Might & Magic: Heroes VII Review
December 31, 2015
Let's start with some useful information, in case there are those of you who are still wondering if you should buy the game. This game requires a huge download capability. Even if you buy the DVD version, there is a huge patch of around 11 Gb you need to download right off the bat. Then there are the other patches, easily taking the total download amount up to 16 gigs. If you have a low bandwith quota, or a very slow connection, the patching becomes prohibitively slow and you can just forget about playing this game. There is some comforting news, though: I have it confirmed from the developers that since the patching is processed through Steam or Uplay, you can interrupt the download and start it up again later from where you left off. That means you can realistically download the patches if the problem with your connection is that it's slow or unstable. You can set it to patch and leave it over night or go to work. It's only if you have a small quota or non-DSL line that it becomes impossible. So to conclude, the game is totally unsuited for anyone who either has a slow web connection (non-broadband) or has a limit (quota) on how much data you can download. Even if you have a good connection, like I do, I question the optimization when you have to download 4 DVDs worth of updates.
With that out of the way, it's time to have a look at the quality of the actual game:
4/6 - quite enjoyable, but still lacking something.
I'll start with the elephant in the room: the bugs. The game was released with quite a lot of them - "myriad" is a fitting word - and even though the Limbic people have been working their butts off with the patching, the game is still fraught with them half a year later. I'll give the Limbic developers an A for effort, seeing as they're releasing small hotfixes very quickly if needed, and are still working hard to release bigger patches in stages, but as the quality of the game is to be the basis of this review, I'm afraid effort just isn't enough. We still have abilities that malfunction, artefacts that can't be transferred from one hero to another, and more. That said, though; I have played the campaigns for over 50 hours now, and still I have not encountered a game-breaking bug of the kind I did in the beta, it's mostly small stuff (like the graphics glitch seen here). The game is definitely playable.
But is it enjoyable? Let's go deeper into that, shall we?
AI: sometimes good, sometimes bad.
On the adventure map, the AI is a mixed experience. It seems to judge your strength correctly, so it comes for you if you have a small army and runs away if you have the strength in numbers. It also recruits creatures from its towns. It is a bit thick when it comes to clearing its own area in single player mode, though; there are still neutrals to be fought, mines to be flagged and resources to be picked up - nothing looks dumber than an AI hero running right past a pile of gold. Then, suddenly, it does pick up stuff. The autocombat (in-combat) works reasonably well, but even I (no more than a medium skilled player) can do better. The quick combat is the same way: it's OK, but you can do better and get through battles with few to zero losses if you do it yourself and make an effort. (Click the image to the right to see an example of this; the top is done by the quick combat, the bottom one is me playing the fight manually). The main issue is the computer's disregard for magical powers; it seems to calculate the losses on hero level and army strength, but if you use the correct spells in combat, you can get better results. This is made all too clear when the quick combat loses a battle the computer claims is only a «modest» threat, while I win quite easily when playing it on manual. The point of this is that losing troops may not be a big deal in an individual battle; a win is a win, right? The AI seems to think so, but as we all know: conservation of troops is a good thing strategy-wise; the more troops you lose, the more difficult later battles will become. The «fight again» feature is really nice here. Some might consider it cheating a bit, but it's just like a quick reload feature, really, enabling you to try the quick combat first and fight manually if you don't like the results. In battle, the AI does usually goes for shooters. But then it sometimes moves away from them again, so it isn't too bright. Suddenly, it uses «armageddon» with an immune creature in its army, and you lose the fight. Then, when you repeat the fight, it seems to think that doing something completely different is a better idea. So the conclusion is that it's sometimes quite clever, sometimes quite stupid. Explain that.
The maps and campaigns: very good, actually.
