Heroes of Might & Magic: The Rise and Fall

1999 was one of the wealthiest years for gaming history. Legendary titles spawned one shortly after another, leaving gamers—exhausted but happy—no time for rest. Just think about it: Age of Wonders, Homeworld, Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri, SimCity 3000, Planescape: Torment, Dungeon Keeper 2, Quake 3, Jagged Alliance 2, Age of Empires 2, etc. They all saw the light of day in the glorious 1999. Like dozens of smaller suns, those masterpieces rose to the skies, making them brighter and brighter.

One of the first titles in this pantheon of ‘99 was the game eagerly awaited by hundreds of thousands of people. In late February 1999, New World Computing released Heroes of Might & Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia—the game condemned to greatness.

Heroes of Might & Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia

Everybody praised this game. Beloved and successful gameplay core of the series remained intact, but became enveloped in so much more additional details and aspects that the game addictiveness increased tenfold. People play Heroes of Might & Magic III by this day, modifying it constantly, injecting lots of new content into the game’s veins to keep it alive. More than twenty years have passed since the game’s release, and it still is pretty much alive and kicking.

The Restoration of Erathia put more effort into plot development and lore building, relatively to previous games in the series. Its story begins somewhat in parallel with the plot of Might & Magic VI and prepares the ground for Might & Magic VII, thus completing the process of the narrative fusion between RPG and strategic series of the franchise.

The world of Enroth consists not only of its titular continent, where The Succession Wars canonically ended with a victory of Roland Ironfist. There is also another continent here, Antagarich, engulfed in another conflict since the Kreegan invasion. Unlike previous games in the series, Heroes of Might & Magic III doesn’t offer you a choice between the warring sides—you have a chance to play for all of them as the story unfolds.

There are seven campaigns overall, three of them available to play on the start, and the rest getting unlocked gradually. The length of each campaign is relatively short—three or four missions—but their scope and difficulty compensates this. Your strongest heroes remain with you, maintaining their progress from mission to mission.

Eight factions are involved in the conflict. Six of them are obvious descendants of Heroes of Might & Magic II factions, and two are complete newcomers: Kreegan Inferno and Tatalian swamp fortress. There are now much fewer differences between the factions relative to previous games—every faction has flying and shooting units; economic differences are far less drastic—but a sense of each other uniqueness still remains.

Each faction has a unique army of seven types of units. All of them are upgradeable now. Castle’s defensive capability and economic income now separated from each other by adding a new building responsible for the latter—a Town Hall.

The game’s philosophy concentrates less on the factions and more on the titular heroes. There are two types of them available for each faction: one specializing on might, the other on magic. For example, if in previous games the barbarian faction had only one type of hero at their disposal, now they have two, with battlemage added to the rooster.

Each hero still has the same four primary skills: attack, defense, power, and knowledge. And there are still secondary skills available to learn and master—now up to eight for each hero. Additionally, heroes now have a unique specialty, granting them specific bonuses. For an optimal gaming strategy, now it is crucial to macromanage your heroes, keeping in mind their unique qualities.

On the other hand, heroes feel more limited in their ability to use artifacts. In Heroes of Might & Magic II, your heroes could wield three swords simultaneously. Now you have to choose. Hero’s inventory now resembles the one from an RPG, with a paper doll and everything. Only those artifacts, placed in the slots upon a paper doll are activated, while the rest lie in a stash and don’t provide any bonus.

Roleplaying aspects also invade the game’s magic system, dividing the spells between four magical schools: fire, water, air, and earth. There is a specific skill for each of them. It’s up to you to decide—who among your heroes will learn what.

That’s the main philosophical difference between Heroes of Might & Magic III and its predecessors—making factions less diverse, but compensating it with more focus on roleplaying aspects of hero management. As a result, we get more strategic and tactical diversity, and that’s the kernel of the game’s success.

The approach mentioned above made tactical battles shine. The battlefield grew to 15×11 hexes—now even the flying units can’t always cover it all in one turn. Every unit type has a unique ability (unlimited counter-attack, various immunities, etc.) There are magical means to control the landscape, removing obstacles, and planting mines. Battle outcome now far less obvious and not determined solely by the number of troops in each army’s disposal.

