Heroes of Might and Magic – the early years – part 2
Strategy games were big business during the 1990’s and this series of articles continues the journey of looking back at one of the most popular franchises during this golden era, Heroes of Might and Magic. In the first part we dived into the backstory that led to the creation of the franchise as well as the game that started it all. The success of the first game, that won industry awards and sold well in its genre, led to the decision to start working on its sequel. Many of the same team members from New World Computing that had created the first game were involved, most notably Jon Van Caneghem directing, Phil Steinmeyer as lead programmer and Paul Romero composing. The sequel follows on from where Heroes left off, canonically Lord Ironfist is victorious and unifies the continent of Enroth. Following his death some time later his two sons, Roland and Archibald, fall into a bitter dispute and so begins Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars.
Released in October 1996 to critical acclaim the second Heroes game takes everything that was wonderful about the first and improves upon it. The main story centres on Lord Ironfist’s two sons, the good King Roland and his would be usurper and brother, the bad Lord Archibald. There are two main campaigns, each following the story of one brother as they battle the other for the throne. The details of the saga are deep, there are twists and turns along the way and the player can even switch their allegiance if they feel the draw to the opposing brothers cause. Each campaign has opportunities to select which path you will take and these decisions have an affect on the how the story plays out. One example of this being clearing a map that sees the dwarves grant their axes to your army, then throughout the rest of the campaign any wandering dwarf stack you interact with will rally to your army ranks. This added depth really built on the somewhat straightforward story mode of the original game and brings to life the world in which the brothers are vying for. It is just not the two main campaigns to battle through, there are a host of single map mission that have various win conditions as seen in the first game. There is a lot of content to contend with and some of the maps, especially in the latter stages of the campaigns, are difficult to overcome at first.
The basic gameplay of Heroes II is very similar to the first game but many of the features have been tweaked to improve upon the overall experience. There are now two additional Hero classes to use. As well as the original, Knight, Sorceress, Barbarian and Warlock, a Wizard and Necromancer class gives a wider variety of creatures and Heroes and helps to add to the good versus evil theme. Roland commands the Knights, Sorceress’ and Wizards, while Archibald rules over the Barbarians, Warlocks and Necromancers. Each faction still has six unit types ranging in ability and stats but now many of the creature dwellings, or buildings, can be upgraded which allows the player to purchase a stronger, faster or tougher unit should they choose to do so. The castles themselves now have new features which strengthen the players position or add bonuses to aid in siege attacks such as extra luck or morale.
The magic system in the original Heroes is simple in that each spell learned will need to be replenished by visiting certain areas before they can be used again in battle. In Heroes II the magic system has been overhauled and Heroes now have spell points which deplete as each spell is cast, once the hero runs out of points they can no longer cast any spells and must replenish their points. This system allows for more flexibility and adds to the strategy in battle. A player may wish to conserve points knowing another battle is just around the corner or they may wish to forgo using a powerful spell and split the points to enable two spells to be cast. The more powerful a Hero the more spell points they will have and they can pick up artifacts to increase spell power and points. It is not just the system itself that has is different but the range of spells has increased to give further variety during battles.
One of the most important additions in Heroes II is the ability for Heroes to acquire secondary skills. The first game had four Primary skills that would increase as the Hero collected experience, Attack, Defense, Spell Power and Knowledge. These still remain and as before will increase as experience is gained, but with every level up the player now has the choice to select a secondary skill to attribute to the Hero. These range from skills that will increase map movement points to determining the level of spell a Heroes can learn. Each Hero can learn eight secondary skills and all start with at least one. As the Hero levels up they can increase each skill from Basic to Advanced through to Expert. Selecting these abilities adds a loose role-playing element to the game and creates strategic decisions as players consider which skills would serve them better in regards to the map, the enemy and their resources.
One of the criticisms lobbied at the first game is its overall presentation, while the gameplay and level design is largely solid, critics noted the slightly weak graphics and sound. When compared to games from the time this is not an unfair criticism and putting this right was one of the key aims for the sequel. The graphics are improved with more detail and better animation to sprites and the map area is cleaner and is easier to decipher. The battle scenes are vastly enhanced due to being more expansive with better spell animation. The biggest improvement to the overall presentation is with the sound effects and background music. Some of the orchestral inspired themes draw you into the world and they accompany the setting perfectly while vividly bringing the action life. That being said, the graphics and sound are still not groundbreaking, the almost cartoon like style is still present and some of the landscape can be a little bland. Overall, however, everything about the presentation is improved over the original with a distinct style of its own that should please fantasy fans. I do enjoy the visual style of Heroes II, it sings to my pixel-art loving sensibilities but I appreciate the simple graphical design and bright colours may not be to everyone’s taste. The menu systems are easy to navigate and have lost some of the slow pace and awkwardness present in the original game, there is also plenty of stats and information at your fingertips to aid in your plan of attack.
While the core gameplay mechanics have not advanced an awful lot it is the abundance additional features and content that allows Heroes II to standout from its predecessor. This release certainly established Heroes as an important series in the history of strategy games and gave New World Computing a strong string to their bow as leaders in the turn-based genre. Everything seems to come together eloquently for the developer and the mix of engaging strategy, clever design and dramatic music creates a foundation to a memorable experience. There is real quality at each turn with careful thought put into the layout of each map twist in the story. The computer proves to be a challenging opponent, but as with the first game there is no sense of cheating, the player learns to do better with each playthrough.
In May 1997 an expansion pack titled The Price of Loyalty was released, with development undertaken by Cyberlore Studios rather than New World Computing themselves. The expansion pack adds four new campaigns that offer new stories different from the main two, additional single scenario maps as well as some new artifacts and wandering units. The expansion also adds some new balancing features to the game, most notably a new building to the Necromancer’s castle. The expansion pack also includes the ability to recruit ghosts that will add to their number as they kill enemy stacks. This could upset the balance of a game as players are able to build huge ghost stacks by destroying large numbers of weak units such as peasants or halflings. This is a minor concern as many of the maps do not feature the ghost dwelling but can give a distinct advantage to a player who manages to recruit them in on that does.
I look back at Heroes II with fondness, it has everything I want from a video game. The campaigns are logical and allow for natural breaks and the art style brings a certain romance, especially to fans of fantasy worlds. There is a Tolkien-esque air to proceedings and there have been many times I have played through Heroes II with my imagination ignited. I certainly am biased, Heroes II is my favourite game of all time, but it is pure magic and so enjoyable. The sense of accomplishment of winning even a single scenario is fulfilling. The reason I am so drawn to this game and will always sing its praises is due to its simplicity, easy to learn, hard to master. If you fall for its charms it could be a game that sticks with you for life, like it has for me. It is not all roses though, after time the computers artificial intelligence can be worked out, I am often found gloating to myself knowing exactly what the computer will do. The true test is playing human opponents via online multiplayer and servers are still out there to use, albeit unofficially. Any fan of turn-based games will find something here to enjoy, and even though this may not be the most popular or critically acclaimed of the series, for me Heroes II has the most charm.
Heroes II was an almighty success for the developers and our story races ahead as they spent the next eighteen months doing it all again. In the next instalment of this long read series we look at the most famous and popular entry into the Heroes franchise.