Heroes of Might and Magic II, Part Two – Guest Review

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Last time I talked about the story, but of course that’s just window dressing. Let’s get to the actual meat of the game.

Heroes 2 is essentially a straight upgrade of everything in Heroes 1. It fixes a lot of common-sense problems and is just generally a lot more user-friendly. Single-use map locations (such as gazebos, which give a small experience bonus) will now note if you’ve already visited them; the game will tell you why you can’t build structures instead of just saying you can’t; and you can now split creatures into multiple stacks to allow for more strategizing. Battlefields have also approximately doubled in size, making things far less cramped and making tactical strategies an actual possibility. (However, flying creatures still have unlimited movement range, making them even more gamebreaking than in Heroes 1.) Artifacts have also become much more interesting – instead of just generic stat modifiers, there are a ton that enhance specific spell types, such as halving costs or increasing damage. The expansion pack includes even more, including ones with actual tradeoffs – for instance, there’s one that grants resistance to the battlefield nuke spells, but decreases your own spell power. I really like this kind of thing. Instead of every piece of equipment being a constant positive, it forces you to really think about your choices and use them intelligently. Unfortunately, the interface itself isn’t set up for this very well, as you can’t unequip artifacts at will to optimize your setup. (You can do that in Heroes 3, which makes it all the more odd that it mostly ditches the idea.)

Sadly, this gameplay overhaul does not extend to fixing spells. (That’s going to be a consistent pattern throughout the series.) In fairness, they do make a good attempt. The developers have smartly ditched the weird Final Fantasy VIII-style magic system, and have instead adopted the more typical MP pool. Like artifacts, spells have also been given more variety. Direct-damage spells now have elemental variants (though this is only really useful against a select few enemies), there are far more buff spells, and beefed-up versions of low-level spells are added at higher tiers. However, though these improvements were sorely needed, the flaws in how magic actually works have not been addressed. You can still only cast once per round, and you often run out of spell points too quickly, I felt. Furthermore, direct damage spells simply don’t cut it. You automatically get more troops every week on a constant basis, but spell power upgrades are extremely infrequent – you can only get them from specialized, one-use map structures or (sometimes) from level ups, which become harder and harder to get as time goes on. The damage formulas don’t take this into account at all; they’re linear, with a single point of spell power simply adding X amount of damage to the spell. When your opponents are getting more creatures to pad their armies with every week while you’re only getting a spell power upgrade once every month at most (and you have to actively work for it, too)…it just doesn’t work. The end result is that magic is quite powerful at low levels, but becomes more and more useless as time goes on (which is the reverse of how it normally is in RPGs, come to think of it). Clever use of magic is still capable of turning the tide of battle, but only if the armies themselves are evenly matched – and generally, the buff spells revolving around those army creatures are the most effective ones. As icing on the cake, mage guild spells are still completely random and are still resource hogs, making them a late-game investment (if you bother to upgrade them at all). Once again, despite being called “Heroes of Might and Magic“, it’s clear which is the real game mechanic and which is the tacked-on afterthought.

Speaking of that, the “might” side of the equation also got an overhaul. To start with, certain creatures can now be upgraded into better versions if you upgrade their creature dwelling (which is usually equivalent to buying the dwelling twice). Upgraded creatures get better stats, and sometimes even new abilities. However, though you can upgrade a regular creature, it costs twice as much as it would to buy the upgraded creature in the first place, so you’re better off waiting. Of course, while you’re waiting, you might be overwhelmed by your enemy, making it a tradeoff. Oftentimes, however, my money situation was too strained to afford the extra expense, and I felt I had no choice but to wait, lest I fall hopelessly into debt.

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Two brand-new factions have also been added – necromancers and wizards. (Interesting that they’re both magic factions – I guess warlocks and sorceresses have become “balanced” factions now.) However, I don’t think they’re terribly well-balanced. Wizards have a somewhat boring lineup: halflings, rocs, two types of golem, mages, and…boars? Yes, boars. The designers must have been grasping at straws when designing the wizards after they realized they already gave all the cool wizardy creatures to the warlocks. Anyway, wizards are great in the early- and late-game, but suffer in the mid-game. Halflings are shooters, making them very useful in taking down early mobs; boars are (weirdly) fast, making good creatures for scouts, and they’re also surprisingly hardy, making them good guards for shooters. Rocs are also a good strike unit. However, you’ll get a bit of stalling after that, because the lineup is rather top-heavy in terms of strength, and those high-level creature dwellings are extremely resource-intensive. Both mages and titans have upgraded structures that cost a huge amount of both gold and special resources. They’re awesome once you get them (titans, in particular, are the only tier-6 shooter in the game), but you’ll need to control a lot of gem mines before you can even get close. Their creatures are also pretty pricey (especially titans, costing three gems plus a fortune in gold each), so if you’re not on a map with easy access to lots of mines or other towns, you’re going to be treading water while your other enemies are getting their ultimate creatures. Still, like warlocks, they’re awesome if you can play them right. With three shooters (halflings, magi, and titans), they can lay waste to most anything, and their melee units make pretty good tanks.

