Why bother with a GameSpot preview when you can read the thoughts of a true Heroes veteran? Jolly Joker is a grandmaster of the game, a familiar face to anyone who has been in the Heroes community for a while. He wrote strategies for the official Heroes III site and created unit rating tables and maps. After spending several months on the Heroes V beta, he worked on the German localization of the game. His 4557 word preview article begins with an important clarification:

"Should someone try to tell you, Heroes V is Heroes III in 3D, don’t believe it, it’s just not true. True is, that there are lots of things where elements of III and IV have been merged. You could say on first look the bodywork is more like III, but take a look under the hood and you’ll find a lot of IV. That said, it’s neither III nor IV, it’s simply V."

All elements of Heroes V are covered, from the factions and creatures to heroes and magic. The article is also the closest you will find to a strategy guide at this point. Don't miss the conclusion, where Jolly Joker tells you how good the game really is. Read it all here.

Before I go into details and tell you what to expect from the upcoming new HoMM title, two things. The first is: Should you have played the open beta, forget it. It’s not nearly the finished product. I’ve not only played the Preview version: since I’m the German translator of the game I’ve access to the full product, and it’s something else completely. Second, you might want to know something about me and my stance on previous Heroes games, so you can better appreciate – or dismiss – my verdict and comments here.

I’m a Heroes veteran, started playing with # I and got hooked on the game. Already regular guest on many websites and forums when # III was published, I made some contributions like strategy articles, unit rating lists, a mod-set, a map-set for competitive single play, a few regular maps, and took part in some online tourneys. Some may still know me as the Jolly Joker – which I still am. When the church of the Heroes community parted with the publishing of # IV, my stance on it was and is, that Heroes IV was not a bad game, but didn’t capture the Heroes feeling. For me, putting Heroes fully onto the battlefield, was trying the impossible. That didn’t mean, though, that all ideas were bad, on the contrary.

Should someone try to tell you, Heroes V is Heroes III in 3D, don’t believe it, it’s just not true. True is, that there are lots of things where elements of III and IV have been merged. You could say on first look the bodywork is more like III, but take a look under the hood and you’ll find a lot of IV. That said, it’s neither III nor IV, it’s simply V. Let’s have a look at some details.

I. The Factions

This is the most obvious and everyone interested will know this. We’ve six factions or races, a) Haven, which is the human faction or race with a dark middle ages feel, b) Inferno, which is the demonic faction from another plane with a very evil feel, c) Necropolis, the faction of the Undead, again with a pretty sinister feel, d) Dungeon, the faction of the (new) Dark Elves, not exactly a good and peace loving faction either, e) the Sylvans or Elves (yes, those Dark Elves did split off from them as did the Necros from the last faction), who have a “native” feel (be it Amerindian or druidic/keltic) and have to be considered as good, and f) the Academy, a race of Wizards with oriental look, another faction I’d rate good - haltingly.

These six factions all play and feel VERY differently. There is ONE hero type for each faction only and the heroes associated with a faction all have one special skill (like Necromancy for the Necros in previous games), that can be put to full use only in combination with a town of that faction and only with the units of that town. This discourages playing factions NOT with their heroes which is indeed not recommended. This eliminates not only all balancing problems that came out of playing towns with non-native heroes in previous versions, it is a very logical addition, too, that adds a lot of diversity. The special skills include the making of mini artifacts for single army stacks (Academy), upgrading units in vertical direction (i.e. from level 1 to level 2, from Peasant to Archer) and other interesting things. Factions are very different in terms of gold and resources needed to build up the towns, which brings us to

II. The Towns

This is mainly, where the strategy takes place in the game (as opposed to the tactics on the battlefield). Apart from looking great visually, one look at the city plan and you know you will have a lot of fun here. Each town has about 30 buildings. Don’t expect to be able to build each day, though. Things have changed a bit. We have basically the set-up of # III with 14 creature dwellings, 5 Mage Guild levels, 4 money buildings, 3 fortification/growth buildings, Blacksmith, Market, Resource Silo plus Horde dwellings and special buildings. Slight changes have been introduced that have massive impact on building strategy:

a) There are still building prerequisites that require you to build a certain dwelling first and then another one. For example, you must build the Blacksmith in a Haven town, before you can build the Barracks, the level 3 creature dwelling. Those are not many, however.

b) For each building in a town, the “town level” increases by 1. Your town needs to have a certain level for most buildings to build. Each town starts with the Village Hall which will give 500 Gold. A town that has only the Village Hall is level 1 (I guess it is possible to start even without ANY building or with another one instead of the Village Hall). The highest town level needed for anything is 15.

