While Qurqurish Dragon explores Heroes of Might and Magic IV for the first time (story), Corribus went through a major computer upgrade to try Heroes V, a year after its release. His experience gave him the inspiration for a new special feature called Heroes V, Deconstructed. The first part combines an introduction and first impressions of the graphics, still a hot topic after all that time. Additional entries will be published during the next couple of days, and comments are welcome, as always.

Heroes V, Deconstructed

Greetings again, fellow HoMMers. It’s been a while.

The reason it has been a while is because, while most of you have been enjoying (or loathing) Heroes of Might and Magic V, I’ve been stuck in ancient computer land, running almost no computer games whatsoever. That all changed a few weeks ago when I finally bit the bullet and purchased a new laptop.

I started this Discourses column a few years ago with a series of articles entitled “On the Ethical Question of Cloning”, in which I put forth the argument that Ubisoft, in its design strategy for H5, was making the right business decision by regressing, so to speak, back to a design style similar to that of Heroes III. As such, Ubisoft would abandon some of the more progressive but controversial elements of H4, a move which understandably rankled those who grew to love H4 despite its shortcomings, but which pleased those who look upon H4 as the ugly duckling of the HoMM series. In my trilogy of musings, I tried to avoid any discussion of the decision from a fan’s point of view, as it was not my intent to become embroiled in a verbal quagmire of the pros and cons of heroes on the battlefield or other novel changes made in H4. Rather, my goal was to try to demonstrate why it was imperative for Ubisoft to return to the successful formula of H3 in order to restore confidence in the brand name, and to protect their newly bought investment. I believed then, and believe now, that – however I ultimately feel about the quality of H5 – their business strategy was sound, and when I wrote those articles, I was very positive about the future of our beloved franchise.

Fast-forward two years. Heroes V has been released to generally positive but not glowing reviews from the major gaming sites. The expansion pack seems to have been less-well rated, but that’s not really atypical of expansion packs. Most of you who are reading this have played H5 enough that you likely already have a well-developed sense of whether you like the game or not. I now own the game and have been playing it for a little over a week. I have not installed the expansion yet, but I’ve played through one and a half campaigns. During the last year, I have tried as hard as possible to insulate myself from any discussions about H5 that have taken place in the forums. I did this to preserve the experience for myself, so that my initial impressions would not be colored by those of people who had been playing the game for over a year, and because I didn’t want to start playing the game knowing all the tactical loopholes that have likely already been tickled out by the game-hounds among us. My efforts to remain in the dark have been mostly successful, and I have been able to play the game so far with a clean slate, experiencing the game from the beginning much as you all experienced it a year ago, although likely with less bugs because I am starting with a fully patched version.

GameRankings Stats for Heroes V

What I’d now like to do is re-examine the game from the fresh perspective of someone who has never played it before. I go into this with no agenda, no real point to prove, at least not yet. This will likely be a multi-entry article. I will start with some initial impressions of the game, and then when I have played the game enough, I would like to take a step back and look at how the game fits into the series as a whole, analyze if – having now played H5 – I still feel that Ubisoft is taking the game in the right direction, and assess whether I was right about my earlier arguments or if I was completely wrong. Along the way, I hope that we can have a frank and honest discussion of the merits of this game, and I encourage you all to also contribute some of your own impressions, or reactions to my impressions, in the comments section.

Heroes V Deconstructed: Part 1. Initial Impressions

What follows will be a description of some of my initial impressions of the game. I imagine that much of what I will write here will not be new to anyone, but maybe reading the initial impressions of someone who is playing this game for the first time, a game which you have known for a year, will be enlightening for you, and cause you to look at the game in a new way. For the same reason, I have found Qurqirish Dragon’s recent descriptions of his initial experience with H4 to be very interesting. Realize, when I popped the H5 disc in the drive for the first time a week ago, I knew absolutely nothing about the game aside some basic information about the faction line-ups. I was among those who was supposed to help out in the closed beta version of the game, but my computer was sadly too slow to run it, and so aside from seeing one or two minutes of a very early version of the game in action, I didn’t even know what the visuals looked like. I recognize that I am still in the “I’m so happy I’m playing a new HoMM game!” phase and so my impressions may be a bit rose-colored. I fully expect that once I’ve played for a while, some of my initially positive reactions may be tempered, once I really start to analyze the gameplay underneath.

