Might & Magic Heroes VI is the latest entry in the fabled Heroes of Might and Magic franchise -- just with a new developer, Black Hole Entertainment, and a new, jumbled name. Given the obvious outward changes, I was sort of expecting a "reboot" for the game, and probably a dumbing down of the ruleset to make it more appealing to the casual gaming market, but no. Heroes VI fits in pretty well with the other Heroes games. There are numerous changes, sure, but no more than in between any of the other games in the franchise.
Just in case you haven't played any of the Heroes games yet, in Heroes VI you build up a hero, you gather an army, you upgrade towns to support your army, and then you use your army to conquer your foes -- all while taking turns with the other players on the game map. As far as basic mechanics go, this is identical to the other Heroes games, and so fans of the franchise should feel right at home. New players can get their feet wet by playing the two-map tutorial included with the game.
Early on in the tutorial, you're introduced to Duke Slava Griffin, but then Slava gets murdered by one of his children, and you spend the rest of the game investigating the crime, plus fending off an invasion by demons, plus monitoring growing tensions between the Celestials and the Faceless. Conveniently, Slava has five children, and each child gets a campaign where you control one of the game's five factions: Haven (humans), Inferno (demons), Necropolis (undead), Sanctuary (water-based creatures), and Stronghold (orcs). These campaigns intersect and compliment each other, and they do a nice job of telling the game's story.
Each time you start a campaign, you're given your main hero. This hero starts out with a specialization and an affinity. The specialization is usually a small bonus to a stat or to a creature in the hero's faction, and the affinity is for either might or magic, where the choice determines how deep the hero can progress into the game's skill and spell trees (each tree has three tiers, and only might heroes can select third tier skills, while only magic heroes can select third tier spells).
From there, character development is open-ended. Each time you gain a level, you automatically receive a random bonus to your stats (including leadership, morale, and might and magic power and defense) and you also get to select a skill or a spell. Skills include things like Logistics, which gives you a bonus to movement, and Ambush, which gives your army an initiative bonus at the start of combat. Spells include things like Regeneration, which heals a stack of creatures over time, and Lightning Bolt, which damages an enemy stack of creatures.
You also build up a reputation during the campaigns, which depends upon the choices you make and the skills and spells you use. If you're diplomatic or use defensive abilities, then you gain Tears points. If you're aggressive or use offensive abilities, then you gain Blood points. With enough reputation points, you can earn new reputation abilities, including Divine Justice, which damages an enemy stack depending on the damage it has caused. There are also two finale maps available in the game, one for each reputation, and only your Tears heroes can play the Tears finale, while only your Blood heroes can play the Blood finale.
As you play through the campaigns, your first order of business is to build up your army. Each faction gets seven creatures, all of which can be upgraded once. The Haven faction, for example, gets praetorians (basic melee units), marksmen (ranged units), vestals (healers), imperial griffins (fliers), radiant glories (specialty melee units), sun crusaders (mounted units), and seraphim (elite healers). You can purchase creatures from any town or fort where they're produced, and, in an interesting change, creatures are handled like any other resource. That means if you have two towns producing marksmen then you can purchase them from either town, and you don't lose them if you lose the towns. That change removes a lot of the busywork from replenishing your army, since you no longer need to visit all of your towns to purchase creatures, and you no longer need to maintain a contingent of secondary heroes to ferry creatures to your main army.
Of course, in order to build up your towns to maximize the number of creatures produced, and to be able to afford those creatures, you also have to build up your economy. Heroes VI's resources include stone, wood, and gold, just like the other Heroes games, but instead of having a multitude of rare resources, it only has blood crystals, which makes things easier to manage. Some of the buildings in your towns (like marketplaces) give you a steady income, but for the most part you have to go out exploring with your army and capture mines and free resources to meet your needs.
The combat in the game is, as always, turn based. Each creature involved in a battle gets to make one attack or move per round, with the order of the creatures depending on their initiative rating. Your hero stands on the sidelines for these battles, and you can cast a spell or use a skill once per round, during the turn of one of your creatures. Unlike some of the previous Heroes games, a higher level hero won't automatically dominate a lower level hero, but heroes with good builds can certainly make life easier (especially if you can summon creatures, because it's easy to trick computer enemies into only attacking summoned creatures, thus saving your regular -- and expensive -- creatures for the important battles).
While Heroes VI stays pretty close to the Heroes formula, one way it does try to update the game is to add an online component. If you play Heroes VI while connected to game's servers (aka "the conflux") then you gain access to dynasty traits, dynasty weapons, and achievements. Dynasty traits are small but useful bonuses, like Estates, which gives you gold at the start of each turn. Dynasty weapons earn experience as you do, and become more powerful as they level up. Completing achievements earns you the points necessary to purchase traits, plus other things you can use online, like icons for your avatar. All of the dynasty bonuses are usable by all of your heroes, and while they're supposedly optional, I wouldn't want to try playing the game without them.
Sadly, while Heroes VI mostly seems like a well researched and well thought out game, it has two significant problems. First off, the campaign maps are way too big. It took me about 35 hours to play through the four maps in the Necropolis campaign, and there just isn't enough content in the game to warrant spending over eight hours per map, especially when your hero hits the level cap well before the end. After finishing the Necropolis campaign, I looked through the game options and figured out how to speed up the animations and activate a "quick play" mode (which instantly resolves a battle, shows you the results, and then asks you if you want to play it manually), but this only helped so much. Maps still took me over six hours to complete, and most of the maps got far too repetitive and tedious by the end. You know you're in trouble when the achievement for completing all of the campaigns is called "To the Bitter End."
The second problem with Heroes VI is that it has a host of bugs, some minor and some major. Creatures have skills that don't work. Creatures have skills that do work, but which the AI doesn't use. There are broken dynasty traits and achievements. There's a re-spec button that doesn't do anything. Hotkeys only work in battle when you attack, not when you defend. The Haven campaign has a broken script that might prevent you from completing it. Magic heroes regain all of their mana every day, even if they shouldn't. There's a diplomacy skill that doesn't do anything. If you carry too many objects in your inventory, then you might "lose" some of your set items. If you lose connection to the conflux, then you immediately get booted from the game and lose all progress since your last save. And more. None of the bugs prevented me from finishing the game, but they sapped away some of my enjoyment of it, and I'm shocked that Heroes VI still hasn't received a patch after being out for over a month. Some of the bugs should be very easy to fix, and Ubisoft and Black Hole Entertainment have no excuse for not getting to it.
Still, I'm a sucker for the Heroes games, and I enjoyed Heroes VI more than I probably should have. The game has a nice look, the campaign is more thoughtful than you might expect (and references Heroes V more than you might remember), and the mechanics are solid, at least in theory. If only developer Black Hole Entertainment had shown a little more restraint in their campaign maps, and a little more competency in their programming, they might have had something really nice here, but as it stands now Heroes VI is a "wait and see" game. The more it gets patched, or the more its price drops, the more it will be worthwhile to check out.