Reading this brings back memories of Spring 2006, back when I first tried Heroes V. Which parts of the game do you like more or less than when you first played the game?
The Story (POSSIBLE SPOILERS)
I haven’t played enough of the game to really get a sense of the overall, cohesive story of H5, if there even is one. The second campaign is related to the first, but now I’m stuck with that godawful Agrael. I have to be honest and say I found it very difficult to take the story seriously, at least the Haven part, given the quality of the cut-scenes. From what I gather so far, some demons, led at least locally by Agrael, are invading the human realm for some reason. The humans are trying to fend them off. Nicolai dies at the end of the first campaign, and so Isabel is now the queen. Agrael has some plans of his owns outside the ambitions of his overlord. Pretty standard fantasy stuff. Enough to propel me from one map to the next but nothing too compelling. Compared to the stories of previous HoMM games, I find it to be pretty typical. H4’s story was very weak, with no unified plot (although I did enjoy the Gauldoth Half-Dead campaign), so I guess it’s a step up from that. I’m about halfway through the 2nd campaign right now, and the plot is starting to thicken just a wee bit. Hopefully that trend will continue, but it would be nice for one of these Heroes games to come up with something really interesting, with some characters that weren’t paper cutouts and a plot that kept me on my toes. I was also hoping that maybe we’d see a branched campaign like the some of those in H2. But overall, no real complaints here.
Hero skill development is complex.
Alright, I’ve talked a lot about aesthetics so far without really touching on the meat of the game. At this point it probably seems like I’m pretty disappointed with H5. That’s not really the case. Visuals, music, and story all have their place, but the heart of a strategy game is the gameplay. I can live with bad sound and graphics. I cannot live with a bad infrastructure.
Immediately I can tell that they weren’t lying: the game retains the core elements of H3 and has discarded a lot of H4 “improvements”. Single hero in the army? Check. Troops on a seven day cycle? Check. And I’ve got to be honest, I can’t help but be thrilled that I’m playing a new Heroes game, no matter how cheesy the cut scenes are or how H3-clonified the gameplay is. It feels good to be hopping around a map again, building an army, and kicking the crap out of some neutrals.
The Haven campaign starts off slowly, which is a little frustrating. I know all of the basic elements of the game, and I don’t like to have to wait two maps before I get to cast a spell. I can see that the Haven campaign will have limited replay value. Oh well. After gaining a few levels with my main Hero, I find that I do miss the deep character advancement system of H4. But I do notice that the system is not exactly like the H3 system either. There seem to be main skills, and each skill has sort of sub-skills (abilities?) associated with it. This is actually sort of like H4. It would have been interesting though if you could change character classes depending on the skills you chose to specialize in, like you did in H4, although that facet of H4’s system was admittedly underdeveloped. A nice extension of H5’s system is that there appears to be more abilities associated with each skill than you ultimately could choose, which forces you to make some decisions about what abilities to take and which ones to ignore. The “skill tree” seems very complex to me, and it is unclear yet which abilities I need to take to get access to others. This knowledge will come in time, I’m sure, and I like that the developers decided to part ways with H3’s overly simplistic Hero skill system. So far, this seems like one of the biggest strengths of H5.
As for the skills themselves, I am surprised that there are so many that I do not recognize, and I’m not sure yet how they function. There appear to be skills that can be obtained for any class, and then some that are unique for each class. Such as training. Interesting idea, and there are lots of other new abilities for the knight to choose among. Also, the demon skills are quite unusual – and useful – such as gating. And there appear to be many new abilities here as well. So it seems like there are lots of new things for me to learn, and lots of tactical maneuvers that were not present in earlier incarnations of HoMM. That’s a good thing, as the game, at least in this regard, doesn’t feel the same as H3 at all. I can only hope everything is well balanced.
