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Retro roundup: Heroes of Might and Magic, AI War, The Witcher

(Image credit: CD Projekt RED)

This series originally ran in PC Gamer UK magazine as a column called They're Back, in which Jon Blythe took a sideways look at ageing games and re-releases before meting out judgement.

This week's edition was first published on July 6, 2011, which is why it talks a lot about physical re-releases and bundles and other things that don't exist any more.

Heroes of Might and Magic Collection

Can you be too generous?

September will mark the death of Heroes of Might and Magic. From the scorched earth will rise a new warrior: Might and Magic Heroes. It’s one of history’s less audacious re-imaginings, to be honest, ranking alongside This Time, Lara Gets Muddy Nips and Forget That Prince Of Persia, This Is The One We’re Running With Now’. So, this seems like as good a time as any to celebrate 16 years of the word ‘Heroes’ occurring at the start of the title. 

For just the wrong side of a purple note you get five full games and seven expansion packs in the turn-based strategy wing of the Might and Magic mansion. You can go back to the first game like a time tourist, and admire the fundamentals that have weathered a decade and a half of cosmetic improvements, tweaks to the skill systems, and the arrival of an unexpected new game world in HoMMV. Almost universally, your hero must roam the land, build a city, and use the unique units of your faction in increasingly intricate games of Battle Chess. 

This collection doesn’t really work as nostalgia, because the whole point of nostalgia is that you don’t remember the crap bits. It works in terms of sheer, overwhelming hours per pound value for money. Considering your alternatives⁠—the first four games are available on Gog.com for ten dollars apiece, and the complete fifth game will set you back £16 on Steam⁠—this collection is half that already bargainous price. Historians, academics, chroniclers⁠—snap this shit up like randy turtles.

This collection doesn’t really work as nostalgia, because the whole point of nostalgia is that you don’t remember the crap bits.

But wait! Say you’ve got £20, and you’re having commitment panic. You know you’re fascinated by the conflicting but somehow synergistic concepts of might and magic, but you’re worried that playing five decreasingly ugly versions of the same game might be as satisfying as stroking a litter of decreasingly dead puppies. There’s another way we could do this. 

Try this: get the first six games of the original RPG series for $10 from Gog.com. This includes the fan favourites, five and six. Then head over to Steam and buy Dark Messiah for another £6. Dark Messiah was the series’ first-person brawler. It was supposed to let you fight, cast or sneak your way through an action adventure, and it’s a lot better if you try to stop yourself kicking every orc you meet onto one of the many beds of spikes (a regrettably viable tactic) and experiment with your options. 

Finally, head back to Good Old Games, where the complete Heroes of Might and Magic III is available for ten dollars. If you’re a newcomer to the series, this is a great place to start. It’s an enduring favourite among fans, and is still played in the less Alienware-infested corners of Europe. There you go: the same value, the same franchise, and a lot more variety. We can also do your wedding list, as long as your partner’s really into Might and Magic.

Verdict: This collection represents fantastic value for money⁠—but with a franchise this varied, why fixate on just the Heroes games?

Jon's score: 80

AI War Bundle⁠

Now even more bundly than previously thought.

(Image credit: Arcen Games)

As part of the continuing crusade to get Arcen Games the buttomless purse of banknotes they deserve, it’s our solemn duty to draw your attention to the AI War Bundle. All four shards of the AI Wars crystal have been assembled into a magical amulet that can be yours for $21.

Playable in solo or up to eight-player co-op, the great thing about AI Wars⁠—apart from fernickety-pixel small-text tooltips so unapologetic it’s almost a loving parody of PC gaming⁠—is that the AI makes no attempt to mimic human thought processes. It follows its own rules, and your mission is to grab what metal and crystal you can, knowing that everything you steal from the AI will result, at some point, in a measured retribution. So I’d advise spending those resources on something big, with lasers. 

Tentatively stepping out in the universe, knowing that something huge will try to destroy you the second you become big enough to be worth destroying makes AI Wars one of the more atmospheric and enjoyable tense strategy games. Although I’d like to know how much of the 320Mb download size could have been reduced if they’d got rid of that endless soft-rock guitar solo track. It’s about as welcome as a MIDI file of Wind Beneath My Wings would be if Facebook embedded it in every page. 

Remember on earlier, when I said something about nostalgia? Well, while AI War is an original, it’ll still make you nostalgic for the era of big manuals. You’ll want to print out that PDF.

Jon's Score: 87

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, Director's Cut

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

Enhanced, in this context, means fixed⁠—the original release was convincingly bugged. The fact that The Witcher is best known for turning women into post-coital Pokémon means it’s easy to tut and dismiss. Much less attention is paid to the corruption, racism and religious intolerance in the game world. These may sound like bad things⁠—and yes, I suppose they are⁠—but to have them in a game world as well-realised as this one is to build a world that people can believe in, and grow to love. 

The Witcher’s blend of grit, realism and casual hate speech makes this a compelling, convincing story. Some people hate and kill each other. Get over it.

Jon's score: 88

Heroes over Europe

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

This one is for people who don’t care about landing gear and flapping bits of wing, and for people who prefer to ignore their altimeters because planes only have two states: up and smashed into the low-res ground. It’s for people who just wish Namco Bandai would release Ace Combat on the PC. Sadly, Transmission Games have backed so far away from the sim approach to flying, that they’ve created a game a bit like a glamour model: ugly when you actually look at it, and too simple to hold your attention. The story is told in a nonlinear style, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that your mission objectives fall into two categories⁠—“Can you do this, please?” and “That was great, do it again and again and again.”

Jon's score: 63

Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles

(Image credit: Frogwares)

It’s one thing to ignore the source material when you’re making a hidden object game. It’s another thing to start telling a tale of deals with the devil and chatting to dead people. It flies somewhat in the face of Holmes’ relentless commitment to logic, to have him indulging in idle discourse with a soul. Still, when you’re competing against PopCap’s ‘Amazing Adventures,’ you’ve got to pull out the big crazy guns⁠— they might as well have thrown in sex robots and werewolves. If you like puzzles, buy Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. If you like inspecting jpegs for hidden objects, please stop using all forms of technology at once, as you appear to be an idiot.

Jon's score: 38