First, I'd like to commend the guy(s) who came up with the way the campaigns are set up: Ivan has gathered some advisors (the council) representing different factions and before he decides what to do, he will listen to each of them tell a story. The faction campaigns, therefore, are the stories told by the different advisors. These stories are laid up in different ways: the Haven story is about a young Tomas of Wolf and the decisions he had to make when opposing the empire. The Academy story is different; it has several small stories and you play different heroes, and so on. When you have listened to (i.e. played through) all the stories, Ivan's own campaign unlocks. This is an interesting way of setting the scene; several stories - each with its own moral - all tied up into one. It enables the developers to tell very different stories that don't necessarily have a clear connection. Also, it's kind of funny that you are Ivan Griffin, but in the Haven campaign you play as people who opposed your duchy in the past. It has you rooting for your enemies: «come on, you Griffin scum, I will kill you all and ... wait a minute, those Griffin guys are my ancestors ...»
The campaign story is well-written, the voice acting is good. The campaign cutscenes is one of the things fans have complained about; still images instead of moving lips is a bit of a disappointment, but it's a bagatelle, really. I'd be more concerned if Limbic had spent lots of time and money on this kind of thing. I have played games where all the efforts were put into the intro video and the rest of the game sucked, so I prefer this.
The 16 single maps are also quite nice, and as new maps are being released with patches, contents is still being added. In total, you can get over 100 hours of playing time just with the standard material; if our community of fans starts producing more maps soon, that will only increase. A lot of fans keep comparing the Ubisoft games to how much play time you got out of Heroes III-IV, but I find it more fruitful to compare it to other modern games. The fact of the matter is that there are games I have played less than Heroes VII.
Hero development: sort of works, but could be better.
In this game, you are given a skill wheel of sorts, enabling you to look at the various skills in which your hero can specialize. There is a decent variation - you can choose governorial and strategic skills, straight defensive/offensive bonuses to your creatures, war machines or different schools of magic. This in addition to the unique faction abilities. However, I still think there should be a clearer distinction between Magic and Might heroes; as it is, Might heroes do have access to magic and the difference doesn't seem that big, given that you only really use a few spells and stick with those. The Academy heroes are different, having access to more and being more proficient in the use of spells. Still, the product is that the hero development is not as diverse as it could be: you are left with only a few builds to choose from since they work better than the others. For instance, your main Might hero should develop his offence and defence skills to boost his creatures, but so should your Magic hero. Your Magic hero should build magic skills, but even Might heroes do need some spells to boost the creatures in combat. No matter what, you end up not being able to specialize completely in practice. Some things are just needed no matter what you do. (Click the image to see a comparison between Magic and Might heroes).
Entertainment value: it's there ... sometimes.
Is this game any fun? Or is it merely a time-consuming excercise in traversing the world of Ashan, looking for a way to escape your real-life chores? What we're looking for is both general entertainment value, and something we like to call «The Heroes Feel» - an X factor that we can't really put our finger on, but gives us the feeling we're supposed to be getting when we're playing. Let's start with the general value:
There are still some balance issues to sort out – I, for instance, think the «weakness», «firewall» and «inner fire» spells are overpowered – but these are simple to fix once there is enough data suggesting a tweak needs to be made. The problem here is that there is a limited amount of strategies and builds that work, and once you find those, they are the ones you stick to. You can pretty much use the three afore-mentioned spells and very little else in most battles, causing you to feel like you're doing the same thing over and over. This lack of diversity caused me (during my campaign-playing days) to use quick combat in almost all small to medium battles since I just wanted the fight over with. The only time I fought the battles manually was when I had to (when fighting heroes) or when losses were mounting.
Suddenly, though, I found myself enjoying it. Once you get into the game and figure out what the creatures, spells and abilities can do ... or when you start to plan the building process of your town so that you'll be ready for the enemy hero who will arrive in 5 turns ...that's when the «Heroes feel» started showing up. For instance, you have to know how to fight certain creatures; some of them have abilities that enable them to jump straight to your ranks and block your shooters. How do you prevent this? I found myself thinking: «How can I manage to get through this battle without losses? Against these powerful creatures? Let me just check the spellbook here ...» That's what I'm talking about. I didn't get that feeling much on the adventure map. In combat, though – there it is. That feeling you get when you use spells and boosted creatures to take out a huge stack of champion creatures without losses – or that feeling when you outmaneuver the enemy hero with a better choice of spells, or when you realize that despite his bigger army, your stats are higher and thus you are slowly starting to turn the battle around ... that's «the Heroes feel», baby.
