By ahoodedfigure 3 Comments
I've spent the last few weeks playing Might and Magic Heroes: KingdomS. (I think the colon should be there, I'm not sure.) It's been said before: how do you judge a game that is ongoing and slow to build? Would one have to play it a year before one could give it a review? If so, some stuff could never be reviewed.
I think I've got a good handle on its gameplay now and I can tell you what I think without knowing much about where it's going or what the endgame is. Here goes.
The game is a browser-based, multiplayer strategy game where you build up your kingdom through build actions and brief, managed battles. You accumulate gold, wood, ore, gems, sulfur, mercury, and crystal to spend on build actions, and find mines that help with this. These mines can be upgraded, effectively doubling their output once the process is completed, and you can build up your town with creature dwellings and their upgrades, resource storage, and a tower for magical research. The surroundings, once cleared of enemies, can also be used to create enhancements that incrementally boost mine output, creature dwelling output, and your defenses.
Once you reach enough influence you're able to expand to a completely new town, founding it within your sphere of influence in an untamed region with a randomized set of mines. You always get four mines in each region, and depending upon which town type you have, you will need certain materials more than others. This makes picking a new town crucial to your continued growth, although you can trade in the marketplace with other players for resources, or buy them from NPC merchants who usually charge high prices in gold.
Each hero has an attack, defense, and magic statistic, and can upgrade through the use of accumulated skill points they earn every time they level up. Beginning skill fields or starting skills within those fields each cost one point, but the next upgrade of the same skill costs 2 and then finally 3 to max it out. Each hero may have a total of three skill fields, and each skill field has 4 skills that can be upgraded. The skills range from kingdom management stuff to stats that directly affect spellcasting or battle. Depending upon the hero's class, they have access to different skills, and their increase of attack, defense, and magic when they level is based upon different types of progression, so some gain a lot of attack, defense, or magic early on but fail to gain points in the mid-range, while others gain in these stats steadily.
If you don't like the way your hero has been going, you can spend two skill points to respec your character's skills, which is something I would have liked to have seen in the original Heroes games that I'd played, although the idea that you could never change them did make your skill choices more meaningful. The skills are not randomly presented to you, however; you choose from all of the skills available and craft your team to suit your needs. Since each hero can do one task at a time, the more heroes you have the more you can do, sending some off into battle to kill monsters for experience and treasure, while using others to build structures outside of town. In a sense, the amount of heroes you have means the amount of actions you can perform, beyond building up your town, which doesn't require a hero to complete.
If this sounds a lot like Heroes games you've played over the years, or even an improvement on the formula, hold on a sec. I've deliberately left out details just to show you how the above description can be used to draw you in to a game you may not recognize when you actually get into it. The very strong differences between MMHK and the HoMM/MMH games come in combat, options, and how tasks are completed. Only read below before judging if this is something you want to get into.
Combat in MMHK is markedly different than any Heroes title you may have played. You still get multiple levels of creatures which you can hire from creature dwellings and that you get free when you hire heroes. You also get them as part of the game's reward structure for completing certain "quests" that are there to teach you the game's fundamentals. You place these creatures under the command of your heroes to form an army, and this army can be used to free up mines, buildings within your own town(!) so that they can be developed, and clear areas of wilderness around your town. Destroying a monster army yields experience for the hero and resources if out in the wilderness, or extra troops of your troop type if they're killed within your town. You will rarely also get an artifact from the wilderness armies, which may or may not be useful for your particular heroes (but that you can sell on the market to other players if you want to get rid of it, assuming they'll buy it), and even more rarely, although I've never seen it, if you overwhelm troops of your own type with your forces, you may get a few free troops in the bargain.
Combat itself is rock-paper-scissors, with ranged troops being hit by cavalry (usually flying units like dragons, sprites, and gargoyles, which in Heroes games were often used to neutralize ranged units), cavalry being weak against melee units, and ranged dicing up melee. The bonuses provided for these interactions is that the strength of a unit is one and a half times higher when they're up against a unit weak to their troop type. You organize your army such that the top stack of your army hits first, followed by the next until one army or the other is defeated. A unit's strength is a number that stands for the units attack strength AND its hitpoints. There are no random numbers generated like in Heroes games you know, and once you've committed to a battle you wait a little while and get the results. You do not tactically control creatures; all the tactics are in setting up for the battle, and applying any spells you may know.
