Heroes of Might and Magic IV

Review by Steerpike
April 2002

History 101

The HOMM pedigree isn't as glorious as that of, say, Pong—but a game with ancestry spanning twelve years seems pretty august all the same. Heroes of Might and Magic spawned from King's Bounty, a multiplatform title that I originally played on my Sega Genesis in 1991. If there's one lesson to be learned from the Heroes quadruplet, it's that "more of the same" is no more a bad thing than "big government." It all depends on how you implement it. Because the truth is, Heroes 4 is pretty much a direct Punnet Square descendant of King's Bounty, and it's just as great as ever.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV is a turn-based strategy game with adventurous/roleplaying elements. You take the role of a commander of heroes (recruited at local taverns, where all heroes hang out), who in turn command armies of fantastic creatures. In addition to stampeding over death-deserving enemies, you get to capture towns and direct the construction of facilities that improve your chances of winning the game by providing resources, more creatures for your armies, or skill improvement.

An ungodly amount of playtime is available here. Six massive campaigns represent the bulk of the single-player experience, while more than a dozen individual scenarios are available, not to mention a campaign editor that allows you to build your own adventures. Multiplay is currently available only in a hotseat format, but a true online patch is in the works.

The game is effectively divided into three activities: manipulating towns, roaming the countryside in search of adventure, and crushing your enemies in combat. Like its predecessors, HOMM4 elegantly blends these facets to produce a friendly, turn-based atmosphere so addictive that you may find yourself late for your own wedding if you start playing on the morning of.

Sim City

You choose an alignment to start, and this alignment dictates not only what creatures you'll be able to work with, and which structures are available to you, but the disposition of the rest of the world and your hero roster as well. While you can feel free to recruit heroes of other alignments, rest assured that Tree Sprites are not going to enjoy serving under a general who's been a walking corpse for three thousand years. If you want heroes of opposing alignments, either make sure they're able to control the morale of their people or build them an army that matches their disposition.

Dyed-in-the-wool strategists scoff at games like this, just as they sneer at "real-time strategy." As in that vaunted genre, success in HOMM4 is based largely on numbers and careful attention to the needs of your armies. Issues such as morale, luck, and (of course) some amount of strategy certainly play a part, but the real strategy of the game is mastering the art and science of manipulating your corner of the world to produce big numbers of big troops.

Much of this is dependent on your ability to quickly gather and protect your resource flow. Gold, mercury, gems, crystals, ore, and wood are all necessary in varying amounts, and if you don't snap up the structures that produce them, you're going to find yourself out of the game. Even the most experienced players will operate at a deficit of something, which is a sign of very good play balancing.

You can recruit creatures from structures you build in town (you'd think they'd build dragon pens outside of town, just because of the manure problem, but you'd be wrong) or from neutral structures on the landscape. Other facilities in town manufacture equipment or provide valuable training for your heroes. While city management is nowhere near as demanding as overseeing a base in Starcraft, it's imperative that you always play with one eye on the needs of your cities. Ignore them at their (and your) peril. But while there are lots of buildings for each alignment, and few duplicates, town management in general has always seemed somewhat tacked on to me. Eventually towns get everything they need, and the game may only be half over.

Ready to Rumble

Game turns are divided into days, with each day seeing the production of some resources and creatures. You move about, fight battles, give build orders, and then end your turn for the day. Players can always head back to town and beef up their army after a nasty defeat, and the longer you let your creatures breed, the more fresh troops are available.

The majority of gameplay takes place in the world screen, where you and enemy heroes roam a colorful landscape chock full of high-fantasy experiences. You can scarcely move an onscreen inch without running into some bizarre encounter or another, all of which serve to improve (or reduce) some aspect of your hero or army. If you're into high-fantasy exploration, HOMM4 is a game for you.

Control on the world screen is generally acceptable, though the pathing is occasionally peculiar—I've had heroes do figure eights around a structure before reaching the door—and a less-cluttered toolbar would have meant more screen real estate for the game. I realize that iconic buttons are appealing, but poorly made ones take up way too much space. Despite a few minor drawbacks, however, the lion's share of play in this environment is endless fun as you explore the world and experience strange events.