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Necromancers, on the other hand, are gamebreaking. All of them have a “necromancy” skill that allows them to raise a percentage of the casualties after battle as skeletons, their tier-1 troop, for free. They can simply run through the maps taking huge casualties and not caring because they can just make skeletons constantly. But apparently that wasn’t gamebreaking enough, because, their other troops are incredibly powerful too. Vampires aren’t too impressive on their own, but their upgraded form has one of the most insidious special abilities in the game: every time they attack, they heal themselves equal to the amount of damage they did, and that healing can revive members of the stack that are already dead. You can attack them and kill off a few, then on their retaliation, they drain enough health to regenerate their stack back to full strength, negating your entire attack. Oh, and even better? Attacked creatures can’t retaliate against them. They’re free to drain life off of whoever they want with impunity. The only real way to deal with them is through archers…except they’re also fliers, meaning they have infinite range, meaning they can shut down your archers whenever they want! Oh, but that’s not all. Necromancers only have one shooter (liches), but they’re ridiculously powerful. Their shots have an area-of-effect special, meaning that they can hit up to seven hexes at once with a single shot, for no reduced damage. The only mitigating factor to this is that their own units aren’t immune, but still, seriously. Oh, and their ultimate creature? Skeletal dragons. They’re actually not quite as impressive as flesh-and-blood dragons, but that’s not saying much – they’re tougher than phoenixes but are cheaper. And because they still weren’t gamebreaking enough, they can build a special structure in the expansion pack that actually makes their necromancy skill stronger. I never got to play as them because they are (of course) evil and I picked the good side like a chump.

Bah.

Existing factions haven’t changed all that much. Knights have gotten a major rebalancing attempt, but they still kind of suck. They actually have the most upgrades out of any faction – only peasants can’t be upgraded, which is just as well. Their single archer unit (which is now female apparently?) has gotten the ability to shoot twice in one turn, essentially doubling its offense, but it’s still their only shooter. They still don’t have a flier, crippling them in sieges. And, most importantly, they are still the most boring faction ever.

Warlocks now have the distinction of having the only creature with two upgrades: green dragons, red dragons, and black dragons. They are still the best creatures in the game. I’m getting the impression that the developers really, really like dragons. (But really, who can blame them?)

Heroes still have nothing distinguishing them other than names and portraits, but a small bit of customization has been added: secondary skills. Upon leveling up, instead of just getting a stat bonus as in the first game, you have the option of learning (or advancing) one of two skills. They’re rather varied – most of them deal with combat (such as boosting morale or damage), but some have to do with the adventure map (there’s one that increases movement speed and is pretty much vital). Necromancy is also one of these secondary skills. Annoyingly, though, this is also used to lock out higher-level spells (because that’s exactly what that hamstrung gameplay mechanic needed). There’s a skill called “wisdom” that you need to get if you want to be able to use any spell higher than second level. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of secondary skill slots (8), and which ones you get are dependent on random chance. The frequency of seeing certain skills actually does depend on hero type, but at the end of the day it’s still a crapshoot. Even so, I think it’s a pretty fun mechanic that at least tries to capture the true sense of character growth and specialization that all good RPGs provide.

The resource management element has been much-improved. Instead of only caring about one resource, every town does require a greater variety of them. I think the upgrades and additional building structures help too. Most importantly, all towns can build a “marketplace” that allows you to trade resources for different resources – so if you have an abundance of one thing but are strapped for another resources, you can even them out. The rates are cutthroat, but it is nice to be able to do something with your other resources instead of letting them stockpile. Also, every faction now has a special structure unique to them. They vary in usefulness (sorceresses just get a luck bonus to defending creatures during a siege, while wizards get additional spells in their mage guilds), but it’s a nice touch. Your castle itself can also be upgraded with turrets and a moat.

The well still exists and is still a problem. There’s an attempt to balance it – every town can now build a structure that increases the weekly growth of their tier-1 creature by 8. This does make tier-1s a lot more useful, though everything else is still out of whack. The obvious solution would have been to make it a multiplier instead of a flat addition, but for some reason the developers couldn’t figure that out until the next game.

In my experience, I found the game much, much more difficult than the first one. The difficulty of the campaign skyrockets only a few maps in. In the early maps, you’re pretty separated from your opponents, giving you time to build up and take things at your own pace. Very quickly, though, the game places you in a nearly-impossible-to-defend position with enemies on multiple sides. It seems like the only strategy is to hire a bazillion heroes at once and send them on suicide runs in every direction, hoping that they’ll be able to capture a castle by random chance. That’s not my preferred playstyle at all, yet the game seems to expect that to be my first instinct? I dunno.

Still, it’s definitely more polished than the first game. If you liked Heroes 1 or if you like turn-based strategy games in general, you’ll probably like this one, I guess? Personally, I couldn’t really get into it (I gave up on the fourth campaign map), but I kind of suck at these games, so.

(The music is really nice though.)

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