My love affair with the fantasy turn-based strategy game began in 1996 with the release of Heroes of Might and Magic 2. A magazine I bought contained a free demo of it. Jim and I played that demo through a weekend virtually without pause (mainly me watching him play!) and we bought it as soon as possible afterwards. Before then, I’d been hooked on games like Lemmings and Civilisation.
I’d never played a game like HOMM before; it reminded me of the best board games from when I was a child that had involved collecting ‘bits’. Flagging mines to earn daily resources for my towns, looting dead foes, picking up treasures – all this was completely new to me. I also loved the concept of building up cities and making choices about what fantasy race to be. As it was not a RTS (real time strategy) game, since you took turns with the computer for both world exploration and combat, you did not have to keep on your toes with events happening in all directions at once. In fact when later Jim became enamoured of RTS games, I found them almost exhausting, preferring the leisurely turn-based model of HOMM. The fantasy aspect of HOMM really appealed to me and journeying around its maps inspired story ideas. For the first time I had dreams inspired by a game, in which I was travelling through that world; this again fed into my creativity and helped flesh out stories and novels.
One thing I would like to say here before continuing with the story; contrary to what many anti-games people say, (and have even said to my face), computer games do not stifle creativity, or suck up a person’s life so much they are no longer creative. Most of the games I’ve played, and certainly the ones I’ve loved, have inspired me. It’s no different to watching a film that sparks off ideas. But anyway, back to the story…
The pinnacle of the HOMM franchise (which is still going strong) was for many of us the next release, HOMM 3 in 1999. By this time Jim and I had devoured all of what HOMM 2 had to offer, although we still played the game on different difficulties, or just to revisit maps we’d particularly enjoyed. When in America for a convention, we’d even bought the rather basic HOMM 1 (1995), just to play through it and see how it all started. HOMM 3 was far superior to its predecessor, bringing in new races and cities. There were eight different races to play, and you could choose to play the same campaigns but from different racial perspectives. I favoured the Dungeon race, wherein lived warlocks and overlords, commanding creatures of the underworld, culminating in the awesome black dragons. There were two levels for each of the seven creature types you could breed in your towns, starting off with the lower level variety. You could upgrade the spawn buildings when the city reached a certain level of development and you had the resources to build them. New troops were available to hire every week from the buildings.
The campaigns for HOMM 3 were quite difficult in their later scenarios, but Jim and I tended to work through them together so it never became too much of a strain – him being far more patient than me. On evenings when I played alone I would work through the single player maps, eventually discovering the cornucopia of player-created maps you could download from various fan sites. Generally, the best of these were superior to what shipped with the game. I even started creating my own maps, based on the Wraeththu books, which I shared with friends who also played the game. Sadly, those maps are now lost on some long dead computer and I never kept backups. You could tell a story through a well-designed map, and all of the game resources were available for their creation, so you could guide your players through them in exactly the way you wanted so that the story unfolded in a satisfying way.
Two expansions appeared for HOMM 3, and also a series of five stand alone campaigns, Heroes Chronicles. Two more downloadable Chronicles became available, but sadly only to American players. (If anyone reading this has the final two Chronicles, The Fiery Moon and The World Tree, sharable and playable for a European machine, please get in touch!) A player-created ‘expansion’ HOMM 3 and 1/2 was available for free as a download and kept people busy until the next version of the game. HOMM 4 appeared in 2002.
This game was a departure from the winning model of HOMM 3. A more 3D look was brought to the game and there were now only six playable races – all with new creatures and heroes to hire. While I enjoyed HOMM 4, it never really engaged me as much as HOMM 3 did, and some people I know were content to stay with the earlier game, continuing to download player-made maps. HOMM 4’s campaigns were much harder to complete and by this time I was playing the game alone more than not, as Jim had moved on to other games. I found the difficulty frustrating a lot of the time. I don’t mind a challenge but I’m not one of those gamers who love their games insanely hard and virtually impossible to win. I play for fun and part of the fun is being able to achieve objectives eventually without hitting your head against a wall of difficulty again and again. The so-called easy mode was not noticeably easy at later stages of a campaign. A lot of players resorted to ‘cheat codes’ which enabled you to boost your armies when faced with overwhelming defeat. A friend who also played showed me these cheats and I must admit that out of sheer frustration I would sometimes use those codes, conjuring a pile of dragons just to wipe the smile off the faces of the swarming enemies who had swamped me beyond rescue. That is not a great way to play, of course, but other than give up there seemed no other path to follow. Expansions to HOMM 4 followed, which I bought, but still found myself enjoying more the previous game and its player made follow up.
