Might & Magic Heroes is a strategy spin-off of one of the PC's original RPGs - a series that's spanned our hobby's entire tech tree, from slightly-graphicked text adventure to Dark Messiah, the Source-powered first-person slash-cast-stealther. And in the middle, there's Heroes - a turn-based game with a two-tiered approach in the same style as Total War. Plan your master strategies on a large-scale map, and resolve individual skirmishes in a zoomed-in battle. While Total War takes you into a real-time battle that strives to be realistic, however, Heroes resolves your fights with a game of increasingly elaborate battle chess.
At a time 450 years before the events of Heroes V, a time at which the Griffin Empire was in full power, Heroes VI shows a very different bunch. Slava's four direct children and one cheeky extracurricular child have all allied themselves with disparate factions. Slava finds himself at odds with the Emperor, thanks to his loyalties with the orc tribes who've helped him in the past. His rival, Gerhart, executes his orders with unseemly pleasure, and singles Slava's orc friends out for early slaughter.
I meet the basic units. Archers can fire across the map, but they suffer penalties for very long shots, and are restricted to melee when an enemy unit is next to them. Praetorians will automatically defend neighbouring units, sharing the damage. Priestesses have a reasonably powerful magical melee attack, but also have two doses of healing they can deliver per battle - in the early stages, well-planned use of heals can mean casualty-free battles. Then, of course, there's the hero - sat off to one side, overseeing the battle, and able to help out with direct attacks, buffs and spells. These units can be found on the world map to begin with, but they're more reliably recruited by towns, where they'll remain until you've got the gold to buy them.
New to VI is the reputation system, designed to boost role-playing in a Mass Effect Paragon-Renegade way. Value-burdened actions will add to your Blood or Tears reputation. Blood is the path of strong attacks and retribution, the kind of person who negotiates with his sword, and seals the deal with a kick to the downbelows. Tears is the kind of path that will let a fleeing army escape, and spend its Hero's mana on healing, and spells like Martyr - a passive-aggressive buff that increases the fighting power of your stacks as they're whittled away. Missions you'll find on the map will also have “negotiate/fight” options, giving you another chance to up your Blood or Tears stat.
Then there's the script and acting. I had to go back to V, just to remind myself how much better it all is - and sure enough, everything from the the unit tile pictures to the in-battle animations is ten times better. But that doesn't mean the acting's... good. It's still earnest and slightly uncomfortable, in that Two Worlds 1 approach to fantasy kind of way - with lines like “ah, but now it is you who is the pupil, not the teacher, and the lesson is not theology, but punching horses in the neck”. Well, not that exactly, but you get the drift. However, although the script might not have the casual ease of Superbad, there's an intelligence about it that lets you see that good people can disagree, and come to blows, both believing they're right.
Fans will probably be wondering about the fifth faction. So am I - but no news until March on that one. It's been confirmed that it will be a new faction though - so you can rule out Dungeon - and that it'll contain some units that'll be familiar to you.
There's certainly no illusion at Ubisoft - Heroes VI is a niche title. It's PC gaming at its most unapologetic and wilfully old-school. With Dungeon Siege making compromises to turn itself into an action game, it's encouraging to see Ubisoft recognising the unique and arcane nature of Heroes. A video of some of the in-game play is below.