This means that the battles are entirely determined. You get modifiers for certain artifacts and for your hero's attack power if attacking units (your defense is only useful when defending against others' attacks, which in a PvE server, the kind I've been playing on, is rare), you can cast spells if you're able, and your skills can provide modifiers to creature strength. But all the thinking is done before you enter battle. The game is so deterministic, in fact, that one can use a third-party online battle calculator to guess what the optimal strategy for a given battle is. You enter troops into the attacking and defending sides, pick spells, define your hero, and then it computes the outcome. Maybe some people are able to do all of this in their head, but I use the calculator when I really want to know what the optimal battle outcome should be, and skip it when I just want to get things over with.
Experience is awarded based on how many casualties you take, and how strong the opposing army was compared to yours, measured in total strength. If you take on a foe much greater than yours, using the rock-paper-scissors system to your advantage, you gain much more experience. If you overwhelm them with strong troops you may not gain a lot of XP, but you do get favor in that you expend less troops to get that experience. Personally I LIKE this dynamic; it adds genuine choice to battles that remind me of the choice you get with treasure chests in HoMM games, where you either got experience or gold.
The problem comes where you realize that the meat of Heroes games, the battles, winds up being more about calculations than desperate ploys and flanking. Since none of the creature stacks have any special powers, they're just a picture with strength and an attack type, it doesn't feel nearly as rewarding or personal as the battles in the old Heroes games. You do, however, feel the sting when you sacrifice troops for your own hero's benefit, which is nice, although the calculator you may use will tell you the optimal choices either way, sometimes counter-intuitively showing that reducing certain troop stacks will reduce casualties. It all comes down to whether or not you find such fiddly systems fun.
Building and Training: It Takes Time
In the old Heroes games, you got as much out of it as you were willing to get. You would start a day, get your resources posted in the corner of your screen, send your heroes out, expending their movement points, running into creature stacks and getting into battles. The battles could be long, with huge ones taking quite a while to complete, but the movement was as fast as you wanted it to be. When you built a part of your town, assuming you had the resources, the building basically appears out of thin air, and when a hero trained in a skill they learned it instantly.
In Kingdoms, everything takes time. Real time. It cannot be sped up by paying real money, if that's what you're thinking. If you want to build that peasant hut, it's going to take as long as it's going to take. You can make it go a bit quicker by spending more resources, or longer if you want to save on expenses, but it will take a while. The more advanced a building is, the longer it takes. Since this is a browser game that you can just drop in the middle of play and pick up days later, this makes more sense than it would for a game you play against AI players or in direct competition with others. You can get all your build orders together and leave the game, coming back when you feel like it, but you can't get instant builds, and you can't make build queues. When a character spends skill points to increase a skill, that takes about two hours to complete, and they're going to be doing that until they're done. Some tasks are so huge that they may take a half a day, or even a full day. There's even a skill that reduces build times by a bit, but it's not a dramatic reduction. Battles, however, take a few minutes, unless you're going to trek across the map to attack a player (in PvP servers) or attack an outbreak of creatures from the underworld who are trying to attack the players (in some PvE servers).
I have to admit that if I had read that, I would probably not even have bothered to play because it sounds annoying to get into a game only to have wait; it's less annoying in practice, and you actually feel like you're building a real place, but I think it's designed to keep you coming back. There's a training version of the game, though, limited to an hour of play, where these time limits expire in a matter of seconds and minutes, letting you know if the game is for you without a huge investment in time, although the version of the training mode I played seemed buggy and prone to the occasional crash, unlike the full version of the game. Since this is a PvE server I don't have to worry about attacking players, and attacking NPCs are rare, so it's more about creating this place and managing resources to do it. There's a challenge in making the right decisions on how to upgrade places, what needs to be built next, what territory to occupy, what quests to complete to get bonus resources and which to ignore. But it's not what Heroes was like at all in this regard. The game didn't move at your pace, it moves at its own.