This seemingly small adjustment makes for a radical change in strategies. One big change is, in the beginning you cannot save money and build nothing in order to get the money for the buildings that boost creature growth and money, because you need a certain town level to build them. So you MUST build SOMETHING to get the levels. You need town level 15 to build the Capitol, for example, so you have to build quite a lot before you can go for that.

The second big change is the fact that the fortification/growth buildings are simple buildings (yes, the Fort, too) you don’t need for anything as a prerequisite (with a few town-specific exceptions). Since those are expensive, there are more decisions to be made (like, the Castle or the level 6 dwelling) as opposed to Heroes III where you build those “en route” to the Capitol.

Third, upgrade dwellings for creatures have gotten expensive. I mean, EXPENSIVE. For example, playing Haven you’d like to upgrade your Griffins, your level 4 creature, to Imperial ones (because the upgrade is worth it), but it costs the small sum of 6000 Gold plus resources, which means you cannot “just do it”.

Fourth, mage guilds have become cheaper, resource-wise, and since it’s not simple spell gathering and casting away anymore and you have to plan things a bit (see Magic), you want those as early as possible as well.

Fifth, the special dwellings, not exactly cheap either, are very, very useful as well and affect strategy in a very profound way. An example would be the Training Grounds for the Haven which in combination with a Haven hero allows vertical upgrading of creatures. So you may spend your money on building high level unit dwellings, but it would be possible to put the money in vertical upgrading and promoting your Peasants to Archers and Footmen or even Clerics and Cavaliers as well.

Sixth, the low level creatures have become much more useful than in previous versions which has many reasons, but the town-specific reason is, that you will build your highest (level 7) creature dwelling later than before.

All this means that where you used to have basically ONE option to go earlier, you have lots of them now. There’s some basic structure forcing you to keep to the more basic buildings initially, but starting with week two, you’ll have to make very fundamental decisions, which may lead to VERY differing building strategies depending on map, race, dificulty level, heroes, artifacts and so on. On one map you may build your level one to four plus the fortifications up to Castle for double growth, on another you may go for level 1-6 and try to squeeze in the Citadel before the end of the week and on just another one you may even have level 1-7, but no Fort. It’s all possible and more. It’s fun.

Furthermore money and resource needs are vastly different, ranging from cheap with high resource demands (Sylvan) to soso for some, expensive with low resource demands (Haven) and horrendous for Academy. I tend to think that Sylvans have a slight advantage here in the midgame, IF they manage to overcome the initial demands, but I may be wrong here, having not played that many really competetive games.

Basically, the building of just ONE town will take much more time and will keep you busy much longer than before. On all maps where you get a second town of the same alignment in the (early) course of the game, it gets infinitely more complex, strategically, because you cannot milk the second town, by going straight to City Hall and 2000 gold (remember town level?) and pumping the additional money into your first town. If you want to make more money with the second town, you have to invest more – but creating an army or armies with a plethora of low level monsters is indeed a possible strategy, so there are many options here.

It is worth to mention, that each TOWN has a special now, that may give you a wide range of individual bonusses.

Since especially the upgrades for the creature dwellings have become EXPENSIVE (but not ONLY because of that, see creatures), creature upgrading is not a no-brainer anymore. Gone are the days of # III where you’d be keen on doing things with upgraded units only most of the time. You simply cannot do it, at least not on higher difficulty level. Even better: you may want to, but you don’t need to, and that brings us to

III. Creatures

Let me tell you, even on normal difficulty level this is a game where you will need to hire troops. You will NOT succeed with # III tactics: upgrading Archers to Marksmen or Gremlins to Master Gremlins and clear most mines and stuff with 2 dozens of Marksmen or a couple dozens MGs and some bodyguards. The monster stacks are too massive for that and all monsters of all levels (with few exceptions) may prove difficult to deal with and inflict the dreaded LOSSES. That’s why you need to hire. You MUST put money into creatures, otherwise you are dead. Which is great. There are only three difficulty levels and the highest will still let you start with 10000 gold and assorted resources, which might make people frown, who are used to play maps on impossible difficulty, but since neutral stacks grow with difficulty level there will come the point when you will regret spending that 2000 Gold chest on experience instead saving the money.