Gameplay on a strategic map also became more in-depth. Literally. Most of the maps now have underground tunnels and dungeons.

The rest remained familiar and intuitive. It’s hard for me to think about another example of the game that manages to stay loyal to key aspects of its series, while simultaneously changing their essence. With fundamental shifts toward roleplaying, Heroes of Might & Magic III enriches its strategical depth. Here you continuously have to choose between something, thinking, compromising, and planning ahead. But it never overwhelms you like hardcore 4X strategies may, keeping the accessibility as a priority.

That’s the secret of the game’s popularity, thanks to which thousands of people play Heroes of Might & Magic III to this day.

Or maybe the reason lies in the music. It’s hard to put in words the sheer beauty of the game’s symphonies. Paul Romero, Rob King, and Steve Baca went wild here, producing one of the greatest soundtracks for a videogame ever. Those melodies create that iconic magical atmosphere of the Might & Magic universe, underline the individuality of each faction, and compensate for the graphical bleakness of the game.

I risk to antagonize lots of people now, but I don’t like that graphical shift from colorful vividness to photo-realistic bleakness that Might & Magic universe made in the late ’90s. The Restoration of Erathia’s aesthetic crimes are far less egregious than those of Might & Magic VII, but still… I miss those bright, juicy colors of the previous games.

Beyond the Restoration of Erathia

The first expansion pack for Heroes of Might & Magic III was released in September 1999. It bore the proud name of Armageddon’s Blade and, among the continuation of an epic story, brought to the table some vital additions.

The long-awaited random map generator made its debut in the series. There are never enough maps for Heroes of Might & Magic—an option to generate a brand new war arena in a couple of minutes made lots of people happy. Random means random, though, so sometimes a new map was not merely unbalanced, but unplayable, having players find themselves surrounded by impassable mountains. Still, I have only the warmest memories from the long hot-seat battles with my friends on randomly generated maps that brought us lots of surprises and laughs.

Additionally, Armageddon’s Blade broadened the creative horizons of its player base with a campaign editor. Now you could connect all of your handmade maps into a campaign, fulfilling your storytelling ambitions.

As for the expansion’s in-game content, six new campaigns brought dozens of gameplay hours, filled with pure strategic joy. The titular campaign continued the plot of Might & Magic VII, while the rest provided not lest interesting insight into the lives of various Antagarich residents.

Expansion added lots of new artifacts, map objects, neutral creatures (halflings and boars are back, baby), and a whole new faction—The Conflux, home of elementals. New World Computing developed this faction in a hurry to replace The Forge faction, which wasn’t welcomed by fans (I’ve told about that story in my Might & Magic VII retrospective). The Conflux turned out to be so imbalanced, that most of the Heroes of Might & Magic III online tournaments straight out banned this faction.

Half a year later, in March 2000, New World Computing released a second expansion pack for Heroes of Might & Magic III. This time it was a stand-alone add-on, called Shadow of Death.

New expansion’s main feature was an addition of combination artifacts. Those are mighty artifacts that are build—as the name suggests—by combining between another, lesser, artifacts. Additionally, Shadow of Death added a new equipment slot for new heroes, several new map objects and terrain types, more customizable difficulty options, and seven new campaigns.

These campaigns, instead of moving the Might & Magic story forward, concentrated on the past, returning us to the times before The Restoration of Erathia. The plot told the story of an infamous necromancer Sandro, whose sharp rise to world domination failed due to the united efforts of four legendary heroes: Gem, Gelu, Crag Hack, and Yog (each got own campaign).

Shadow of Death received a warm welcome, but the public enthusiasm had started to ebb. People wished for something new. Something more than the things they could make themselves in the game’s map editor.

Everybody online has a different theory regarding the reason for developing and releasing Heroes Chronicles. Maybe it was a mean to milk every last drop of Heroes of Might & Magic III success, or approach to the more ‘casual’ gaming public, or to tell a fascinating and tragic story. I think all of those reasons somewhat true. Either way, Heroes Chronicles happened, and it was the last game in the universe of Might & Magic that Jon van Caneghem was personally involved in the development of.

