Orcs top the marquee in Tribes of the East, a stand-alone expansion pack that is expected to put the finishing touches on the Heroes of Might & Magic V franchise. If not, it probably should, because even though this add-on is loaded with new content, none of it is particularly interesting. Serious fans of the series will likely enjoy getting a look at the new Stronghold faction as well as taking on the tough missions in the three new solo campaigns, but everyone else will shrug and go back to waiting for Nival Interactive and Ubisoft to get going on Heroes VI.
For the few uninitiated out there, Heroes of Might & Magic V is a continuation of a classic fantasy-themed turn-based strategy series. However, Tribes of the East is a long way from essential to anyone aside from the Heroes V hardcore. Those who pick it up will find themselves with a solid, if derivative, series of new maps and enough gameplay tweaks to make the production feel a teensy bit fresh. The hook here is the new Stronghold faction, which consists of various types of orcs ranging from warriors to shamans, along with other wild humanoids such as goblins, centaurs, and cyclopes. The Stronghold fits in well with the existing factions and sort of resembles a mash of the Sylvan and Dungeon groups. Characteristics are somewhat familiar, at any rate, despite the fact that the overall personality of your grunts is not quite as cherubic as the former yet not quite as evil as the latter. (These guys wear grey hats.) Creatures are also similar. For example, the new bloodeyed cyclops plays much like the Sylvan treant, and the orcish recruits generally match up with their Dungeon dark-elf counterparts.
The story also centers around more of the same. The three campaigns carry over from last year's Hammers of Fate expansion. You start by guiding an orcish rebellion with the Stronghold in a single mission, move on to the Necropolis faction, go back to the orcs, and finally head to the Academy. Influence from the Dark Messiah of Might & Magic action game can be seen throughout the campaigns, especially in the Necropolis section, which revives that game's big baddie, the necromancer Arantir. Thankfully, you don't have to have any familiarity with Dark Messiah to understand what's going on here.
But you do have to be awfully good at Heroes V. Each of the 16 maps featured in the trio of campaigns is crushingly difficult. Challenges are extremely tough to take on from the very beginning, which forces you into a lot of repetition. Steadily moving through the maps and battling packs of monsters that guard the usual treasure hoards and magical artifacts is flat-out impossible, given that you never seem to pick up enough followers or have all the resources to buy ready reinforcements. You really can't waste units in even a single battle on most maps, unless you enjoy spending a lot of time and energy rebuilding troop strength. So, say hello to trial and error, not to mention the frequent reloading of saves. This really bogs down missions; even roadside battles with garden-variety gryphons and liches can take so much out of your armies that you're constantly backtracking for reinforcements, or even worse, hitting the end-turn button to zip through weeks to reload recruits and shrines. It all combines to feel cheap instead of challenging. Nival may have been looking for a quick way to lengthen the levels and make everything feel tougher, but in actuality it simply amped up the tedium.
There isn't really anything new here in the core gameplay, either. Missions are awfully formulaic, with objectives, landscape, enemies, encounters, and resource caches that will give you major-league déjà vu. As usual, you clear maps one road at a time by killing monsters at crossroads to open up new sections of each map. There are some new creatures, some new spells, some new sets of magical artifacts, and a revamped promotion scheme that provides alternate upgrades for units (though most aren't exactly imaginative). There are also a handful of new multiplayer and scenario maps, but you'd really have a tough time telling the new stuff from the old without the feature list sitting in front of you. The look and sound of the expansion seem to be exactly the same as in the original Heroes, too. Yet with all that said, there remains something in this formula that is still extremely addictive. Even with the repetitions forced on you by the harder missions and the same-old, same-old overall design, it's hard to stop playing...at least if you're a Heroes V fan who hasn't gotten enough yet.
Only two additions are genuinely noteworthy: the Stronghold's blood rage and sacrificial altars. The former is admittedly kind of nifty because it causes orcs and their pals to go into berserker freak-outs in battle that can improve their damage resistance. However, pluses and minuses rise and fall during battle depending on whether you're hitting or being hit, so the benefits seem to jump around pretty much uncontrollably. This trait nicely personalizes the orcish lot, but it's hard to see how you could employ it tactically. It never seems to do much good in combat, considering that it gets knocked down with every successful enemy attack, when you skip a turn, or even when you engage in ranged combat.
Sacrificial altars are much more useful, at least in theory. Now, instead of lugging around low-level troops who are good only for cannon fodder, you can off them in special locations in exchange for hero experience points. This would have been helpful in the original Heroes missions. Here, though, you simply don't use the altars that much because the battles are so much tougher. Ditching a bunch of wimpy skeletons and peasants to buff a hero can seem like a great idea, but the round or two that these grunts may buy you in battle can actually save your butt on numerous occasions. Also, if you do a lot of exploring and take on most of the available battles, you'll jump up the level ladder so quickly that you'll have no need for any sacrifices.
All of which amounts to new levels, harder difficulty, and not much else. This is pretty much the template for second expansion packs these days, so Tribes of the East is at least somewhat trendy. Nevertheless, you can't praise this mediocre add-on for fitting in with the cool kids. Nival should have finished the Heroes V series on a higher note than this.