Tutorials were initially missing (instead there were links to gameplay videos demonstrating the game's features). Lots of people have complained about the lack of a tutorial map, but I found the introductory Haven map so easy that it served as a tutorial for me. In patch 1.6, a separate tutorial map was introduced. Personally, I can take it or leave it and this issue has no influence on my evaluation of the game.
Anything else? Well, some quick likes and dislikes: I like that you can see how many stacks you will be facing, not just the number of creatures. This is relevant for the planning of spell use. I like the fact that you can easily traverse waters by entering a ship and disembarking again in one simple movement. The «week of...» features are good, traditional and people familiar with earlier games will recognize these. I like the «local guard» feature, giving you some extra defences in fortified towns. The special warmachines are really cool. I don't like the lack of a Fog of War; seeing the enemy move around all the time is just boring. Also, I don't like the Steam permission prompt every time I start the game - it's already installed, there should be no need for Steam to make changes to it every time.
Multiplayer: so marred by faults it's ridiculous.
The multiplayer features of Heroes VII is - in my experience - absolute shit. It's a turd, a cowpat, utter rubbish. Firstly, you have to go through that horrendous Uplay program in order to play online. What's wrong about this program, I hear you ask? A simple Google search can help, but if you want me to summarize, it has a history of frequent faults and downtime, questionable security and resource drain. The fact that there are separate websites keeping track of the problems should tell you something. What happened to me when I was trying to play online? Well, first I was told to sign in, of course. Then, I tried to access a lobby and find some active games, and this happened:
Pick a random time to try it, and presto! it doesn't work. It's like malfunctions have become the norm. Once again it seems that Ubisoft are unable to deliver a suitable framework for online play on the PC. I don't understand why they even bother trying anymore.
The other problem is lack of players; if you finally do manage to get the thing to work, there aren't many games out there. As you can see from the image above, there were only two. I'm sure it varies, but to my mind it seems that many players have been scared away from the online experience. Sim turns were demanded by the fans, and they're in the game, but don't always function properly. Load times are long, glitches are numerous. Seriously, just turn it into a single player game.
Graphics & Sound
3/6 - good look and sound, shame about the interface.
Graphics: lookin' good, but is it worth it?
Ever since Ubisoft took over the Might & Magic franchise, the look of it all has been one of the main changes made. While using modern graphics engines is something that probably would have happened no matter who was in charge, we here at Celestial Heavens are divided in our opinion of this. On the one hand, we love the simplicitiy and functionality of the Heroes III-IV adventure map graphics, on the other hand the new engines give you so many possibilities: weather effects like fog and rain, lighting effects, more fluid animations for trees and water, etc. This scenery was good in H5, better in H6 and I have to admit, better still in H7.
My main problem with it has always been that it doesn't give enough value for money - that it does not justify the games' high PC requirements. I still slightly feel that way; even with my current gaming rig (see bottom of page), I get choppy framedrops during H7 campaign cutscenes and some of the big maps, not to mention the load times. I do feel that it's moving in the right direction: You can't zoom in hideously on the adventure map anymore, and that's a good thing. You can also spin the map around, while the one thing I do miss is the ability to tilt the map so you can have more of a bird's eye view.The problem remains, though: this isn't a nature documentary, it's a video game. Scenery should not be the main thing you notice.
The town screens look good. Not fantastic, but good. I know some of you will disagree, but I don't care. The point of a town screen is to look nice and be informative at the same time, and it does that. Using a 3D town screen never worked very well in the previous games in my view, and having this «2,5D» screen is a refreshing return to Heroes 4-like looks. If there's one criticism, it is that the buildings are purely decorative. Speaking of which, just as in some of the earlier games, there are structures and buildings on the adventure map that are purely ornamental. Man, is that confusing.