I am a little disappointed that, unlike most HoMM games of the past, each faction is only associated with a single hero type. For instance, Haven only has a knight. Thus we no longer have “might” and “magic” oriented hero classes for each faction. It doesn’t seem to me that there any rhyme or reason to what skills are offered to your hero when they level up (i.e., it seems random), and there are usually four options (two skills and two abilities), so you can probably, through your choices, construct any type of Hero you want (might or magic oriented), but if you want to build a magic hero, how do you ensure that you will gain spell power and knowledge when you level up rather than attack and defense? Maybe I just need to learn the details and so I may have nothing to worry about in this regard, but one thing I appreciated about earlier HoMM games was knowing from the beginning whether I was hiring a might or magic hero. Heroes do seem to have a variety of individual specializations, such as archer commander. But none of this is explained very well in the game or in the manual, so it’s still a little confusing to me. I am not particularly thrilled with the magic system, which seems a little half-baked, but so far my heroes have all been pretty might oriented so maybe there’s more depth to it that I haven’t uncovered yet.
Overall, though, I’m happy with the hero building system of H5, based on initial impressions. I would have preferred something a little deeper, especially coming off of H4, so in this sense it does seem like a little bit of a step back. But on the other hand there are enough new skills and abilities that prevent it from being boring to a veteran of the series like myself.
Good variety in creature skills.
I did manage to take a look at some of the creature line-ups well before the game was released, so this was not that much of a surprise. In some towns, the line-ups were very similar to those of H3. In others, they were completely new. In the former, I can’t really complain that much since the formulas are tried and true. When I first saw the new line-ups, I was a little unimpressed with them, so I was eager to see how they worked in practice. Of course, so far I have only played Haven and Inferno, two towns which have similar (although less so in the latter case) line-ups to the analogous line-ups of H3.
One of the things I really like so far is that the creatures are highly specialized. Many creatures appear to have unique abilities and I often have a choice of at least two different things any given creature can do on their turn in combat. This is a relatively new thing for HoMM, and it’s a nice way to deepen the tactical elements in the game. In previous entries in the series, during combat most creatures really had only a single option of attack. Whether the attack was ranged or melee, each creature generally had a single mode of harming their opponents: move up next to another creature stack and strike, or in the case of shooters, strike from a distance. Granted, that attack was often accompanied by some effect, be it wyverns’ poison or gorgon’s death stare. These specials diversified the creatures to some extent and made certain monster types useful in certain situations, which did lead to a variety of tactical decisions centered mostly around deciding what creatures to attack with what creatures, and in what order, but those tactical considerations were ultimately limited by the fact that each creature really only had a single option from which to choose. The exception to this was a few spell-casting units, such as H3 master genies, or H4 magi, which had a limited array of spells from which you could choose. But this exception notwithstanding, H5 is really the first HoMM game to supply many creatures with multiple options as to how you want them to attack. For instance, in the case of Haven, archers can either shoot normally, or they have a scatter attack which is weaker but which also damages creatures adjacent to the targeted one. (Interestingly, the upgraded marksmen lose this special.) Gryphons have an optional useful dive attack which does incredible damage but has the drawback of placing them at a random position afterwards. With the exception of spell-casting creatures, none of these alternate attacks cost spell points and so they can often be used repeatedly. In addition, there is the usual assortment of specials effects that are attached to each creature’s attacks. The end result I feel is, in principle, a greater degree of tactical depth, greater certainly than in H3, and probably on par with H4 with its battlefield-active heroes.
As for the creature line-ups themselves, I have only played around with two of them (partially with Sylvan also), but so far I am happy, though reservedly so. I greatly liked H3, and I feel right at home here. Having virtually the same creature lineup for Haven and (less so) Inferno doesn’t really bother me that much, because the creatures do in many cases play differently than their H3 analogues. I haven’t really played enough yet to get a sense of the level of balance. Nevertheless, strategy-wise I feel that H5’s town development tree is a step backwards from H4. I had hoped for a long time that H5 would continue with H4’s introduction of a branched town-structure, which offered a choice of (in the case of H4) 2 creature types for the upper level tiers of a given town. In fact, I wanted this to be extended even further. That you can build every available creature type in any given town waters down the strategy of the game and renders the towns belonging to a given class very similar. This was a bit of a disappointment. Maybe that will change in the next expansion, which is rumored to have new upgrades for each creature type. It will be great if the upgrades are branched. Still, from what I’ve seen so far the creatures themselves are diverse enough to offer good tactical depth, are quite pleasing to look at, and follow the well-established, if a little tepid, H3 system.
Part 4: battles, AI and tilt