The universe of HOMM4 is so brightly colored and cheerful that it's hard to think of it as a gritty strategy game. Imagine the offspring of an unholy union between Fantasy Zone and The Ancient Art of War for an idea of HOMM4's world screen visuals. They'd better slide the HOMM graphics engine through a 3D accelerator in the next version—not because the sprite based graphics are unappealing (they're among the best I've seen) but because 3D is not just the future, it's the present—and the HOMM series has to join it.

Earth Versus the Monsters

Combat is also turn-based. In a grand departure from its ancestry, heroes in HOMM4 are directly involved in combat and, at high levels, can make the difference between victory and defeat. It's not the end of the world if you lose a hero, but I don't recommend it; even if you win the battle, you may face a long trip back to town to resurrect your poor dead champion.

For combat, HOMM4 provides a handy poster-sized reference chart with pictures and relevant statistics for each troop type in the game. This is especially helpful to newcomers, who may not recognize the benefits and drawbacks of choosing Venom Spawns over Vampires or may be wondering whether a Peasant has a shot at defeating a Dragon Skeleton in single combat (don't even try it).

Creature animations and graphics in combat are both lovely and enjoyable. The animations range from the whimsical to the fierce. Rich, high-color graphics really bring out a Faerie Dragon's eyes, and the liberal dollops of brilliant color are a welcome departure in a world overused to the brown, brown, brown, brown, and brown color scheme of Quake 3 or Return to Wolfenstein.

You win a battle when your troops have eliminated all the enemy forces (or when the enemy drops their weapons and heads for the hills). Victory or loss, you're treated to a nice cinematic with a statistical breakdown of how things went for you.

Control in combat, too, is generally good—though more than once I've accidentally attacked the wrong creature in a cluster of opponents or moved my archers forward when I intended to shoot at something. It's hard coming up with serious complaints about HOMM4, and control is my only major gripe. Seriously, though, the worst I can say about it is that it could be better. I suspect some of the flaws in the control structure are the result of an attempt to make the game as similar, mechanics-wise, to its predecessors; it may be time to abandon that scheme.

Game audio flows effortlessly between what sounds to me like a dozen or so different musical pieces—orchestral, jazzy, choral—and is so good that I wonder how much of the HOMM4 development budget was blown on hiring music talent. Audio is aggressively present and very much at the forefront throughout the game, which may irritate some players; but for those who appreciate good game audio, you're not likely to get bored by the score in this one any time soon.

Hero Takes a Bow

Victory conditions are different for each campaign and scenario, and the open nature of play encourages gamers to develop their own strategy. There is no surefire way to dominate; obviously, having tons of powerful troops is the key to the game, but getting to that point and then using them correctly is a nonlinear path.

Hotseat multiplay will keep gamers occupied until the real multiplayer patch ships; however, there are too few team-based scenario maps for hotseat to be a long-term solution. Working together is as much fun as working against one another in HOMM4, and it would have been nice if the designers took this into account when doing their world-building. Meanwhile, fan-made maps are already appearing online, and considering the longevity of HOMM3, it's only a matter of time before we see official expansion packs to what has already turned out to be one of the best-selling games of the season.

HOMM4 will infect you with what I like to call the "Turn Based Sickness." Symptoms include loss of temporal perception and inability to perform other functions (including bodily) until "just one more turn" has been completed. It's only a matter of time before someone starves to death playing a computer game, because they're so enthralled that they can't stop for a taco. Police will discover a corpse clutching a mouse, staring blindly at the "End Turn?" screen, an empty can of Coke—the last sustenance this poor soul ever consumed—balanced on a speaker. HOMM4 is so addictive and so darned cheerful that, when you're playing it, feeding the cat (or yourself) just doesn't seem like a critical issue. In Maszlow's Hierarchy of Needs, HOMM4 falls just above "shelter." The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: New World Computing
Publisher: 3DO
Release Date: March 2002

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

PII 300 (PII 450 recommended)
128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)
4 MB video card
750 MB free hard disk space

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