You really have to put a lot of thought into assessing, whether your force will be able to beat guarding stacks and how. For example, most of the time you’ll shy away from attacking Druids because they have a devastating magic attack. Basic Druids can attack with Lightning Bolt and will do painfully much damage – but if you play Academy, for example, all of a sudden your otherwise rather lame and mostly defensively usable Gargoyles come to live: they are immune to lightning damage and can take a punch. The best thing is: when attacking you don’t have to fight with all your units: you can leave vulnerable units out against fast attackers (!), for example, because each fight starts with a tactics phase that allows to arrange troops (and let some out at that).

Another change is, you don’t have to upgrade creatures to make them effective. Even basic Gremlins can shoot. Even basic Vampires drain life. Even basic Pixies have a no retaliation/multi-square attack. Take an Archer. Useful damage range (2-4) and an interesting special that allows them to direct their arrows to an area of 9 squares; damage is halved then, but this special may come in handy quite regularly, especially when opponent stacks are massing in front of your body guards. Now, the Marksman upgrade loses this special (yup, it does), but gains another, of course: Apart from having massively better stats especially in terms of damage the Marksman will ignore the defense rating of the attacked units on very short distance. So if those tough level 7 stack looms before them, but is not QUITE adjacent, they might do one HELL of a mess of them. So while the upgrade is clearly worth it, the basic unit is not useless, on the contrary. Nearly all units have specials and even Peasants, the weakest unit in the game, will give you 1 gold per unit each day (but the upgrade loses this special again). So using units requires thought. All units have their use, upgraded or not, and upgrading is not something you do mechanically.

Unit structure and organization has been changed massively. For example, level 6 units are much more effectice then they were before. They have better attack and defense than most basic level 7 in # III. They are more expensive, too. They count. That’s the difference: all units count. We’ll see much better, why, when we come to the heroes.

Here’s a nice example for a game unit and for the game art as well. Let’s take a look at the Inferno’s level 4 creature, a new one and bound to be many people’s favorite: meet the Succubus and her cousin, the Succubus Mistress. The only difference in stats is, the Mistress has 10 HPs more (30) than the Succubus (20), however, there’s an oh so slight difference in abilities. The Succubus is a high damage shooter (6-13 damage) and the only unit in the game that will retaliate, when shot at. The Mistress has an additional ability named Chain Shot. Her shots are like a Chain Lightning, only with fire, and her shots won’t hit your own units either.

And that’s the main difference. Most creatures, in fact nearly all, have very interesting special abilities that make more of them than only the sum of their stats. There are many new things. Scouts and Assassins for example, the Dungeon’s level 1 creature, have shooting capabilities, but a range penalty which means, when they shoot, the damage they do is halved (additionally to all other penalties). So they are a lot better in close combat than as shooters, but since the Assassin’s shot is poisonous which means, the target will suffer poison damage each turn, you can do a bit softening up and, by making use of the Dungeon’s faction special, the Elemental Chain (which you will have a lot of fun to work with), make sure later attacks will deal more damage than usually.

I talked about suffering damage each TURN, and that’s not strictly true because there are no turns anymore. Instead each unit has its own rhythm of getting turns. This is made possible by introducing a new stat, the initiative. Initiative determines, how often a unit will act. A unit with initiative 14 will act doubly as often as a unit with initiative 7. This changes the battles completely. Imagine a fast unit with no retaliation special and high initiave, for example the Blood Fury of the Dungeon, upgraded level 2. Initiave 16 (very high). Damage 5-7 (very high for a level 2), speed 8 (BIG range) and a special called Strike and Return which is, what the Harpy Hags do in # III. Now imagine a solid, bulky and therefore slow unit – like the Hydra, another Dungeon creature, level 5. 80 HPs, speed 5, initiative 7. Until said Hydra is able to reach and hit the Blood Furies, the latter will have hit the Hydras pretty often. VERY often, in fact, because they are likely to get moral boosts which will halve the time between their turns. Another point worth mentioning, is the fact that a unit without the unlimited retaliation special has one retaliation between THEIR turns. So a low initiative unit will not only attack less often, it will retaliate less often as well.

