For a franchise that has existed for over twenty years, and featured an impressive thirteen releases including expansion packs and a raft of spin-off titles, Might & Magic Heroes isn’t exactly the most widely known RPG on the market, but that doesn’t mean that the latest addition Might & Magic Heroes VI isn’t a diverting and entertaining turn-based strategy game, provided you’re willing to patiently put the time in with it.
For the uninitiated Might & Magic Heroes features an over-world set-up, with towns to capture, creatures to recruit and commodities to mine out of the land: like a cross between Command & Conquer and Civilisation only with more mythical creatures, and an embraced sense of the obtuse. Players share their time between exploring the landscape, acquiring resources and recruiting and fighting tactical battles against one of the other factions on a grid-based canvas that is reminiscent of chess and dungeons and dragons, and utilises a similar dice system to D&D to determine damage levels. It is basically a war of attrition, with victory confirmed when the enemy runs out of troops, but the player remains slightly removed from the action and immediate harm by sitting to the side and commanding things from a protected position. The hero characters cannot be attacked, which frustrated me at first given my gung-ho attitude to personal safety in combat games, but they can wade into the campaigns with helpful spells or outright attacks from the sidelines.
Like chess, there is a lot more strategy involved in these battles than it might initially appear, and each are about so much more than simply throwing troops at one another until someone ultimately breaks. Players must establish a healthy balance between tactical movement, attacking and damaging the enemy, and healing or avoiding attacks rather than flying in like Terminator, which encourages a tentative approach that suits the slower pace of the game overall.
It seems that VI has been developed with new players consciously in-mind, with the removal of three of the seven over-world resources, which has already irked a portion of the franchise’s fanbase but which is part of an evolutionary campaign to bring Might & Magic up to date, and to bring in some new blood to the fan community. That’s not to say that original fans will feel completely alienated – VI retains the spirit of the franchise well, and features the same addictive, slow-burning gameplay over an astonishing 80 hours and the same addictive multiplayer aspect. Having said that, if you are a newcomer, it’s probably best to go for the Easy difficulty option at the main menu, until you start to get a bit more familiar with the game, because the set-up requires frequent combat in order to keep up with the enemies’ own developments.
Rather than opening with a tutorial style soft opening in the faction-based play, VI plunges you into a prologue story of sorts which drops you in as Duke Slava, who must defend his society from an invasion of demons – a mission which successfully balances those tutorial style easier parts of the mission with genuinely challenging sequences. The mission progresses with a number of primary and secondary quests, which are all rewarded, and which ingeniously allow you to get a feel for the gameplay through a gradual introduction of different elements key to advancing in the main part of the game.
The next stage introduces the familiar faction-based gameplay, with time spent between each of the five factions – Haven, Sanctuary, Stronghold, Inferno, and Necropolis – ruled by Slava’s sons, with gameplay encouraging the player to level up through experience and battle and creating your own unique Hero gradually.
Since the last instalment, there has been a definite uplift in the visuals – the graphics are generally impressive in-game, and step up to very very strong in the cutscenes – and also in the ergonomics of the menus, which are easier to navigate and better-looking. The majority of changes come in at the gameplay stage, with the most profound being the new reputation system which allows you to either categorise yourself as a Blood player (offensive, aggressive) or Tears player (merciful, healing focused) – the choice of approach is a no brainer for me, but each approach leads to a different ending sequence, so it’s worth playing twice to take in both approaches. There are also more minor tweaks that lend themselves to a better overall gameplay experience, including the ability to duck in cover and special rewards for players who choose to connect to the internet while playing.
The problem for games like Might & Magic Heroes VI is that mainstream gamers will invariably look down on its players as somehow inferior because they chose to spend so much time in the fantasy realms, and I’m afraid VI goes no way to resisting the stereotypes thanks to an uneven story and some of the most ridiculous voice work I’ve ever encountered. Remember the role playing bits in Role Models starring Paul Rudd? Well, all of that pomposity and ridiculousness actually looks tame next to the silliness of the script for VI’s various cut scenes. But if you can ignore them, the game is immersive and rewarding for those who put the time in to develop their character and unlock different aspects of the gameplay.
It is the multiplayer side of the game that works best, with the solo campaigns feeling like a precursor given how much more entertaining it is to pit your wits against another human player either online or turn-based on the same computer. That is after all what this sort of strategic game is all about.
Might & Magic Heroes VI is available to buy now.