The elephant in the room is how you pay for all of this. I've built up a town and started in on a second, I have a few heroes with plenty of experience in skills. I've almost wiped out all the hapless NPC monsters in the wilderness around my starting town and have completed a lot of the quests for free loot. I supplement my income by selling off resources I collect to other players, and I have an army strong enough to challenge some of the bigger NPC armies that threaten one of my towns, and I haven't paid a cent.
As part of the whole free-to-play movement, this game, which has been out for a few years in French speaking servers and has since been passed on to German and English servers, has introduced an optional try before your buy system that exists alongside its subscription service. You don't buy direct in-game advantages, but everything that is free or for a virtual cost for subscribers costs "seals", which must be purchased with real money or earned very slowly through advancing the in-game ladders and defeating creature stacks.
The things you can purchase, though, are largely not very enticing, and seem like mid-game level stuff. You can reduce your aggro such that invading NPCs may not choose you as a target, you can earn the right to build more vaults on your property that you can delve into to gain treasures, you can change what the mines around a given city yield, you can make cosmetic changes to heroes or respec your hero's skills without paying in skill points. You can also hire more than three heroes using this system; you're limited to three if you play for free, although I imagine this restriction is absent for subscribers.
I don't feel that my not subscribing or not paying incrementally has hindered my towns much at all. Shrewd trading in the markets and auction house, resource management, and use of battle calculators has made me jump up the ranks fairly satisfactorily, and I don't feel any strong pressure to buy anything. It's not like other games I've seen where you feel truly hindered, and it shows a bit gentler way to leverage payments than what I've seen in other games. It does feel like a game to me, but it isn't what I like in Heroes. It has Heroes elements, it feels like Heroes at times, but exploration and tactical battles are pretty much absent. It's not a farming simulator, much, but it's more kingdom management and less adventure.
I'm not sure how long I'll play it, but because I've reached a point where I can make a bunch of decisions and leave it to run for a day I don't feel that it's all that big an investment of my time. I've seen so many free games that actually reduce time duration as part of their payment system, but this is not one of those. For the most part, everyone's on the same playing field, and it makes it feel less oppressive that way. Still, if you subscribe or if you use micropayments you will have little advantages for dungeon delving or a hero roster; it comes down to whether or not that's going to bother you. Since the advantages seem minuscule I don't really care, especially since the world I'm playing in is just PvE.
I guess I keep coming back to the game, despite my misgivings, because I have built this little world up, and I'm proud of the accomplishments I've made relative to other players, and relative to the board. I've made some mistakes, and unlike in old Heroes games I can't really load and try something new, so it creates a bit of a challenge in picking the right action the first time. But underlying this game there seems to be an ideal path. There are random elements in where mines are placed and how you're placed relative to other kingdoms which will affect your progress, but overall I feel like there are paths to follow. Some of the quests feel misleading, in that if you follow them without knowing all the rules you can set yourself back by losing too many troops. And the documentation, to be honest, is spotty, with some entries being decent, and others being full of misspellings and confusing terminology. I learned how to play by doing, but there are still some finer points that are a bit lost on me. I imagine this will get better over time (hey, Ubisoft, you need a document writer? My rates are reasonable), but it pays to read the forums and not just the FAQ or the adequate online strategy guide. I'm not sure if the rules are much clearer for French speakers, though, since if everything would be laid bare, it could be instantly optimized by people who love spreadsheets.
I wouldn't keep playing if I didn't feel there was something to this. It's not a deep game, but there are lots of little threads that combine together that I don't understand as well as others might. If any of this seems interesting you can always try the training mode and see what you think, or play for a day or two, since it's free. I'd not recommend it to anyone who assumed it's just Heroes translated into the world of MMOs. Too much has changed, although some of the flavor is still there. As to whether or not the game is ultimately rewarding to play, I won't be able to tell you definitively for a while yet. Such is the nature of the massively multiplayer online beast.