Even if you don't remember the specifics, you may remember greatly enjoying the original Heroes of Might & Magic III--and perhaps getting lost in it for hours, days, weeks at a time. The new HD edition of the game is also likely to sink its claws into you, so great is its power to absorb your time and your thoughts. That said, I have more than a few significant misgivings about the re-release's cost and content, especially when compared with the more complete versions of the original game on sale elsewhere online.
Set aside the aforementioned caveats for a moment, though, and note that this revamped HOMM III is mostly like the fantastic original game. As the title indicates, Heroes of Might & Magic III HD is the same 16-year-old game with a facelift to satisfy modern tastes for high-resolution graphics. The gameplay is fundamentally identical: You take on the role of fantasy heroes in campaign scenarios, some 50 individual scenarios (most with stories and settings that make them play like mini-campaigns), and a number of local and online multiplayer modes of play.
Activities are split between the three components of play: exploring, building cities, and engaging in combat. Exploring the world maps representing regions of the fantasy realm of Erathia is probably the most enjoyable part of HOMM III HD. There are an incredible number of goodies to be discovered, including resource pits, treasure piles, magical artifacts, wandering monsters, and even goofy treats like leprechauns with pots of gold. The intricate nature of these maps has long been a hallmark of the HOMM franchise. It's all a little ridiculous--you can't go five feet into the wilderness without tripping over a bunch of gems or running into a murderous pack of halberdiers--but the style perfectly brings to life a colorful, much-missed fantasy atmosphere that went out of vogue about the same time that Erol Otus stopped drawing the covers of D&D modules.
Combat runs a close second. Armies are fronted by heroes who level up and gain skills with might and magic as in any traditional Gygaxian RPG, but their ranks are filled with warriors, wizards, monsters, and more drawn from factions based on D&D archetypes. Castle comes with knights and angels, Inferno features imps and demons, Necropolis boasts wights and liches, Rampart is home to elves and unicorns, and so forth. Battles themselves are turn-based affairs taking place on hex maps, either out in the open or in sieges before city walls. The great variety of the units gives these scraps some real tactical texture. Armies need to be built smartly, with a real balance between melee and ranged units, or you'll inevitably get chewed up and spit out. Magic is also crucial. Your hero needs a reasonably thick spell book to be able to deal with larger battles, as the assistance of a well-timed fireball can mean the difference between victory and being vanquished.
Finally, you have to spend time conquering and then building up towns specific to each faction. Conquest is a big part of every scenario, as you need access to new cities on the maps to increase production levels, vary the types of troops you can create, and just generally creep your way to victory. This can get a little grind-happy after a while. The selection of buildings and upgrades is fairly limited. You max out buildings fairly quickly with your first city, then do it again, then do it again. There are also few meaningful differences between the cities of the factions. So basically, there is a lot of rinse, lather, and repeat going on here while you're cranking out streams of troops.
Even after the passage of going on two decades, HOMM III remains one a sprawling, immersive experience that can take over your life. Time hasn't had much impact on one of the biggest (you could easily play the game for hundreds of hours between the campaign scenarios, the skirmish maps, and online multiplayer) and best titles from the golden age of PC gaming. It actually is a bit shocking today by comparison with modern games. The sheer size and intricacy of the maps, the diversity of the units, and the challenge presented by the AI even on the easy difficulty setting is like stepping into an ice-cold shower first thing in the morning.
Your hero needs a reasonably thick spell book to be able to deal with larger battles.
I am particularly taken aback by how tough the game is in the beginning. I had to restart my opening campaign four times before I got back into the groove and figured out the proper pace. HOMM III always forced you to maintain a tricky balancing act. Hole up in your cities to build up sizable numbers of troops, and you give away the goodies on the map to adventurous opponents. Expand too soon, and your troops wind up spread too thin, opening the way for enemy armies to sneak behind you and capture your cities without a struggle. It's still impressive just how thin a line you have to walk in order to succeed. In addition, the artificial intelligence is formidable when playing solo. It cheats a little, as enemy forces always know your weaknesses and notice when you make dumb moves like leaving a city wide open. Suffice it to say, the bad guys here are never pushovers.
So HOMM III is just where you left it. That's good. And that's also bad, because publisher Ubisoft could have been more generous. First of all, HOMM III HD doesn't include the two expansion packs released for the original game, apparently due to the loss of the source code. Regardless of the reason, this HD edition is not the entire HOMM III package. That causes some concerns about pricing, as $14.99 for this game via Steam arguably gets you less than the HOMM III Complete version with both expansions selling for $9.99 at GOG.com. Granted, this cheaper edition is the unadorned original game in all of its pixelated glory. But seeing as you can apply a free--and quite good--high-definition mod to that original game, the differences suddenly become a lot less significant.
And the HD aspects of this re-release don't really amount to much. Yes, the game looks better, particularly in the combat screens, thanks to support for higher modern resolutions and widescreen monitors. Unit art has been dramatically upscaled, to the point where creatures look like little cartoons instead of the old-school colored blobs where you had to squint to make out a dragon's tail. But the animations are still rudimentary. Units just shrug when they rip off spells or swing swords. There are no frills whatsoever, so don't expect any snazzy cutscenes showing an ice bolt spell taking down a horde of skeletons. And some miscues spoil the presentation a little bit, mainly the way that map features like castle walls and other units in close combat frequently block key information like the number of units in a stack.
The main adventure map has some problems. While it is clearer than it was before, it still isn't actually clear--not even close. I had to constantly peer at the screen like an old man checking labels at the grocery store. Is that a gang of demons? Or is that an artifact? Is that odd-looking lump of grass just an odd-looking lump of grass, or is it something I can activate to grab some goodies? This map is also finicky when it comes to clicking, often demanding three and four tries to choose points of interest due to the game demanding that you select very precise spots before activating encounters. All in all, the "Huh?" factor is strong with this one, which can be frustrating in a turn-based game where wasting even the slightest bit of unit movement can kill you.
The sheer size and intricacy of the maps, the diversity of the units, and the challenge presented by the AI even on the easy difficulty setting is like stepping into an ice-cold shower first thing in the morning.
Even given the greatness at the heart of HOMM III, it is impossible to fully recommend the HD edition. Making such a legendary game accessible to a modern audience is always a good thing, but Ubisoft just didn't do enough here to set this refurbished version apart from the original and its free high-definition mod. More effort could have--and should have--been made to ensure that this would be the definitive and complete HOMM III that all fans of the series would have to have. As much as I loved this trip back in time, I would recommend that anyone else interested in the same sort of journey book it with a different and cheaper travel agent.