The Gathering Storm because of its new items and event buildings and updated map editor. And if you consider yourself to be at least something of a fan of the series, you'll probably want to pick up the expansion to try out the new campaigns and scenarios and also to be able to download and play the new custom-built maps that other devoted fans will make with the expansion's editor.