You have to hand it to New World Computing. When they create sequels for the Heroes of Might and Magic series, they don’t just stick on a few new units and buildings and call it a job well done. Instead, they always upgrade the engine, and they always add a few gameplay wrinkles. And now, with Heroes of Might and Magic IV, they’ve completely overhauled everything. The graphics sport a new isomorphic look, heroes actually appear on the battlefield, and even morale and luck have changed. But the core style of gameplay remains the same (that’s a good thing), and so fans of the series should still like this installment.
For those who are new to the series, Heroes of Might and Magic IV is a turn-based strategy game. It takes place in a fantasy world where elves and dwarves and dragons -- not to mention about 60 other creatures -- all exist, and your job is to guide one or more heroes to collect resources, create armies, and generally smash up enemies. That makes Heroes of Might and Magic IV sound like a lot of other games, but it isn’t -- partially because it’s turn-based and so you need to maximize what you do in each turn, but mostly because of the heroes. Heroes gain levels, wear equipment, and get to use skills and spells, and so not only do they humanize the game and give it a lot of personality, they also add a role-playing appeal.
Where Heroes of Might and Magic IV differs from its predecessors is, well, just about everywhere. But most of the changes are simply about organization. For example, Heroes of Might and Magic III had eight town types while Heroes of Might and Magic IV only has six, but the units are largely the same. They’ve just been redistributed (and even then, some of the town types will be familiar). And while Heroes of Might and Magic III had four schools of magic, Heroes of Might and Magic IV has five, but again it’s more about spells being redistributed than anything else. So, despite a lot of changes, Heroes of Might and Magic IV only really differs from the earlier games in the series in three areas:
1. Combat. The big change here is that heroes finally get to fully participate in battles. And not only that, but you can have multiple heroes in each army (they take up a troop slot, just like everything else) or no heroes at all. Since heroes are powerful beings, and since they regenerate all their hit points every day, they tend to dominate battles, soaking up a lot of damage and protecting the other troops in the army. And if that wasn’t enough, New World Computing also added in the concept of “retaliation” so it doesn’t matter if you get the first hit on an enemy troop or not. Chances are it will hit back at the same time, and so both troops will take damage. Plus, town defenses have changed. Gone are the automated ballistae and arrow towers from Heroes of Might and Magic III. Instead, upgraded towns get turrets where you can put ranged units, which then get excellent offensive and defensive bonuses, and so it’s much more difficult to take towns than it was before. Basically, you can forget everything you knew about combat from the first three Heroes of Might and Magic games, and start planning strategies from scratch.
2. Micromanagement. It isn’t completely gone in Heroes of Might and Magic IV, but it’s a near thing. For starters, it is now possible to flag all resource buildings, including the ones that offer resources on a weekly basis. That means you don’t have to send a hero to the buildings each week; the buildings will simply add the resources to your stockpile automatically. But most importantly, it’s now possible to construct a “caravan” building in each town. Caravans not only allow you to send units between towns without having to actually walk the units yourself, they also allow you to buy units from unit producing buildings. And so once again, you don’t have to waste time with a utility hero walking around buying troops. You can do it with a few simple clicks instead.
3. Enemy AI. While the other two major changes are good things, something went horribly wrong here, which is a surprise since the AI was pretty good in the first three games in the series. But now the computer is hopeless in just about every aspect of the game. It’s not good at running battles or developing towns or even picking up the treasures it has available to it. Plus, there are other problems, like there are potions in the game now but the computer doesn’t use them, and the “nature” town type has a building called a creature portal, but the computer isn’t smart enough to purchase troops from it. What’s worse, New World Computing seems to have realized the AI was bad, and so the campaigns focus more on defeating neutral creatures than they do in defeating the computer enemies, and the computer enemies get all sorts of advantages, like one-way portals from their towns to yours. But the end result could be good or bad, depending upon your view of things. Because the enemy AI is weak, you can win most campaigns just by plugging away, and you don’t have to rush at the computer’s towns or make every move count to its fullest. So the game is more accessible now, but there is also much less tension.
Another area that could be considered a major change is the graphics. Instead of the flat 2D representations from the earlier games in the series, Heroes of Might and Magic IV now uses an isomorphic view, and so units and objects at least look 3D. And they look pretty good as well. The only downside is that the cartoony look of the units in the earlier games added a lot of charm, but now the units look realistic, and so the charm is largely gone. In other areas, the spell effects aren’t very good, but the world looks about as good as a world can look when it’s made with a world editor. (That is, it doesn’t look as good as Commandos 2, but it looks way better than Arcanum.)
The sound is also pretty good, but I don’t know that it’s as good as the sound from the other games in the series. I still remember playing Heroes of Might and Magic II and being shocked (in a good way) when one of the town types actually had opera music for its theme. But the sound for Heroes of Might and Magic IV is still much better than you’ll find in other games, and the only real problems in the area are technical problems. For example, ambient noises are far too loud, and so it’s really annoying to stand in certain places, like next to a wolf pen (unless you happen to like incessant, loud howling).
In fact, there are a lot of sloppy problems in Heroes of Might and Magic IV, and not just with the sound or the enemy AI. The game doesn’t keep track of your progress in the campaigns, and so, among other things, it’s not possible to restart scenarios at a different difficulty setting. The high score list doesn’t do anything right; you can’t enter your name with the score, high scores aren’t saved, and the game doesn’t tell you what you’re being scored on, let alone whether you should be aiming for a high rating or a low rating. And, naturally, Heroes of Might and Magic IV crashes or freezes up once every 2-3 hours. Luckily, these are all relatively minor problems, and hopefully New World Computing will fix them when they release a patch for the game.
Overall, Heroes of Might and Magic IV is a nice enough experience. It has six campaigns totaling over 30 scenarios, and the scenarios average around four hours to finish. So there is plenty of gameplay to Heroes of Might and Magic IV, even before the stand-along scenarios and, eventually, multiplayer. (Multiplayer support isn’t included with the game, but it’s promised as a free add-on. However, given that New World Computing and 3DO are having some problems, don’t hold your breath.) So, while I don’t think Heroes of Might and Magic IV is as good as Heroes of Might and Magic III, it’s a game you can easily spend a month on, and there is enough variety in the game for it to be an entertaining month.