Considering the rabid fan following and the long wait, it's not a surprise that Heroes of Might and Magic V was picked apart by certain members of the hardcore fan base. It was criticized in more than a few quarters for a dull campaign, some glitches with the camera system and multiplayer, and simply for being too updated a copy of the late, great Heroes III. A series of patches helped a lot, though, and the game looked on its way to being one of the best in the history of the franchise. Now, however, the series takes another step sideways with Hammers of Fate. Like the original game on launch day, this expansion pack balances good points with bad almost every step of the way, resulting in yet another turn-based fantasy adventure that isn't all that it could be.
Patches won't be able to fix this one up, though. Problems here are deep rooted. The biggest issue is a by-the-numbers campaign that starts off slowly and sees you guiding Haven units in the entire first chapter. Even though the add-on features a brand-new dwarven race, Nival strangely chose to kick the campaign off with a thud by giving us five or six hours of been there, done that. This is a somewhat different Haven than the one you got to know in the original game, thanks to a mad queen who fancies herself a deity. But the units themselves are nearly identical to their predecessors except for some color changes, so the expansion still starts with what feels like outtakes from Heroes V.
Yet even when the dwarves show up as a playable side in chapter two, the scenarios don't get any more interesting. The dwarves themselves offer some neat new units like the bear rider and the magma dragon, but they lack any sort of hook to make them play in a markedly different manner than the other Heroes V factions. Even worse, almost every one of the 15 campaign scenarios is a dull slog to clear a map. While each mission is packed with standard monsters, treasure chests, mines, crypts, caverns, and the like, there isn't much challenge on the normal difficulty setting. You can generally cruise through the first two-thirds or so of each level, steamrolling opposition without breaking a sweat. You eventually run into an overwhelming enemy force or a barricaded town, but this is just a signal to retreat to one of your towns and crank out buildings and units until you've got a force assembled that can send the bad guys home to mommy.
Virtually every level plays out in this predictable fashion. Tedium is exacerbated by maps that are artificially drawn out by barricades and impassable terrain. You can rarely get from Point A to Point B without the hassle of key hunts (well, keymaster hunts, at any rate), portals, shortcuts through caverns, and so forth. Sometimes these expeditions seem like natural obstacles that a heroic fantasy adventurer would have to deal with. But most of the time they come off like cheesy ways to make you cover every square pixel of the map, and thereby lengthen the time you need to finish the game (expect a good 20 hours). So you don't feel so much like a hero on a quest as you do a factory worker trying to survive until the whistle blows.
Poor artificial intelligence is another annoyance. As in the original Heroes V, rival factions in Hammers of Fate aren't very hard on you. The computer fights pretty good battles when you get to the tactical screen, but they often barely even recognize that you're there on the main map. In many scenarios, you can wipe out neutral factions without much of a fight. Enemies will occasionally sally forth to retake captured mines, mills, and the like if you leave them without garrisons, but they're usually more concerned about the ownership of these resource-producing facilities than about the huge army marching down the road to besiege their town. As the campaign progresses, foes seem to become more situationally aware and will finally flat-out attack if you pose an immediate threat. But even then enemies often don't behave rationally, and they frequently look the other way as you devastate the countryside.
Yet despite all of the above, it's easy to get caught up in the repetitive action and play the game for hours at a time. Maps are so crammed with goodies that you get into sort of a Diablo-like flow and stop paying attention to how everything is so predictable and straightforward. And there is an interesting retro feel that evokes Heroes III even more effectively than the original Heroes V. So if you want an old-school approach, you'll get it here.
Little else about the expansion is all that memorable, save for a few interface changes that make the game more playable. The most noteworthy tweak is the ability to hire creatures on one menu from all your towns and buildings. Instead of time-consuming switching from one location to another when building an army, now you just order from one town menu and your troops are shipped to you automatically via caravan. No muss, no fuss...unless an enemy attacks a caravan en route. Another nice addition is the simultaneous turns option that lets players make moves at the same time until they come into conflict with one another. This greatly speeds up the beginning of multiplayer matches. And a random map generator has finally been included for one-off battles and multiplayer. It is a bit clunky at present, though, and it forces you to do some editing after the fact to set up allied maps for team play.
Hammers of Fate is really only a good option for those with a fetish for predictability or nostalgia. Even though the core Heroes V game mechanics remain superb and possess the ability to hook players for hours if not days at a time, this fantastic design needs more-interesting campaign scenarios and better AI than are on offer here.