If you love Heroes of Might & Magic, you're probably aware that you're part of a small but passionate niche. The good news for you is that Black Hole are catering beautifully to you – as you'd expect, perhaps, from the level of interaction they had with the community during development.
The changes to the classic turn-based strategy game are pervasive. They've got rid of that peasant whose icon looked so bloody gormless you kind of wanted them to die, for starters. There are slightly fewer resources, making the map less fussy. And there's a new faction, in the form of the Eastern-flavoured water creatures of the Sanctuary.
Another new feature is the reputation system. Fight defensively with debuffs, show mercy and use diplomacy, and you'll progress down the path of Dragon Tears. Use offensive magic and kill where it's not needed and you're going down the path of Dragon's Blood. It affects the powers your character learns, so read ahead and stick to a choice, because you can't go both ways.
But underneath the new meat and skin blows the lungs of classic Heroes. The same turn-based balance of world-level resource generation and city building. All centred around manufacturing and tactically distributing creatures that you can then take into battle for an intricate and constantly changing game of angry chess.
Heroes VI is also an imposingly tough game. You'll find yourself picking off so many different bands of 'trivial' and 'low' threat enemies on the world map that you might get complacent. But Heroes doesn't tell, it shows – and it's teaching you how combinations of units interact. The second you meet your first equallypowered hero, prepare to be handed a plate piled high with your own arse.
There are no hints on strategy, just an ever-expanding palette of units per faction, upgrades with extra powers and hero abilities to consider. The difficulty and lack of guidance would be frustrating if the game itself wasn't so absorbing and well-built. The animations are fantastic – you've never seen Centaurs collapse until you've seen Heroes VI Centaurs collapse. Tellingly, I found myself replaying battles I'd won to see if I could have won them better.
The regular auto-saves mean you can rewind a fair distance, but there are so many times you'll want to try something again that a more comprehensive rewind system would have been welcome.
What there is, though, thankfully protects you from Ubisoft's always-connected DRM, which is imposed in shamefully full and distressing effect: I had a half-hour chunk of progress that would have been lost to the ether were it not for the autosave workaround.
The scale of the game is absolutely huge, a large game made larger by slow progress. The two tutorial maps took me an entire day to complete to my own satisfaction. With five fuller faction campaigns (that you can, unlike Heroes V, play in any order you like) and an epilogue map based on your Tears or Blood reputation, the singleplayer is massive, and it has a brilliant, over-earnest script with endearingly stilted acting, and there's a great soap opera feel to the story.
Multiplayer feels like there's room for expansion, though. Essentials such as hotseat are present, and there's a good range of maps for up to eight players on skirmish. Factions occasionally fight together in the campaigns, but if you want to forget the long game and play a simple duel with a friend, there are only two army configurations per faction.
Hopefully, the ability to mix decks and build your own armies from a stock of points will come with patches or expansions. What there is, in the meantime, is a formidable, engrossing timesink. A game that'll test and punish you before giving you a pat on the head and making you do it all over again
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