Heroes V E3 Preview

David Mullich was the Director of Heroes III, Armageddon’s Blade,
Shadow of Death, Heroes Chronicles and Heroes IV

During my annual pilgrimage to E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), I could not resist finding out how Ubisoft was doing with the game that was my love and labor for nearly five years.

Finding the Heroes V demo proved to be about as hard as locating Heroe’s grail object. The Ubisoft booth was tucked away in the corner of an enormous hall that was also home to the behemoth Activision, Electronic Arts and Vivendi Universal booths. Then, it took me several minutes to find the Heroes V display, which was set aside in a back corner, barely noticeable next to the attention-grabbing Peter Jackson’s King Kong theater. (Fortunately, there was a second demo station for the best turn-based strategy game of all time at the more prominent Games For Windows booth, where E3 adventurers are more likely to discover it).

Indefatigable Heroes V producer Fabrice Cambounet gave a short, well-rehearsed game demo to visitors, two at a time. Because the noise from nearby games was deafening, visitors had to wear headphones to hear Fabrice’s demo as he spoke into a microphone headset. When it was my turn to don a headphone, Fabrice asked me if I had ever played a Heroes game before. “A little bit,” I replied, then quickly glanced down to verify that my name badge was visible and wonder if he would recognize my name without me wearing Sir Mullich’s big floppy hat. If he did, he didn’t show it.

Fabrice began the demo on the town screen for the human faction, whereupon the camera began encircling the town, which was being rendered real-time in gorgeous 3D graphics. Heroes creator Jon Van Caneghem had long resisted the urge to take the Heroes series from the realm 3D because he felt that technology was not powerful enough to render artwork as beautifully as pre-rendered 2D artwork. Well, let me tell you, based upon what I saw, technology has finally reached a state where I think JVC would have been satisfied. Many of you old-time “Heroes” players will be pleased to hear that the color palette had been changed back to the cheerful hues last seen in Heroes 2, before I introduced the grittier “extreme fantasy” look of Heroes III and Heroes IV.

The town was a fairy-tale-style medieval village of about a hundred small houses, in the middle of which was a very tall sky-scraper-like castle with tall turrets built adjacent to the walls and elaborate structures sitting on top. After admiring the visual splendor, I began to wonder about gameplay. Fabrice described this as a “fully built town,” and as there were no user interface elements (buttons, icons, indicators, roll-over text) anywhere on the screen, I didn’t get any hints of what town construction or the build-tree was like.

I did see what appeared to be an Angel generator and another high-level creature generator on top of the castle, but where was the mage guild, black smith and grail structures? If the town included these buildings, was Ubisoft adhering to the Heroes design principle that you should be able to tell (or guess at) the function of an object just by looking at it? I worried that a lot of the turrets and structures looked indistinct.

Fabrice went on to say that as the player built up the town, more and more houses would appear around the central castle. While we did something similar in the previous versions of Heroes, there appeared to be many more dwellings in this fifth incarnation, and I wondered if the functional structures were too-tightly packed in a too-small portion of the screen. Granted, this was now a real-time 3-D game with camera zoom controls, so the functional portion of the town could take up as much or as little screen real estate as you choose, but the previous versions of Heroes had shied away from the idea of zoom controls on the belief that the camera should remain at an optimum, fixed position so that you always be shown everything you needed to see and interact with during that turn without worrying about zooming the camera to the proper distance.

My concern about camera placement and gameplay grew when Fabrice transitioned to the adventure screen, which showed the mounted hero waiting at the town’s entrance at a high zoom level that reminded me of the over-sized graphics in Heroes I.

Now, before I alarm anyone with my concerns, let me bring several caveats to your attention.

First, this was a demo made for an E3 audience, which consists of buyers and press who have a very short amount of time to be dazzled. So, I’m sure that everything shown was set up to be as visually impressive as possible and may not represent final gameplay.

Second, this is a work-in-progress. Fabrice said that the game would be released in Spring 2006, so there is still a year’s work to do on it. Much has not yet been properly adjusted or even initially implemented, and I have no doubt that Ubisoft will eventually undergo lots of gameplay testing, and they will adjust anything that they discover needs to be adjusted.

Third, watching a game being played is not the same as playing it yourself. You really can’t tell what works and what doesn’t until you spend time at the controls yourself.

Finally, making sequels is a tricky business, whether they are games, movies or books. To be successful, you need to make enough changes to make the sequel different enough from the original to make people want to buy it too, but without changing it so much that it loses what made it popular in the first place. Worse, technology and taste change over time, and what made the original successful yesterday may no longer be popular to the audience of today. Sometimes you guess right about what combination of changes will work (Heroes III, if I may be so bold) and sometimes you don’t (Heroes IV, anyone?)