The music: a new direction
I could dedicate an entire section just for this, and since I'm paying the bills for this site, I will. This time around, the dynamic duo we know as «Rob & Paul» were given the task of setting the music for the game while not being given rigid instructions. It's like they were told what the game would be about and which factions it would include, and told to let their minds run wild to see what they could come up with. Telling stuff like that to artists is not without risk; you could end up with an avant-garde-like project that sounds like Bjork and is never completed, but you can also get something really unique and spectacular. Giving the likes of Mozart an unlimited budget and no time constraints could easily see him spend the next three years being drunk, but it could also produce the most beautiful music the world will ever know. So how have our guys performed? The answer is: quite well.
On the adventure map, the music sets a mood that fits with the factions. I'm not so sure about the battle music; it seems inspired by Bach's dark organ pieces, only to be suddenly (but blissfully) pierced by a Pucciniesque high note from the lovely Karin Mushegain. Some of this was really annoying; intense and dark, like hearing an organist keeping the keys pressed for too long. I was looking forward to every second Karin could hop in with some serenity and calm with that lovely voice of hers, only to have the organ grinding continue moments later. The blend is what I find strange; it's like one minute being in a Batman film, watching the Joker and the Penguin dance merrily around a carousel, and the next minute I'm in a mediaeval convent, hearing Gregorian chants. It leaves me confused. I guess this is what happens when you give composers a free rein: you get beautiful music, but you're not sure if it fits with everything in the game. That's what I mean by new direction - it's the composers themselves choosing direction this time, and they're doing it slightly differently, choosing themes according to what they think each town should sound like:
The town music varies with the factions; some of it is a blend between Wiennese waltz and carnival music, some is more choir and piano. Not all of them are to my personal liking, but they're varied and Rob & Paul have succeeded in setting a theme for each faction.The Stronghold town music is pretty good, with its typical mediaeval court feast theme. A particular highlight is in the Necropolis, with Karin in a more prominent role. Seriously, I know I sound like a bit of a fanboy, but when you have an international opera star available, you don't have her sing «Mary had a little lamb» and leave it at that, you let her loose and get as much of her as you can – and that's what's been done in the Necropolis town music.
On the whole, the fans of Rob & Paul will not be disappointed, and I'm very happy they were recruited to do the music in this game. We get quality, I'm just not sure I'd buy the soundtrack.
User Interface: where are the freakin' buttons!?
The first hour of play, I thought it was absolutely terrible. As I got used to it, I modified my opinion to «bad». While the scenery looks very nice, I found maneuvering on the adventure map a real chore. You do get used to it, though, you just have to work through that initial «oh my god, this is terrible» feeling.
The menus are intuitive and you can change all sorts of settings. The in-game commands are some times intuituve, sometimes insanely difficult to work out. Once you understand them, however, they are very quick to use – I suspect that has been designed so on purpose. I remember that I had to search online for a way to set a hero as governor of a town, but once I knew how, it was easy. Other things, such as building, recruiting creatures, finding your inventory or skill screen, these are all good.
My main problem with the interface is the small size of the buttons and structures. They're hard to see and I keep wondering why they made it this way; it's as if they wanted the scenery (which does look lovely, I'll admit) to be the main thing in the game. Every time I want to see the artefacts in my hero's inventory or see how many creatures I have in my army, I have to move my face closer to the screen so I can see them properly. This along with the fact that the game is still a bit choppy, compels me to rate the graphics as mid-level in quality.
Changing the game
4/6 - it looks good, but there are challenges
Editor: looks exciting, but oh! the size!
The map/campaign editor is the most important factor in determining a Heroes game's long-term success. People still play Heroes IV and it's not because of the campaigns or the multiplayer. The condition for turning H7 into a classic, a game that we several years from now will call one of the most celebrated games in the series, is to have an editor that normal people (non-developers) can use to its full potential. So ... can they? What the verdict? Have Limbic created a good editor? Well ... I tried it, spent some time frustrating over it and set the benchmark:
If I (an amateur who hasn't made a decent map since H4, but who loves the H4 editor) can make a map with the H7 editor, I will give it a clean bill of health. And while the map is not finished yet, and I'm still not sure about the more advanced scripts, I tend towards saying: «Holy crap, I think they've done it».
