Retrospectives: Heroes of Might and Magic IV

The winds of change touch the Heroes of Might and Magic series

The winds of change touch the Heroes of Might and Magic series

Game: Heroes of Might and Magic IV (Vanilla, The Gathering Storm, Winds of War)
Developed by: New World Computing
Published by: 3DO
Release date: March 28, 2002

The five games in the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise are like a demographically diverse set of siblings. They all look different, but have a similarity of features that confirm their parentage. The eldest is starting to show his age, but a quick glance at the younger ones will confirm a deep respect for his achievements. The second is quirky and charming, though his looks are also fading he still has enough in the bag to impress people at parties. The third was the sibling that had it all. Looks, strength of character, friends, fame. His popularity spread beyond the family to anyone he touched, to the degree that all other siblings pale in comparison. The fifth wanted to be so much like the third that people can’t look past the similarity, now despite his youthful appearance and noble characteristics no one takes him seriously because all they see is his older brother.

Given that this venerated, slightly dysfunctional family will soon be getting a new brother/sister from a different parent (in this case the hard work of the folks at Black Hole Entertainment), I thought it would be a good time to look back at the fourth, and least understood child of this series. The red headed stepchild that was always teased about being adopted if you will.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV was a game that came at a difficult time for it’s developer, publisher and indeed the franchise as a whole. Heroes III had brought the series into the bigtime. It fleshed out the gameplay that had proved so popular in the second installment, added a deeper layer of strategy, covered itself with shiny state of the art graphics, a well worked UI, pretty much bug free engine, a mountain of content on release followed by 2 content bloated expansion packs. It was well received by fans and critics while hitting sales numbers not seen by any turn based strategy game outside the Civilization series. In short it was a winner on every conceivable measure and, as games like that have a tendency to do, it made it very hard for any sequel to tread the hallowed ground it walked upon.

This home run of a game had not however turned either the developer nor publisher into industry behemoths. In the early 00s 3DO was hemorrhaging money. Other than the Might and Magic series and the Army Men franchise (which itself was pillaged well past common decency) its games were generally poorly received both critically and in terms of sales. They desperately needed a winner, and the next installment of their key franchise was their last hope.

Being one high profile failure away from chapter 11 bankruptcy is one of those scenarios when anyone would understand a publisher going with a tried and true formula for the next installment of their key franchise. This made it all the more extraordinary when IV came out an extremely different game than it’s predecessors. The game’s motto in development and promotion was “It’s all new Heroes. Period.” They weren’t kidding.

Most fans, being the nostalgic close minded beasts that they are, had trouble embracing the game for what it was (despite a largely positive critical reception) and yearned for the familiarity of earlier installments. I’m ashamed to admit that I was as close minded as any, giving the game only a marginal amount of time. What? Your heroes can DIE?! You can only choose one creature per tier?! No upgrades to units?! This isn’t heroes. THIS IS MADNESS!!!

This was no way to judge a game. All games deserve a more thorough investigation. Consider this reparations you ginger bastard.

Heroes IV teaches us that philanthropy makes you a stronger warmonger

Heroes IV teaches us that philanthropy makes you a stronger warmonger

Firstly, let’s recap what makes Heroes of Might and Magic tick for those that haven’t been initiated. All installments of the series are empire building strategy games, where much of the critical action happens in turn based tactical battles. Your armies (usually led by a single hero) roam around a world map, capturing objectives. Castles to produce additional or larger armies, resource nodes to generate resources for upgrading your empire, and other objectives that provide bonuses to your army or hero. Almost all of these objectives begin guarded and must be liberated. Battle occurs when your army clashes with another on the world map, and takes place on a (usually) hex based 2d board. The last army standing wipes the other off the map. There are up to 9 varied and diverse races, with each race having strengths and weaknesses in things like unit composition and spellcasting that could be exploited, and the drop from 9 races in III to 6 in IV is merely the first in a long list of notable differences. It’s a time honored formula that was traditionally built upon rather than changed until IV was unleashed.