Level 7 units, on the other hand, are not so dominating anymore.

Let’s have a look at the core of the game now, the Heroes.

IV. The Heroes

With Heroes V heroes are neither on nor off the battlefield. They cannot be attacked, but act basically like creatures. They do have an initiative and can act only when it is THEIR turn, and they can do a lot more than just cast a spell.

We have less now. Only six different ones, one for each faction. Back are the primary attributes Attack, Defense, Spell Power, and Knowledge and they work as in # 3, at least attack and defense. There are slight differences with the latter two, for example, Knowledge will determine the number of spell points your heroes regenerate each day in addition to giving you the spell point maximum.

Then there are the skills, each one with 3 levels, again like in # III, but there are a lot LESS skills: there are 12 common skills and 6 unique (1 for each faction). And a hero has 6 skill slots (less than in # III, more than in # IV). However, there are the abilities now. Each skill is associated with a couple of abilities, and these abilities are another new thing and a really great addition. Associated with each common skill come 3 basic abilities, that can be learned by every hero and a couple more advanced ones that are open only to certain hero classes and need prerequisites to be able to get, so that all heroes will have 4 or 5 abilities for each skill to pick from, but at most 4 per skills are allowed to be learned. Moreover, there must be a certain balance between skill levels all in all and abilities all in all, so that you cannot learn basic skills only and then go for abilities.

And the hero special is back!

When a hero gets a level upgrade, he or she offered 2 skills and 2 abilities (if eligible) to pick from. Here’s an example: the Wizard Razzak. His special is called Golem Crafter which means that the Golems will get one additional point in attack and defense each two levels. He starts with Basic Artificer like all Wizards which enables him to create mini-artifacts for creatures (provided you have built the Arcane Forge in the Academy) and with Basic Defense which gives 10% less damage suffered. In addition to that he starts with one ability, Defense based, called Toughness. This ability gives all creatures of Razzaks army +2 HPs (note the effect of this ability on low level troops). When Razzak levels up to level 2, he may get the following picks: Advanved Artificer, Basic Light Magic, Magic Bond, Evasion. Advanced Artificer will allow him to create more sophisticated artifacts; Basic Light Magic will enable him to learn level 3 Light Magic spells (see Magic) AND will make low level Light Magic spells generally more effective; Magic Bond is an Artificer based ability (only for Wizards) that will in effect allow you to Bond your Wizard with an opposing creature stack; after that initial bonding, which costs the hero an action, ALL spells cast on ANY opposing stack will effect the Bonded creature, too, (double damage effect, if the hero casts a damage spell on the bonded creature). So this is a very useful and powerful ability, but the use obviously depends on the spells you have: with no good spells to harrass the opposition with that ability wouldn’t cut it). The Evasion ability, Defense based, gives your creatures 20% less damage suffered from ranged attacks, an equally useful ability. So it’s your first level-up and it’s already a tough decision to make. All of the three might be very good picks, depending on the map. Many ranged stacks? Evasion. Destructive or Dark Magic spells in the guild? Magic Bond. This is very charecteristic for hero development: it won’t get dull. There are many fine points to check, for example necessary prerequisites for advanced abilities and actual situation like map size, money and so on, and you can develop one and the same hero (not to mention hero classes) in one game one way and in the next another way completely.

And these are BASIC abilities only; the more advanced ones will make you gasp.

There are no wasted skills. There may be some fine-tuning necessary in balancing the abilities, but they made sure each skill pays. This is true even for the Learning skill. It’s called Enlightenment now and is a great skill to have, believe it or not.

There are some abilities, low level units will benefit more from than the higher ones, because the generated effect is dependant on numbers only, not on quality, for example Battle Frenzy, a basic, Offense related ability that will simply give min/max damage +1 for each creature.

So the might can greatly be increased by picking the right combinations of skills and abilities for your hero. How about the magic then?

V. Magic

Spells are divided into four different schools: Dark, Destructive, Light, Summoning. To learn the spells of the levels 3, 4 and 5 a hero has to learn the specific skill as in # 4. Additionally, the spells of the lower levels will be much more effective when a hero has the appropriate skill (!). Spells are few and guilds don’t offer many: 3 spells for levels 1, 2, and 3, 2 spells for levels 4 and 5. Adventure spells will come automatically in each guild, but are toned down a lot compared to previous versions. Each faction is associated with two magic schools (there are six combinations possible), and each guild level will always contain one spell of each of those. For example, Necropolis is associated with Dark Magic and Summoning Magic.