Eventually, my interest petered out and I started playing a similar game called Disciples: Sacred Lands (1999) and its sequel Disciples II: Dark Prophecy (2002). While remarkably similar to HOMM 3 in certain ways, the beauty of these titles is that the difficulty is matched by what it says on the screen. If you want ‘easy’ mode to learn the game, you get easy. There are no horrible surprises halfway through a campaign on the lowest difficulty setting, such as when the AI throws a bundle of foes at you, all twice your level and with armies three times the size of yours (the typical HOMM campaign scenario).
While my interest in WoW’s Mists of Pandaria is waning a little, since I’ve got nearly all my characters to level 90 and there is little more to do other than raid, I’ve been revisiting my old loves. Hauling my oldest computer out of the spare room (which is the only one out of our computer menagerie that still has Windows XP on it and is affectionately referred to as the ‘legacy machine’), I installed the HOMM 3 games on it and also Disciples II. Working through the campaigns on both, I ran into the same problems with HOMM yet not with Disciples. While the end scenarios of the Disciples campaigns pit you against some really tough foes, you have time to build up before being swamped by the enemy, so that you can take on the big bad in your own time. Even so, you’re not guaranteed a win; you have to be careful and make the most of the strategy part of the game to succeed. I realised this was what made Disciples more satisfying than HOMM, at least in the campaign department. But then I am perhaps not the most dedicated of gamers and don’t like things too difficult.
The HOMM franchise is still going, although under the leadership of a new company, and Heroes 5 and 6 are available to buy – in fact you can acquire all of the Heroes games plus expansions (minus HOMM 6), in one bundle now at a very cheap price. 6 is playable on a modern machine but Heroes 5 can cause problems on any OS later than Windows XP. However, having tried both HOMM 5 & 6 recently, I discovered the problem of difficulty not only persists but has increased. I found both of these games too hard, even on single player maps. The AI does the usual thing of throwing insanely tough foes against you before you have time to build up. I’m told by a friend who designs games that the idea is to rampage through maps, not bothering about enemies taking your towns, in order to reach objectives quickly and ahead of the enemy. Precise timing of when to do what is essential and you need to study a walkthrough of each scenario to succeed. That’s not the way I like to play. Reading up on strategy is fine for raiding in an MMO like WoW, but I don’t expect to find it mandatory in a single player turn-based strategy game. Surely the game should unfold as you play it, and conform to the difficulty level you chose when you started your map? I enjoy the town-building aspect and prefer to take my time to strengthen my heroes and armies before taking on the baddies. I do not enjoy being townless, with no way of getting more troops, and not being strong enough even to take a new town, as my armies are whittled away to nothing by foes along the road and I give up in frustration. While both HOMM 5 and 6 are more beautiful to look at than HOMM 3, with truly gorgeous new races and cities, they do not inspire me creatively, mainly because I’m so angry and frustrated as I try to play that I have no time or inclination to admire the scenery or the story-telling. Maybe I’ll have to find some cheat codes, eh?
Happily, I discovered very recently that the Disciples franchise is not dead either. Disciples III: Renaissance was released in 2010, with a sequel Disciples III: Resurrection in 2011. Apparently, both of these can be acquired through Steam and any bugs that had existed at release have been ironed out. You can also buy both Disciples II and III from stores like Amazon very cheaply, (which I did), thereby avoiding Steam’s more annoying and intrusive aspects on your machine. Also, you get to have the disks. Whether a Disciples IV is in the pipeline or not I have no idea.
Disciples III plays fine on a new computer and while its look emulates that of HOMM 6, being more ‘realistic’ graphics-wise than its predecessors, it is far more welcoming to the newcomer. It’s possible to play the game without being swamped by foes. The campaign can be played through from the perspective of three different races, and there are also player-made maps to download from fan sites, which is good since only one stand-alone scenario comes with the game itself. While Disciples II differed from HOMM in several ways, not least artistically, but was also very similar, Disciples III might as well be a HOMM 6 clone, only more forgiving. You have heroes, you build up towns, you hire troops, you gather resources and you fight foes in the landscape as well as the heroes governed by the AI. That’s HOMM by any other name. But I really don’t mind that. The city of the faction Legion of the Damned reminds me strongly of the fiery underworld of Diablo – the cities all in fact look great.
So for anyone looking for something to play until Warlords of Draenor appears, or whose WoW time is dwindling during this period, and/or who fancies a dabble in these older games, here are two cheap fantasy franchises to try. HOMM 4 onwards for those who like things very tough, HOMM 2 & 3 and Disciples I, II & III for those who like a gentler ride. If you do have a ‘legacy machine’ I highly recommend HOMM 3, as that really – to me at least – was the golden moment of fantasy turned-based strategy. And its fan base survives as people continue to play that game, despite its great age in computer game terms. While we talk about WoW being an ‘old game’, if it manages to keep going as long as HOMM 3 that will be an accomplishment!