Heroes Chronicles was a collection of eight short campaigns, released episodically between September 2000 and June 2001. They used the same old Heroes of Might & Magic III engine, but didn’t include a map editor and custom map playing options. Campaigns told the story of Tarnum, an immortal hero, who like Moorcock’s The Champion Eternal, has different incarnations but always remains a hero in essence.

Originally a barbarian, Tarnum is the only hero in Heroes of Might & Magic universe that tried himself in eight different roles: in one campaign, he is a wizard, in another—a knight, a beastmaster in third, etc. Eventually, he fails to prevent a barbarian Kilgor from getting the Sword of Frost, and that leads to grave consequences for the world of Enroth.

Except for the great plot, however, Heroes Chronicles offered nothing new. And that’s a shame. I think Tarnum’s story deserved a much better presentation as well as the public deserved a better game.

Ironically, when 3DO and NWC were finally ready to deliver, the public was not prepared.

Heroes of Might & Magic IV

3DO’s financial state became shaky by the end of the ’90s. Might & Magic universe was showing nice sales, but it couldn’t continue forever to keep the publisher afloat. New World Computing had to start a new chapter, as in the technically dated role-playing series, so in its strategical asset that seemed to reach its peak with Heroes of Might & Magic III.

Thus at the beginning of 2002, NWC released two games simultaneously: Might & Magic IX and Heroes of Might & Magic IV. Jon van Caneghem, as was implied earlier, didn’t participate in the development of those titles. These games that meant to symbolize a new beginning for the franchise became New World Computing’s last.

The world of Enroth came to its end. It was destroyed in the flames of epic cataclysm, provoked by the clash of two magical swords—Armageddon’s Blade and Sword of Frost. Millions died, but many survived, passing through mysterious portals into another world—Axeoth. Refugees, traumatized by the cataclysm, forgot all their differences and lived in peace ever after.

Not really. New wars immediately began.

Heroes of Might & Magic IV offers six campaigns that tell stories of six new factions and their leaders. All of them are available to play from the get-go, for they are pretty much independent from each other. Stories are pretty good, filled with narrative details, philosophical conflicts, and lots of well-written text. They give Axeoth a decent foothold and prepare for an epicness to come. Unfortunately, not much of the new world’s potential will be ever realized in the future.

That’s tragic, because the new world looks great in Heroes of Might & Magic IV. Colors have returned into the franchise—strategic map dazzles with a bright palette and myriads of smaller details that shine, sparkle, spin, and shift. It takes some time to get used to, but when you do, it’s hard not to appreciate the aesthetic vitality of the game’s visuals. But you may turn off the animations if you wish.

The tactical screen stands in dramatic contrast to the strategic map. Battle landscapes feel almost sterile, devoid of any details, except for a couple of not so fascinating trees. Unit designs seem bland, and their animations jerky.

The only aspect of Heroes of Might & Magic aesthetic that never disappoints in the slightest is the music. Great trio of talented musicians—Romero, King, and Baca—spice up their symphonies with folk (mostly Celtic) melodies and manage to enchant the player in mere seconds. The music serves as a familiar handhold for fans of the series, helping them to digest severe changes in the game’s core mechanics.

Heroes of Might & Magic IV revolutionized the series’ gameplay, drastically changing mechanics that became seemingly inseparable from the franchise. Units no longer became tied to heroes—they are free to roam the map without a hero in charge. Thus, they can stand guard in front of your mines or any other places you wish to protect. Similarly, heroes may now traverse with no army under their banner. Moreover, you can gather several of them into one squad. Consequently, heroes now actively participate in battles—gone are the days of their inviolability.

Hero chaining, a tactic used by many players in the previous games of the series to transport troops efficiently, became obsolete in Heroes of Might & Magic IV. Each unit on the map has its own movement points that deplete any time it moves, so you can’t pass the same unit from hero to hero indefinitely. Instead, a special building, a caravan, provides a tactical option to transfer troops from castle to castle.

There is no need to patrol your domain weekly to gather renewing resources from mills and other map objects. They now automatically provide you passive income in the manner of mines.