Since Academy still has the Library as special building for one additional spell per level, them Wizards are likely to be the only candidates for learning more than two magic skills. There might be situations, though, when a hero will want to learn a certain magic skill for better use of a certain spell. This is because spells are only half of the equation.

As with the might the magic and especially the spells can be greatly increased in attack by learning the skills and the associated abilities, which will give heroes mass or other effects for certain spells. For example, a hero of a town not associated with Destructive Magic (like Necropolis) may still want to acquire the Destructive Magic skill if, for example, the level 2 guild contains the Ice Bolt spell and the hero finds a certain (not uncommon) artifact that boost cold damage by 50%. In combination with certain abilities that might give him or her a very powerful magic attack. There are other abilities associated with the class specific skill, that give the hero an attack, that will work like a spell, but won’t cost any mana.

It pays to repeat what is worth noting here. In order to gain maximum effect you must coordinate skill gathering, ability picking and spell gathering. If you ARE playing a town associated with Destructive Magic and your heroes pick Destructive Magic, they will have options to pick abilities that will boost spells based on certain elements, like Master of Ice that will boost Ice Bolt (level 2) and Ice Ring (level 3). If you didn’t build those mage guild levels you don’t know whether you’ll get even one of those: on level 2 you could get Lightning Bolt instead and on level 3 Fireball. Once you pick the skill, it won’t be long until you get the ability offered and at that point you should know whether to pick it or not.

All of that means, if you want to have control over the development of your hero, don’t simply pick new skills just because they are cool. ALL skills are cool, and you have to make sure to pick all basic abilities (and by necessity the advanced and expert skill levels) first, BEFORE you pick a new skill. I’m going to illustrate this with the Wizard Razzak I used as an example. Suppose he’d NOT pick Magic Bond and go for Light Magic instead (Academy IS Light Magic associated, so this will pay no matter what). This pick will give 3 additional basic abilities to pick from (boosters for Light Magic spells), and now it might take Razzak a long time until he’s offered Magic Bond or Evasion again; instead he might get Light Magis abilities to pick from without knowing which to take because not having built any or only one mage guild level. And this not even factoring in the really cool abilities with higher prerequisites.

VI. What else?

The battlefield has squares now and has become smaller. That’s no disadvantage. In combination with the new movement rules, battles have become more intense, more direct, more savage. Since units come in two radically dfferent sizes, maneouvering still plays a big role on the map, and since we have no simultaneous retaliation, they who attack first constantly will have an advantage. Siege battles are siege battles indeed. In fact the defender may have an even bigger advantage, if the town has a special like harder walls, or less luck or moral for the attackers and so on.

You’ll be able to adjust graphics to the performance of your machine, but you should have 128 MB video ram and 512 MB memory plus a 2 Ghz processor at least – which is a high price to pay for the grafical abundance which is doubtlessly there. What that means is, the game won’t run on most notebooks older than a year, which is a pity. It has to be said that the graphics look awesome, but that not each and every kind of player will be happy with it. In multiplayer I expect that the 3d-view will on average lengthen the turns because it’s obviously much more complicated to work in a full 3d-environment than in 2d.

However, there will be a Duel Mode for those who just want to battle it out, in which players can fight against each other with preset heroes and armies. In multiplayer there is a ghost mode allowing a special kind of play for players who’d have to wait otherwise. There will be a map editor, probably not in the initial release, but if not, than as a download (before the addon). There will be six campaigns with five maps each that will actually tell one big story. There won’t be an overabundance of standalone maps in the first release, but more will be made available later as a download, since part of the maps couldn’t get properly playtested before the release date.

Since I not only was Beta tester, but still am the German translator of the game, I did see more than just the demo or preview version – in fact I’ve seen and played the complete product and therefore the whole campaign. The story is great. The first three campaign maps are tutorial maps, mainly, and should be a cakewalk for Homm veterans, but then it gets immersive. And should you feel excited now, reading this, and having asked yourself, will the game be worth it, relax: the game rocks. I mean, it ROCKS. HoMM V is CLEARLY the best Heroes game ever.