It’s the heroes themselves that underwent the largest change. In previous versions heroes were figureheads. Standing aloof from the battle, they provided passive offensive and defensive bonuses to your troops who did the actual fighting. The only direct interaction they had with the battle was through the casting of both offensive and defensive spells. Heroes could be ‘might’ based, providing stronger passive bonuses to their troops, or ‘magic’ based, strengthening their spells and mana pool or a combination of might and magic. Successfully defeating an enemy brought a pretty standard leveling system into play, with your stats increasing and skills becoming available that improve your troops in physical combat, your spellcasting strength or longevity or an ability improving your effectiveness on the world map. In addition you could pick up artifacts to make them stronger in any one of these areas.

Charna is a woman who gets shit done

Charna is a woman who gets shit done

In IV however your hero is treated exactly like any other unit stack. It takes up one of the 7 unit slots available to each army. It moves, attacks and must defend like any other stack in the game. It can also be killed, or at least put out of action until you can find a place to revive it. This is one of those things that takes some getting past. Ok, a lot of getting past. Having to defend your Hero from physical attacks can be very difficult, particularly when there are powerful units in the game with very high mobility like Devils and the various types of Dragons. To manage this you need to spend your ability points with defense in mind. For might heroes these upgrades make sense, but it’s hard not to feel that your spellcasting heroes should be focusing on more arcane endeavors while you’re putting points into your combat tree.

Or at least, that’s how I felt when first playing. A little more experience reveals that the game has in-built mechanisms to beef up weak heroes. All towns have a building which sells armor and weapons to pump up starting defensive and offensive stats, potions of healing and immortality (immediate one time resurrection), and the map is littered with shrines and other objects that provide one time boosts to damage and importantly, hit points. If you’re fighting a battle against a reasonable sized army you can pretty much always find ways to beef your hero enough to be able to survive the initial trading of blows into the stage of the battle where their utility becomes effective. Against gargantuan sized armies you really should be bringing a hero you had bubbling away in the oven prior, but this was the nature of earlier games as well.

Scantily clad spellcaster is a black dragon delicacy

Scantily clad spellcaster is a black dragon delicacy

Another new introduction is that of line of sight for range during battles, and instantaneous retaliation for both ranged and melee units. Previously ranged units could shoot anything on the battlefield, with modifiers only applying over distance or if the unit was behind walls. In IV those modifiers are still in place, and are in fact much harsher in the case of some creatures (honestly why do Orcs even HAVE a ranged attack?), however you can only attack the first unit in your line of sight. This means that if you have a vulnerable spellcaster hero you can stick a meat shield in front of it to protect it from a powerful ranged enemy, preferably a defense specced hero with a mountain of healing potions. This is doubly effective during siege battles where the walls act as permanent line of sight obstacles. Instantaneous retaliation is also a very interesting addition. Previously the attacking unit got an attack in first, and the defending unit could retaliate after taking the initial hit. When powerful units were stacked in huge numbers this single attack could devastate the defending unit before it had a chance to fight back, meaning that if you could get in quickly you had a good chance of crippling your enemy’s most powerful unit instantly. This worked well enough in earlier installments, but it meant that mobility and range were prioritized over nearly everything. In IV retaliation happens instantly in the majority of cases. This means that the defending stack will (usually) get a chance to deal damage based on it’s power going into the battle. Range can also retaliate against opposition ranged attacks, meaning that picking off your opponents range units isn’t as simple as just having the first attack with a powerful range unit. It serves to balance both range and mobility, while keeping them very powerful as they are in all strategy games. It does however allow armies that emphasize other strengths to flourish if used correctly, increasing the amount of options available to the player at any given time.

