The big advantage of transitioning Heroes of Might & Magic to an online game is that it already fits so many of the criteria. It's a hand-drawn, but relatively simple 2D game with a turn-based 2D battle interface; that should be able to run on just about any rig. The big disadvantage? I can't see any reason to do an old-fashioned premium HOMM game again.
Heroes of Might & Magic Online takes the form of a classic HOMM game. Doru Apreotesei, the Creative Director, took us through it. (By "us", I mean the chitinous, many-headed PC Gamer groupbeast, represented in this instance in its disguise as me, Dan Griliopoulos). “It's a true heroes game in absoultely every respect,” he told us. I mean, me. So true that he chose to show us, me, a video instead of playing through the game itself, though we, the omniscient games scourge, I mean Dan, could see it running live on a machine at the back of the room. “Heroes isn't fast” he said, apologetically. I opened a thousand mouths as if to consume him, but then we begged him continue. Read on.
The first section of gameplay I saw did look absolutely identical to a standard HOMM game – that classic isometric viewpoint with you following an iconic hero around a hand-drawn world. Our particular hero was a Lich, from the Necropolis faction, on a mission to find a special ghoul and kill it. Watching someone else play the game, it was odd to see quite how much treasure and loot there is lying around in these games; that kind of endless rewarding of the player is going to fit right in online. Also standing around the world are the large figures of the hero's enemies and allies; some give quests, some just chat or give story clues, most are there to fight.
Getting into a battle saw something that old HOMMheads are going to like – the return of the hex-based battle maps. To counter this sop to traditionalism, however, the battles have been changed to nerf ranged units a little – rather than having effectively infinite weapon range within the battles limited arena, they are now more limited in how far they can fire. Similarly, for melee combat, facing and flanking are now very important. Get around behind someone's monsters and that unit takes a lot of extra damage. This was a move, Apreotesei assured us as we shook loose dead, scabrous flakes of foul-smelling skin, to ensure that the skill ceiling was raised from earlier HOMM games.
Otherwise, it's the usual HOMM battle: your hero stands outside of the action, firing spells and helping the army as much as he can. Our Lich had an army comprised mainly of other liches, vampire lords, ghouls, and death hounds, but, as is traditional in HOMM, he can pick up other troops from buildings and enemies he comes across. Apreotesei assured us that the classic HOMM design flaw – where losing men early in a campaign meant you would be unable to complete it without a total restart – wasn't going to be a problem this time around.
The second battle I saw was a big change from the usual HOMM battle. This was a bridge battle, against a mini-boss. Here the map changed to an isometric perspective and the shape of the map was much more compressed to reflect the narrowing of the bridge, which altered the structure of the battle, making a strong frontline and ranged support much more important. “Strategy gamers love this stuff” said Apreotesei.
The premium payments here are, we suspect, going to be for extra story content, extra missions, extra character classes, unit reskins, extra units, special unit upgrades and so on. With such a wide range of mechanics and in a game where looking good is 9/10 of enjoying your hero, there's a huge range of content they could sell. Again, Apreotesei emphasised that there would be no “pay to win”.
It might not sound, from reflection of the preview video we absorbed into our juice sacks, that HOMMO has much in the way of multiplayer, but Apreotesei showed us a final battle. This was against a hulking boss determined to protect the ghoul from our vengeful Lich and, although the multiplayer wasn't quite working yet, he showed us how one of the other players roaming the HOMM main world could come into the battle with us, and take on a different role in the battle.
Here the boss walked slowly across the map towards our hero. Killing him meant clearing out the chaff of his supporting troops and then whittling him down before he got to our rear lines; it looked tough, as the boss shrugged off all Apreotesei's firepower and the screen faded to black. A friend would definitely be a big help in that situation. Blue Byte is also looking into PvP, but it's likely they'll implement this way after launch – most social games launch at only 20% complete, after all.
I also got a quick look at the second launch hero, in the Haven section of HOMM's world of Ashan. Here we saw a separate faction-specific storyline, with the grayscale morality of classic low fantasy fiction. I didn't get to see anything of town development – frankly, we suspect that the team are attempting to get the world in place before working on that. Players will be able to revisit completed areas, to finish side missions or just to refight bosses.
Apreotesei admitted “we didn't show socialisation, co-op, asychronous battles, dungeons...” Similiarly, crafting and trading were promised but not yet implemented. Despite this vagueness, we can see from atop our throne of skulls that HOMMO is going to be a very solid entry into the series – indeed, it could be the last game they ever need to make.