Here we go: 10 initial impressions of Heroes of Might and Magic V.

  1. The Graphics are Stunning.

I’ve been away from modern computer games for a while, probably 5 years, so maybe that prevents me from properly benchmarking my perception of what are good graphics and what are bad graphics in this day and age, but when I loaded Heroes 5 for the first time, I was stunned. Criticize Ubisoft all you want – you can’t accuse them of not putting effort or production values into the visuals of this game. Of course, that goes along when what I’ve been saying for a while: graphics sells games. It’s what you see on the back of the box. It’s what you see in screenshots. You can have the best, deepest strategy game of all time, but if it doesn’t have the eye-candy, it will probably flop. And this game has some great eye candy.

To put it in perspective, my new laptop has 2 GB of RAM, a T7200 Core 2 Duo processor, a nVidea Go 7900GS video card, and a 1900 x 1200 widescreen (17”) screen resolution. I am playing under Vista. I selected all the highest video settings, including the highest possible screen resolution, and the game just looks amazing. I immediately went to the first (Haven) campaign. Fast-forward past the intro-sequence (more on that later) and I found myself on the “overland” perspective, controlling my first hero. The colors were bright, the character and creature models expressive, the animations fluid and fun. The 3D look will take some getting used to but I certainly felt immersed in a more dynamic world than any Heroes game before has been able to accomplish. On the overland view, in earlier incarnations of Heroes (particularly 2 or 3), I felt like a general surveying the map of a battlefield. It was like playing a board game. Here in H5, it’s quite different. I was initially very surprised by the scale of elevations that can be accomplished. Mountains feel and look like mountains and trees and objects have actual height. I have mixed feelings about that functionally, but visually, I definitely feel less like I’m playing an Avalon Hill game and more like I’m an actor in the events that are unfolding. H4 was sort-of three dimensional, but nothing like this. And then I went underground, and it really was like being in a cave. It is actually dark down here. I was a little annoyed by the cave walls, which sometimes interfere with clicking where I wanted to go, but overall, the overland (and underland) visuals are just really cool. Zooming in is definitely a handy feature and allows you to go to more of an RPG perspective. I seem to be playing more zoomed in though since I do experience a hint of slow down when zoomed all the way out. (Peculiarly, I also seem to get slowdown at very high elevations. I can’t figure that out, and reducing the settings doesn’t seem to help.)

The visuals in the battles are no less stunning, and I’m particularly enamored with the creature death animations on the battlefield. Too bad that often-times, particularly when killing the last creature, the game seems to automatically zoom all the way out so you can’t appreciate them. Spell effects seem less impressive, but I haven’t really accessed many spells yet. [Edit: I’ve since played around with more spells, and some are indeed visually pleasing. I particularly like the Implosion spell.] The town visuals seem like a bit more of a mixed bag. The Haven town seems less life-like and more like a computer-generated construct than the other areas of the game and most of the buildings look the same to me. Inferno and Sylvan towns look better, particularly the latter, but in all of these cases it is also hard, at least to my untrained eye, to pick out from a quick glance what has been built and what hasn’t without going to the build menu. In earlier incarnations of HoMM, I appreciated being able to tell with a quick glance how built up the town was. There’s also less a sense of the town “growing” as you build things as there were in earlier HoMM games. Despite that, the H5 towns are nowhere near as ugly as the H4 towns, so I guess I shouldn’t criticize them too much. Finally, there are some nice graphical touches I’ve noticed, such as the trails of smoke or fire that Inferno heroes leave behind as they march along the map, the intensity of which seems to scale with the size of the hero’s army. It is touches like this that add a lot of personality to a game, and I very much appreciate the work that went into them.

Part 2: graphics and gameplay, sound and music