It starts out promising - even though it took 4 minutes for the program to boot; its requirements are higher than the game. The menus are fairly simple: You can choose how many players you want, and change it along the way, setting them to play on the same team against you or whatever you wish. There are also the options of setting the starting resources, enabling/disabling specific «week of...» features (in case you don't want the Week of Plague to occur in your map), the same goes for spells, heroes and artefacts. And it's easy.
It is also easy to find the various conditions you want to set for the map; win/loss conditions and so on. Structures and items are simple to place on the map. It was a bit hard finding out how to drag and turn them, but after some time of experimenting with the controls, it gets easier. All in all, a decent mapmaker will no doubt be able to create simple maps by setting up terrain features and objects. Even setting up a campaign seems doable; there is a separate campaign tool that enables you to carry over heroes, and as we have seen in the campaigns, the heroes do indeed carry over from one map to the next with the builds you create.
The thing I'm not as sure about is the scripting. Setting the win condition (singluar), is easy enough, but quests are more complicated. Doable, but complicated. The good news is that even I managed to grasp the general idea of it after half an hour of poking around. Still, there could (should!) be more tips and explanations in the help file. How to set multiple quests in sequence, for instance. Not all those codes are self-explanatory, far from it. You have to sort of guess at it and try it out to see if it worked.
You can test the map within the editor, but it's really resource-draining.
Conclusion: I can work with this. That means more talented people can probably do wonders.
The big problem is the size of the maps the editor generates. As outlined here, the size of the map files generated by the editor is above 20 Mb as a finished product (80 Mb as an editable file). This is completely unprecedented. Files from the previous games could be sent via e-mail - these can't. Still, I'm confident that you - our Community - can come up with some creative solutions to this challenge. Let's be solution-oriented. Perhaps we can use torrents for distribution of maps? Maybe you could open a free Dropbox account and share the link with your friends if you want them to have a look at it? Since people with low-end PCs and web connections can't use the game anyway, it should be doable. Just a bit awkward. We here at Celestial Heavens are already looking into ways we can assist the Community of map makers out there - if not by hosting the map files as usual, then setting up a distribution network of a different sort.
By request, the developers also included an RMG, a random map generator. In case you're having trouble finding it, you go into the editor and click «New Map» to get these options (see image to the right). I like that you can also make combat maps. Choosing the random type, you can set the size, the type (skirmish or scenario), the number of players and a few other things. It takes a while to generate it, though: selecting a small skirmish map, I waited for 6 minutes. The result was an OK map that can be played, but that has little charm. For that, we need human beings.
Modding: come on, geniuses, show yourselves!
I was going to say something clever about being able to make mods, but then I realized I don't know anything about it. Except to say that we know there are some already out there. With that possibility, all we need now is some eager beavers breaking new ground and coming up with new ways to change the game. We're looking forward to it.
The campaigns are enjoyable, as are the single player maps. Most of the bugs have been rooted out, but there are still some that really should have been polished out by now.
The multiplayer feature is not good, mostly because the infrastructure offered by Ubisoft is not working properly.
The editor really looks exciting and I'm eager to see what more skilled map/campaign makers can do with it.
At a lowered price, the game is worth buying for its single player entertainment and its potential for map production. The amount of bugs and the lacking multiplayer structure make paying full price unjustifiable,
This review is based on versions 1.4 - 1.6, with the following PC setup:
- Main Board: ASRock Z87 EXTREME3 - Haswell
- CPU: Intel Core i5-4670 Haswell
- RAM: Kingston 16GB HyperX Beast DC DDR3-2133 (2x8GB)
- GPU: XFX GeForce GTS 250, 512mb PhysX CUDA, PCI-Express 2.0, 2xDVI, 738/2200MHz
- Screen: Samsung SyncMaster 913N (19" LCD), 1280x1024, 75Hz