The next major change is the limit on the buildings available in your towns. Other Heroes games have between 5 and 7 tiers of units available for each race, and you could access all of them when you had the required building built and resources available. IV has only 4 tiers in total, with every tier having two available units. The catch is that after the first tier you can only choose one unit per tier. For example the Life (Human) town has both Squires and Crossbowmen available at tier 1, but at tier 2 you have to choose between building a Guardhouse for Pikemen (average hit point melee with no retaliation), or a Ballista Works for Ballistae (mechanical ranged unit), at tier 3 you have to choose between Crusaders (powerful offensive melee unit) or Monks (high hit point ranged unit) and so forth. This is initially very off putting and is of course one of those things that fans of the other installments will have trouble with, but when combined the change to heroes and other gameplay mechanics it actually encourages you to specialize your armies. A Life player can build their town to emphasize their ranged strength, while building their cheaper tier 4 unit to allow for a quicker attack on an enemy (Ballistae, Monks, Champions), combined with 2 melee specialist heroes and a spellcasting priest hero to buff and heal. Going up against a Death (Undead) opponent? You’ll likely need to take down Vampires then, a powerful tier 3 melee unit who’s high speed flight, life leech abilities and no retaliation means they’re mobile, chunky and dangerous. The mechanical Ballistae cannot have health drained, and are a must at tier 2, while Crusaders with their higher defense and double attack would be more effective than Monks who need range that the mobile Vampires can easily counter. You can even forgo a unit entirely and add another hero if you feel it would be more effective or you made a choice of unit you weren’t happy with.

Choosing Griffins means that I won't get to ride a Unicorn :(

Choosing Griffins means that I won't get to ride a Unicorn 😦

It feels like these changes were all designed to add a layer of strategy to a game that has been criticized for being overly focused on tactics in the past. It’s strange for an empire building game, but with Heroes strategic decisions have tended to boil down to how you interacted with the world map. Playing the Dungeon/Warlock/Chaos race? You’re going to need sulphur for your biggest buildings, so lets scour the map for some asap. I’ll b-line for a powerful town to get a second army type into the field asap. I know Red is my strongest enemy, so I’m going to station most of my army in the town closest to them and build defensive structures there. The tactical battles were how you really sorted the men from the boys, with huge odds able to be overcome by exploiting range, spellcasting, chokepoints, the synergistic specialties of your chosen race and the weaknesses in your enemies race. This game is still very much rooted in those tactical gameplay principles, but the amount of choices you need to make before engaging are far more numerous and varied, meaning situations can be manipulated to your advantage before tactics comes into play.

I really only have two major criticisms of the way all this implemented. The first would be that there is no option to change your strategy mid game. Say you prepared for the above scenario of a mass of Vampires, only to find that your enemy had decided to go with Venom Spawn, Undead’s range tier 3 option. “DAMN I WISH I HAD PIKEMEN NAO” might be a perfectly natural response. Being able to change your option for a cost would be a welcome addition that would reward good scouting. Not to be unfortunately. The other criticism is the difficult to utilize nature of the tactical battle map. The hex based grid in earlier installments was simple to understand and gave you all the information you needed to make decisions, but while the amount of information required has risen dramatically on account of the additional gameplay complexity, you’re still only given rudimentary information on the elements needed to make good decisions. You can’t do things like find out where you need to place your meatshield to protect a spellcaster, or whether a particular unit has used up its single retaliation for a round of combat. Even once you become experienced with the game’s mechanics it can be tricky to get placement right given that the map doesn’t highlight the exact tile that your unit will move to even when your mouse is hovered over it. And when one small slip can send your strategic deck of cards flying to all corners, not being given feedback by the game’s UI that moving your priest into that exact spot will leave him vulnerable to ranged attacks on a particular angle is an unforgivable oversight.

Move where?!

Move where?!

While we’re talking about implementation, this seems like a good time to talk about narrative. Traditionally Heroes games have had storylines that read more like fantastical war diaries, told in walls of text scripted to appear when certain events are triggered. An army of demons is traveling underground to invade your homeland, and you need to unite your allies, cut off demon supply lines, find powerful artifacts and ultimately push back the incursion. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that type of narrative for a turn based empire building game and in fact it seems difficult to think of ways to effectively build in truly compelling characters given the restrictions of the medium. Expanding on more human themes seems like one of those things that would just get lost in the translation of the game type.

