Heroes of Might & Magic Online - Hands-on Impressions
Be prepared to be surprised if you try Heroes of Might & Magic Online – this is actually a pretty good game. By the time the open beta is finished it might well be a very good game. For so many of us who still enjoy and replay the Heres oo Might & Magic series, the online version is surprisingly robust and addictive. It is faithful to the original (right down to the music) with a few good enhancements and only a couple significant disappointments.
If you are a quiet solo player – think of HoMM Online as a sort of HoMM VI shipped with 10 expansion sets. If you would like to see what multiplayer and PVP is like with your HoMM armies, go for it and dive into all the PVP tournaments. For any of the legion of HoMM lovers, this “free MMO” is a no-brainer to try.
The one major disappointment is with challenge and balance issue – it is simply far too easy when doing quests. When you can go 8-10 quests, involving killing 175+ stacks of enemy mobs, and lose perhaps 2% of your forces during that entire time – then there are serious balance and challenge issues. For most of us, endless massacres of the enemies can become very boring very fast.
By the way, I began the beta as a decided skeptic – with a very strong bias against the environment of a “free” game, on-line chat trolls, enduring typical PVP raging hormones, and the expectation a likely “watered-down HoMM,”.
I was absolutely wrong. This is fun! And if they upped the challenges and fixed the balance issues, I would pay for this game.
One thing needs to be emphasized – this review is based on only 30-40 hours of play, progressing a solo toon to level 60+, with all play occurring during the closed and open betas. Much of the PVP is L60+ so is unseen to me, and there is a lot of high-end content that I am many weeks and levels from seeing.
Like any beta, there are bugs uncovered every day. The game now is pretty stable, but I would guess it is perhaps 80% of what the finished product will be. I have been playing it with just hundreds of players online, mostly in Asia, and cannot predict how it will react when opened to tens of thousands. The beta is extremely IP limited and only a handful of non-Asians participating.
The heart of HoMM Online is literally hundreds of quests. They are organized in chapters of 30-40 individual quests. At present there are 10 chapters and 700+ quests. This number appears easily extensible in the future. The difficulty and rewards increase as you move up into the chapters. Most tend to be solo quests, a few are “group” quests (2-6 players with their heroes and armies – though you can solo most of these), and a couple are “multiplayer” quests (mostly group quests with time limits that make it impossible to solo). Quests tend to be as fast as 15-20 minutes to over an hour, each.
The quests range from FedEx retrievals (collect 6 Thongs of Pulchritude and return them to El Magnifico) to kill the lackeys and the boss (hunt down 6 to 30 mobs, kill them, then the boss) to puzzle quests (mazes, numbers, riddles.) In most there are also wandering mobs. Most of the groups you fight (at least in the first three chapters) do not have a “hero” so you have little fear of magic use against you.
The quests are somewhat repetitive, but considering the sheer number of quests are reasonably creative. Sadly, there is nothing that even approaches “Elwin and Shaera” or “Amelia Nighthaven” storylines here, but there is just enough variation to keep you interested. Plus, quests are integral to getting skills, spells, and equipment.
Three Levels Of Play
One of the best things in the online version is very good support for three totally different styles of play – solo, multiplayer/guild, and PVP. All three are possible, and none seems to hurt the other two.
Multiplayer/Guild play – If you like the social aspect of online games and chat rooms, then HoMM Online has a full guild implementation including guild championships. That does not detract from the ability to run quests in solo mode.
PVP – This one surprised me, a lot. (Warning – bias alert coming!) I am an RPGer and Strategy player at heart – thus the allegiance to a site like RPGWatch. I simply do not enjoy the raging hormones environment of most PVP sites Somehow HoMM Online has managed to compartmentalize and create a free MMO where the PVP emotions do not sweep away the ability to quietly enjoy solo missions.
Pay Versus Free
Playing the beta has turned out to be especially good for understanding the difference between free play, and pay-for play. In beta the pay-for options in HoMM Online are not yet supported [Ed: Erathium purchases were enabled just before this article was posted]. So, you need to use the workarounds available in the free version to obtain everything you want. That has made clear what the tradeoff is for purchasing game assets.
There are two kinds of currency in HoMM Online – gold and Erathium. There is more gold than you can possibly use available in the game – used to buy basic equipment, soldiers for your armies, and castle upgrades. Erathium, other than some rare drops and awards, is purchased with “real money” via your credit card.
The basic “pay-for” idea is simple – for almost anything in the game you could want there is a long way to get it, and a short way. The long way might involve many quests, hours of grinding and farming, and some luck. The short way is to just buy it with Erathium.
Skills/Spells: Upgrading a spell is a great example of the two approaches. You find spell upgrades in the game, but you can only upgrade a spell when you have reached a certain level of “proficiency.” For example, to raise “Lightning” from L2 to L3 requires you to have a proficiency of 3600 – meaning you have already cast the L2 version 3600 times.
- Method one: (Free) Just use lightning a lot during your quests. I would guesstimate you can use it 3600 times in about 150 hours of playing time! :-/
- Method two: (Free) Use the “Online Training” option in game. Park your toon, AFK, with a “trainer” when you go to bed and when you are not playing – the skill will slowly upgrade and cover those same 3600 “casts” in about 15 hours. (As I type this on my portable, my game computer at home is training Lightning to L3. It was 56% of the way done when I left home this morning. It started at 5% when I went to bed last night!) .