Heroes’ skill system is entirely new. There are nine primary skills overall, five of which are dedicated to magical schools (Life, Death, Chaos, Order, and Nature). Each of the primary skills lets the hero to learn three additional secondary skills. All of the skills (both primary and secondary) have five tiers of mastery. Each hero may learn up to five primary skills and all of their associated secondary skills.

There are 11 hero classes in the game—two for each faction, except form barbarians (they have only one). With the right combination of specific primary skills, a hero gains advanced class that grants useful bonuses. There are almost forty such combinations.

Heroes of Might & Magic IV intensified the focus on hero-management, even compared to already highly hero-management focused Heroes of Might & Magic III. Simultaneously, though, it threw away the equalizing approach of its predecessor towards the game’s factions.

There are six factions in Heroes of Might & Magic IV. Each faction has its own magic school that its heroes may master. Two more schools (adjacent to the main one in the in-game scheme) may be used only partially. The rest are unavailable. For example, the Academy faction’s central magic school is Order. Life and Death schools are adjacent to Order, thus may be used by Academy heroes, but Chaos and Nature remain unavailable.

Each faction has eight types of units. But in each castle, you can recruit only five. Why? Because there are four tiers of units—two types in each tier. You can hire both types of only the first-tier units. The rest you’ll have to choose. For example, you have an elven Preserve. You can build dwellings of both sprites and wolves—they are tier-one creatures of this faction. But you’ll have to choose between griffins and unicorns—those are tier-three creatures, and you can’t have them both under one roof.

Recruits arrive at your castle daily and not weekly. Oh, and you can’t upgrade your units anymore. Personally, I don’t have any problem with that—there is too much macro-management already in Heroes of Might & Magic IV.

But wait, that’s not all! Tactical battles became isometric.

Hexagonal grid remained in burning Enroth. Axeoth battlefields covered with squares that make placing units of different sizes more manageable. But the main mechanical change to the battles is a synchrony of strikes. Attacks and counter-attacks occur simultaneously, so dying unit still has an opportunity to bite the attacker. It’s not unusual that units kill each other dramatically.

So many changes were hard for the public to take. Heroes of Might & Magic fan-base wanted something new, but was conservative enough to wish something not entirely new. Reviews were good, but online forums were full of fan outrage.

Today people remember Heroes of Might & Magic IV with more warmth, giving credit where credit is due. The game opened wide strategic and tactical horizons for players to discover. Its system, combined with a powerful map editor, opened the gates for a variety of user-created maps—there were even solid RPGs among those.

Heroes of Might & Magic IV was a breakthrough from the series’ familiar formula. Like it or not, you can’t not appreciate the courage of the developers—their refusal to rest on laurels and their commitment to breathe new life into the franchise.

The game’s legacy, though, didn’t last much. In September 2002, its first expansion was released—The Gathering Storm. Mechanically, it didn’t offer much new: several map objects, a couple of artifacts, four neutral units. But story-wise, I think, it made something special.

The Gathering Storm’s six campaigns tell the story of five heroes that oppose a common foe. Each hero has his (or her) own campaign, where needed preparations being made and mighty artifacts gathered for the final confrontation, which is the sixth campaign, available only after beating the previous five. All of the heroes’ progress is saved, and it’s up to you to prepare well.

It’s a unique experience for the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise as I see it. For five campaigns, you accumulate power, developing your heroes separately. And then, gather them all in a mighty fist to crush the enemy.

The second expansion, Winds of War, released in February 2003, offered a similar, but even more interesting experience. The five first campaigns of this expansion show different sides of the grand conflict. Sixth campaign—consisting of a single map—clashes them all in a final battle, and you have to choose your side.

Unlike The Gathering Storm, in Winds of War, you don’t gather a dream-team, instead empower your enemies. Four of five main heroes that you so thoroughly developed through the campaigns will turn against you in the final struggle. I can’t say that it justifies a whole separate expansion, but it is a terrific idea nevertheless.

Winds of War became not just the last expansion for Heroes of Might & Magic IV, but also the final release of New World Computing. In May 2003, 3DO went bankrupt and dragged all of its subsidiaries along. The rights to the Might & Magic franchise fell into the hands of Ubisoft, and the world of Axioth ceased to exist. The new owner planned another reboot.

Heroes of Might & Magic: The Classical Era

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