It is in this area that IV attempted another one of those very ambitious changes. Firstly the game promptly does away with any and all heroes involved in the story previously. The entire world of Queen Catherine, Lucifer Kreegan, Gelu and the rest is destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion when the two most powerful artifacts in existence come together in battle. Portals open up into a new world which becomes home to survivors of the armageddon. (It’s all new Heroes remember) This is powerful imagery, and serves as a compelling backdrop for a story which aims to obtain a deeper understanding of the people that fight in these digitized wars. Love, betrayal, loyalty, lies, self-doubt, loss and acceptance are just some of the themes that the game’s campaigns explore, and the more philosophical bent makes the campaigns play like interactive short novels. We’re not talking Pulitzer prize stuff, but the text is well written, the characters broadly consistent, the dialogue interesting and the plot lines engaging. In my view this is not only the strongest storyline of any Heroes game, it’s close to the strongest storyline of any strategy game I’ve ever played (just pipped by Warcraft 3). That it’s managed with minimal voice acting, and nothing but a tabletop view, portraits, a fantastic (if eventually slightly repetitive) musical score and walls of text makes the achievement all the more impressive.

How often can you say you're thankful for tiger urine?

How often can you say you're thankful for tiger urine?

The final major change worth mentioning is daily creature growth and hero-less armies. All other heroes games had creature creating buildings spawning new units for purchase at the beginning of each week, or every 7th turn. While there is still a weekly creature growth pattern in IV, the growth is spread daily over the week. In addition, armies can be created and move around the world map without a hero. For me it’s a mixed blessing. The inclusion of a fog of war means that tiny armies are effective for scouting and warning about incoming armies, and throwing a single tier 1 unit at an advancing horde is a great way for finding out exactly how many units you’re going to be up against (your sacrifice will be remembered nameless squire /salute). The mixed part of the blessing is the fact that to growing your army as efficiently as possible you need to buy troops every day, and work to attach them to your armies in the field asap. This results in a huge increase in tedious empire micromanagement. Each town has a caravan structure which can be built to send units to far flung towns, but while that lightens the administrative load (though simply building the structure costs resources you may not be able to spare) the game has sharply increased the amount of oil needed to keep the engine of your empire purring nicely. It’s an unwelcome change.

So a few hiccups, but for the most part it’s all puppy dogs and rainbows eh? You’re probably about to ask why you haven’t seen IV listed as game of the year or something equally reasonable for what I’ve made out to be the greatest strategy game this decade. It would however be deceitful in the extreme to brush over the flaws in the implementation. As mentioned previously, 3DO were in dire straits financially when the game was released, and were desperate to get some cash flow happening as quickly as possible. The game was rushed out the door before it was ready, with optimisation problems and memory leaks still plaguing it at release. Unready releases are usually a vicious cycle which nearly always leads to a poorer overall result both critically and financially.

Half-dead Fabio chooses ugly friends to ensure he's the star attraction at parties

Half-dead Fabio chooses ugly friends to ensure he's the star attraction at parties

The first sign of the game’s rough edges is an AI that closely resembles an idiot. It’s mastery of battle tactics isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t handle the metagame of the world map very well. Even at higher difficulties it prefers to sit back and let you build up your forces before coming at you. It never tries to catch you off guard with an early strike at some of your resources or one of your towns. It’s like that guy who plays strategy games to see a huge battle after spending the majority of the game in turtle mode and won’t agree to matches unless you have a “no rush” pact for 15 minutes. Never had much time for that guy. It means that alot of the strategic depth mentioned earlier is wasted because the AI isn’t sophisticated enough to take advantage of it, so you don’t need to either. The increases in difficulty are achieved by mostly material means, with the player being given fewer resources to begin with, and the computer being given more.