- Method Three: (Erathium) Purchase Erathium and click the “Upgrade” button. Since the Erathium option is disabled in the Betas, I have no clue what “17 erathium” represents in real money – probably in the neighborhood of 50 cents ($US) to raise that spell instantly.
Equipment Upgrades: Equipment upgrades are very easy. There are five levels of starting equipment (basic – average – fine – etc) that are easily available. The basic version (with minimal stats) can be purchased with free gold. The average/fine/etc versions seem to be common drops in the group mission final fights. I found a set of “fine” mage equipment early on, and have a package of superior equipment (usable at L100) waiting in my inventory.
To upgrade equipment you insert an “anima” – also a very common drop in the quests. An Anima (such as a helmet +3 wisdom, +2 luck upgrade) is specific to types of equipment and a very wide variety of animas drop. If the type matches your equipment (a steel helmet anima cannot be inserted in a mage’s cloth cap) then you look at what you have collected and then insert the upgrade you want into your item. One anima per item.
- Method One: (Free) The Anima lasts for three days. After that your item reverts to the original version.
- Method Two: (Erathium) You can buy a “dragon soul” that will make the upgrade permanent. (The item is also a relatively rare drop in Quests and awards.)
Interestingly – based on play so far, the permanent version does not seem at all needed for solo or group play. So many animas drop that you sell off or discard most of them. When one poofs, you just insert a new one. However, for PVP you will want to save your best items so the permanent version is far more valuable.
(Note – there are also ways to add sockets and other upgrades that I have not yet investigated.)
As a side note to the review – the beta is particularly intriguing because of the high international participation. I have seen no public numbers, but I would guess that 90% of the beta testers are Asian (the largest contingent is Russian) and I would be surprised if there are more than a dozen or so from the US. This suggests that the final release of the game will have the benefit of a strong international flair to chat and guilds.
One of most amusing chat sessions had someone from the USA chiding others on their “poor”spelling and grammar. It was ironic to watch someone with c-plus English himself trying to insult players fluent in both English and in Russian! Often world chat has a fair amount of Cyrillic mixed in with the English, Vietnamese, Spanish (S.A.), etc.!
Of course, there are problems …
There are drawbacks to the game that will be a big disappointment to longtime HoMM players. I am ignoring the ones that I think are likely bugs that will be fixed after beta.
Learning curve: Management of armies, castles and battles will be old hat to past HoMM players. But a lot more will be completely new and confusing. There is a steep learning curve to HoMM Online. There are so many innovations (Anima, spell drops, sockets, PVP rules, upgrade paths, mastery, stars, etc.) that it might be worthwhile joining a guild (for the advice) even if you are primarily a solo player. You will benefit greatly if you quickly discover “Pathways” and try all of the options a few times just to see all that is available to you.
Balance and Challenge: Something is not at all right here. In solo quest mode almost all quests are far too easy to win. It is not uncommon to finish a quest where you defeated 30+ mob stacks and bosses with the loss of just a couple members of your stacks. Enemies are much too weak. Ranged armies (archers, monks, Cyclopes, etc) are simply too powerful. Melee fighters are generally a waste to use. They either die long before they can get to the other army, or are never used. The best strategy is to just fill all seven slots of your army with stacks of your best ranged fighters. Sadly – having an army of all monks might guarantee easy wins, but takes a lot of the fun out of using HoMMs various creatures in your army and eliminates much of the strategy of a battle.
Weak AI: The AI is especially weak. There is no concept of waiting. Ranged fighters will attack multiple targets, not doing enough damage on any of them to kill even one member of your stack, when they could have doubled up on one stack and actually killed something. They ignore speed and will attack an army that will move last without touching the fighters poised to attack you next.
No sense of continuity: There is no storyline here. The chapters have titles, but they might as well have been random titles from Shakespeare. Quests get equipment, spells and drops but there is no sense of an overall story or goal. If you are expecting the story of Tawni Balfour then you will be disappointed. You will not even have a clue what you are heading towards in Chapter 10 other than bigger, badder bosses.
Incentive to stay online 24/7: I am not sure why this bothers me so much, but HoMM Online has a bunch of mechanisms to encourage you to leave your computer online 24/7 running HoMM when you are asleep or AFK. You can be ‘training.” You can be “meditating” (getting experience even when AFK) and so on. Perhaps this will bother no one else, but I find myself very uncomfortable with it.
The Bottom Line…
HoMM Online has done a lot well, and only a few things poorly. It has the potential to be a very good game that you will play often. It extends HoMM with PVP, multiplayer, and a bazillion expansion quests. Even with the flaws it is a fun diversion that is well worth having for occasional play. With a fix to the balance and challenge issue, this would be a game you will play and enjoy a lot.
But … the weakness of the enemies is so bad that you will be very disappointed unless you like playing games like HoMM on a challenge setting of “Very Easy.” I have a fear that “free” online games feel that they must make it very easy to win to encourage participation. Yet, for a game like HoMM, this could backfire. I know that until the challenge is increased I only will enjoy it mainly as an occasional game when I need my periodic HoMM fix.
If there is a way to increase the challenge, or perhaps have an optional setting to increase mob sizes, then this game would move to the top section of my game list. It would for almost anyone who loves the old HoMM series.