Getting back to the adventure screen, the graphics were gorgeous. While the camera was zoomed in closer to objects than in the last few Heroes sequels, the graphics were also more detailed. The mountains had much more texture to them, the branches of trees swayed in the wind, and the lava pits glowed and flowed very realistically.

As I mentioned above, your army is still represented on the adventure screen as a hero on horseback and the town is still represented as a castle surrounded by a wall, although the castle’s details change as you build up your town. When you click on the adventure map, your route is still traced out by arrows (still looking very much like the solid-green arrows from Heroes II) following a hexagonal path.

As has been noted in other previews, the user interface has been reduced down to just a mini-map in the lower left-hand corner and an end-turn button surround by information screen buttons in the lower right-hand corner. Gone are the gold and resource indicators, buttons for quickly accessing your various armies and towns, and indicators showing what creatures your currently selected army consists of. The interface was streamlined “for simplicity,” but I wonder how having less information on the screen will affect the game’s strategic and tactical depth as you play it.

Fabrice first moved his army to a nearby windmill, which told me that the game still has resource generators. When the army arrived, a symbol representing the player’s forces appeared over the windmill to show that he now owned it. For the first time I noticed that this symbol also appeared on the player’s fluttering flag. Where player’s no longer represented by colors? No, the mini-map showed town and resource generator ownership by color. I then looked back on the symbols on the army flag and above the windmill and saw that they had a tinge of the player’s red color around them. I wonder whether the use of both a color and symbol will be as easy to “read” as just using a color to represent player ownership as in previous Heroes.

Fabrice then moved on to a treasure chest, which offered him a choice between 1500 gold and 2500 experience (if I recall the numbers correctly). He next went to an experience obelisk, at which he leveled up. As a Level 11 knight, he was offered a choice between two “Skills” (diplomacy and pathfinding, I believe) and two “Attributes” (logistics was one, I think). Fabrice said that the pop-ups were less wordy than in Heroes IV (a good thing, I say), although these particular pop-ups looked to me about as wordy as their Heroes IV counterparts.

As I looked at a nearby river as was pleased to note a whirlpool present, an (unmounted!) Inferno enemy hero approached and engaged me in battle. The game transitioned to the combat screen, which Fabrice said was incomplete and did not yet have the movement grid and battle options buttons found in previous versions of Heroes. I did note that there were stack numbers set in teal-colored boxes next to each troop on the battlefield.

For Heroes V, the heroes have been moved back off the battlefield and no longer participate in combat other than to cast spells. (That’s probably a good thing. Although I was the one who championed putting heroes onto the battlefield in Heroes IV, I’m not convinced that that actually added much to the game and perhaps even took away from it).

Each side had four stacks of creatures in its army. The humans had among it troops archers, griffins and cavalry while the flame-engulfed Inferno army had devils, hellhounds and two types of demons. The real-time 3D creatures were detailed enough that I think JVC would have been pleased, although things like helmets, shoulder guards, gloves and swords were over-sized for my tastes.

The armies were closer together than we have seen in previous Heroes; Fabrice said that when armies with fewer stacks fight, the battlefield is reduced accordingly to make battles go more quickly. I wondered how this change would affect the tactical distinguishments between walkers, shooters and fliers, as well as movement point balance, particularly with a mix of high and low-level creatures.

When battle commenced, I was reminded of the Playstation 2 version of Heroes, “The Quest for the Dragonbone Staff”. The camera would automatically shift to show a close-up of an attacker firing a weapon or hero casting a spell, and then immediately cut to show what happened to the victim. The camera placement was usually very good, and it felt more like watching a movie than playing a game, although the addition of a moving camera did concern me that it took away from the chess-like experience of previous Heroes games.

The creature and spell animations were all very good, although they had a feeling of being incomplete. Sometimes creatures popped into animation sequences rather than smoothly transitioning into them, and some of the spell effects seemed to be lacking start-up or end animations (like a puff of smoke when a creature was incinerated) that would made some spells more dramatic. I didn’t see any of the graphical icons we used in previous Heroes that communicated what the spell actually did (for example, a magical bolt being deflected off of a mirror to denote Magic Mirror).

However, the demo ended with a nice visual treat of a smoking bone dragon suddenly fly out of nowhere and land in the battlefield and blowing everyone away.

After Fabrice finished the demo, I quickly introduced myself to him, congratulated him on making such a magnificent looking game (which it is) and wished him well with the finished product (which I do). However, there were other people waiting to see the demo, and so my time with Fabrice was short.

While I did have some concerns about some of the design decisions I saw in the demo, I’m going to give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt and keep my fingers crossed that next year we will have another great Heroes game to play.

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