You’d better get used to playing against this subpar AI as well. One of the consequences of the rushed launch was that the lack of multiplayer, and while this has been patched in later versions, the only options available are the time worn (but effervescent) Hot Seat, LAN, TCP/IP and Game Spy. Those terms taking you back? Horrible time for humanity. Up all night you’d see 8 women! We’re not talking about a period in internet history where the 56k dial-up modem was your only option though. At the same time Blizzard was pioneering the centralized matchmaking service that revolutionized what gamers expected from multiplayer gaming, NWC delivered something that was unfortunately far short of that.

3DO filed for bankruptcy in May 2003, only a couple of months after the release of IVs second expansion pack, Winds of War. As an exercise in gambit it’s difficult to know what to take out of the last big release of this failed publisher. The jaded critic in me wishes that the publishers of today would be as keen to risk it all on a dashing new evolution in game mechanics in a world where only the tried and tested are deemed worthy of pursuit, but the more cynical realist side of me wonders whether exercises in experimentation are the reason 3DO perished in the first place. Still, a company who’s first foray into gaming was an exhibit in pricing yourself out of a market, may have found it’s dubious business acumen leading it astray before too long anyway.

The flaws in this rough diamond are largely forgivable though. IV gets full marks for attempting (and for the most part succeeding) to take a well worn series and reinventing it into an entirely new game. A game full of it’s own charms, strengths and idiosyncrasies, but still a faithful, even familiar experience for the loyal fans of previous games who are able to get past the initial pangs of nostalgia and occasional stumbles. There’s a mountain of content contained in the out of the box product, a loyal community that faithfully produced plenty more on the back of a powerful map editor, and even *fan made mods that have updated some of the balance issues and fixes that NWC didn’t fix before 3DO went under.

Strongly recommended for fans of turn based strategy, Heroes of Might and Magic IV can be purchased at Good old Games.

*This gameplay review was conducted with the 3.0 patch. The Equilibris fan made mod introduces some balance and gameplay enhancements, and is well worth a gander.

Score 4.3/5

One response to “Retrospectives: Heroes of Might and Magic IV

  1. I really enjoyed the story, the narrative devices used, the dialog, and the writing in general. I, too, felt it had the strongest story of all the games in the series. Sometimes the long walls of text approach is the only way to get all the details across effectively. The soundtrack was also by far the strongest of the series. It was a massive departure from traditional cliched fantasy fan-fare trying to conjure epic battles between dragons and knights and orcs. It had modern folkish touches, yet fit HOMM4’s fantasy setting exceptionally well.

    The story and soundtrack of heroes of might and magic games can’t be overlooked; they’re just vital components. I think that’s where heroes 5 was really a let down, it just didn’t have any compelling stories, had beaten to death cliches all over the place, and had a really bad and repetitive soundtrack. The gameplay was exceptionally good though, easily the 2nd best next to HOMM3. It even had a somewhat active multiplayer scene, something quite rare for turn based multiplayer games.

    My main gripe with HOMM4 was the poor opponent AI. HOMM games are largely single player experiences. I recall enemy AI literally *never* attacking players, so you would fight neutrals all game long, build up an army/your heroes, and your opponent would still be sitting at his starting area contently, never showing any signs of aggression against the player. Graphically and artistically, this game was weak relative to it’s siblings. Even HOMM2’s aging 2d graphics still look very beautiful and well drawn to me, HOMM4 not so much.

    I’m playing HOMM6 and it seems to have improved some things, notably the writing and soundtrack, from its predecessor and possibly taken some steps backward as well. I definitely like the new approach to hero development, but only 5 factions, only 4 resources, and the town conversion mechanic feels like it dumbs down some things. The empire management aspect is certainly a little dumbed down, but combat/tactics is very deep with the vast hero customization options.

    I’m a little upset at sanctuary being the 5th faction in HOMM6. I just don’t find myself compelled by it, the units and mechanics just aren’t that cool or interesting. I’d have much rather seen elves, dark elves, or even dwarves in the place of the naga.

    HOMM6 has a campaign that’s actually playable though. The writing and story are very original and engrossing, unlike HOMM5.

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