In late 2004 Microsoft spent so much money marketing the upcoming release of Halo 2 that national press outlets started doing reports about it as if it were actually news. Unsurprisingly, these were generally awkward and horribly researched, as mainstream coverage about niche subjects tends to be.
In one of these reports the reporter referred to the game as the 'latest version of the popular Halo game', as if it were Photoshop. Being kind of an elitist jerk, I was amused by his mistake until I realized that the ignorant newscaster had stumbled on something wholly by accident. While most video games have sequels in the film sense of the word (in that they offer some kind of narrative continuity or recurring characters and situations) some video game sequels are the exact same game, with better graphics and a few more features. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Heroes of Might & Magic (HOMM), which has maintained a fairly strict, repetitive formula ever since the first game in the series, 1992's King's Bounty.
For anyone who isn't familiar with the series, I'll offer a brief description that could easily be applied to any one of the games: Heroes of Might and Magic # is a turn-based strategy game in which the player controls one or more "Heroes" in a generic fantasy kingdom. In campaign mode the player is given a task they have to accomplish (generally 'kill all opponents'), and they're set free to wander the countryside, gathering resources and slaughtering random creatures so they can go back to their home base and build an army large enough to complete the objectives. All the while enemy 'heroes' are doing the exact same thing on the other side of the map, forcing the player to work quickly if they want to come out on top. The combat is similarly turn-based, with each player setting up his various forces on either side of a battlefield, then moving them into combat like chess pieces until one side has been wiped out. The relatively simplistic goals and carefully-designed levels ensure that the multiplayer and single player components are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
Like most of these remakes, the most significant change is in the graphics, and while the 3D is attractive, the new perspective is something of a double-edged sword. Being able to pivot and spin the camera around the battlefield makes the fights both prettier and less confusing than they'd been in the past. The map is a different matter altogether. Although each area is rendered in full 3D, the map itself is only two-dimensional, with the player forced to move along strictly-defined areas. This isn't new, and wouldn't be a problem if the developers hadn't gone a little nuts with the map design. There are tall mountains and huge forests everywhere, and the game's monsters and resources tend to sit right next to them, meaning that they'll always be invisible from a certain angle (often the default one). Apparently now that the player has the ability to move the camera around, the developers decided that it would be a good idea to force them to move it as much as possible. It isn't. It isn't at all.
With each new version of HOMM, some problems have persisted, and HOMMV is no different. It's a very, very slow game. Most of the game's levels play out exactly the same way. A low-level character wanders around the map, fighting some monsters, recruiting others, building a city, and eventually defeating the key enemy hero to end the level. This takes anywhere from one hour on a small map to over three on a large map. The problem is that each one of the game's six races has only one relatively small set of monsters and buildings. It's only really fun to build up the warlock's or the demon lord's castle and army once, but the characters in the campaign mode have a full six missions to play, a full ten tedious hours each.
It's not all bad, though. Taking a cue from Warcraft's solution to a similar problem, the developers have included a few levels that place interesting restrictions on the player–they have to defeat their opponent in less than a month, or with a fixed number of troops without ever getting reinforcements. I looked forward to these levels as they provided the game with sorely-needed focus. Next time they're looking to offer an HOMM update I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to design all of the campaign levels with this kind of directed gameplay and leave the free-roaming city building for the multiplayer component.
Is HOMMV a good game? Absolutely. Is it essentially the exact same game as HOMMIV was? Oh yes. The HOMM series has gone fundamentally unchanged for the past fifteen years, and it'll take something a little more significant than a change of both developer and publisher to break that mold. I suppose it's up for debate whether that's a good thing or not, as the series seems to have its loyal fans. But I, for one, would like to see someone take a hammer to the thing and see what new ideas might flood into the world of turn-based fantasy warfare.