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The Rise and Fall of Might & Magic: Part 2 - Ubisoft
In my previous article, I talked about how Might & Magic saw its birth as a passion project by an ambitious nerd named Jon van Caneghem, how the series spawned a spinoff that all but overshadow the originals, and how the series kinda went downhill after 2000, partially due to 3DO's conservative and overly-careful decisions (such as not making the Might & Magic MMORPG), and partially due to them pandering to the fanbase and taking out what truly made Might & Magic unique.
In 2003, 3DO went bankrupt, but luckily, (Heroes of) Might & Magic fans could breathe a sigh of relief, for their beloved franchise wasn't dead, but merely under new management: the whole IP was bought by Ubisoft at a firesale price.
Released in 2006, published by Ubisoft and developed in the Siberian gulags by Russian team Nival, the task of making Heroes of Might & Magic V was a simple mission: bring Heroes of Might & Magic into the 21th century or die trying.... or, make a new HoM&M game, and not **** it up. Did they succeed? Well, it depends on whom you ask, and when you ask.
The game spawned two expansion packs: Hammers of Fate(2006) and Tribes of the East(2007), but I'll get into them later.
Entertainment media - that is, video games, movies, music, etc. - are seldom looked objectively. If they're old, we look at them through rose-tinted nostalgia googles. If they're new, we unfavourably compare them to previous entries in the franchise they're a part of (with the previous entries having the benefit of the nostalgia filter, the new entry not). People hate change, yet at the same time also complain when a series grows stagnant, stale and repetitive, failing to innovate. Not to mention, fans are just spoiled and entitled. If you have a fanbase as big as that of the Might & Magic franchise, you're never going to please the fanbase, no matter what you do. Your best bet is to just let time do its job and let your game be vindicated 10+ years into the future.
So, looking back at the game 16 years after the its release, how good or bad was it really? How does it measure up to previous entries in the series? That is the question.
Heroes of Might & Magic V is basically "back to the basics, with some twists". It is a return to Heroes of Might & Magic II-III (II in some aspects, III in others), but in 3D, and with a few unique quirks: we have 7 creature tiers, with each non-neutral creature having one upgraded counterparts (the second expansion however adds an alternative upgrade for every creature), just like in Heroes III, but each town/faction has only one type of hero class associated with it, just like in Heroes II. However, all classes of hero have a unique secondary skill (Counterstrike for Knights, Necromancy for Necromancers, etc.), all secondary skills have a number of perks associated with them. Just like in Heroes I-III - and unlike in Heroes IV -, each army can only contain one hero, must contain a hero, creatures cannot be on their own, except when guarding towns or manning garrisons, and the hero cannot fight on their own, requiring at least one creature in their army, etc.
The gameplay is decent, albeit I find the creature animations and load times a bit too long. The music and graphics are good too, and hold up well even for 2022. It's a fine game to play when you're bored, and as I said, it still holds up nicely. If it wasn't for some of the natives I am going to list - along with the slow animations and long load times - it would definitely be a worthy successor to Heroes III, butthurt fans be damned.
But now for the bad parts:
Missing content. A ton of em.
The base game contains just six factions: Haven (Knight), Sylvan (Ranger), Academy (Wizard), Necropolis (Necromancer), Inferno (Demon Lord) and Dungeon (Warlock). Sure, Hammers of Fate introduces the dwarven Fortress (Runemage) faction, while Tribes of the East brings the orcish Stronghold (Barbarian), but out of these, at least the Stronghold should have been in the base game from the start. It was part of all previous Heroes games. This is the birth DLCs, where stuff that should have been in the base game from the start is sold at a premium a couple of months later.
Some quality-of-life features added in Heroes IV - such as caravans - were missing in the base game before the expansions.
The base game contains only the campaigns and a handful of scenarios and skirmish maps to play, with no random-map generator or map editor. Hammers of Fate remedied this by introducing a map editor, but still, it's a far cry from the elegance, ease-of-use and user friendliness of the map editor shipped with Heroes IV.
Speaking of campaigns, while the base game has a campaign for each of the six factions it brings, the two expansions each only have three campaigns.
Also, there is absolutely no continuity with the previous games. This is a hard reboot, set in a completely new world named Ashan, with only a few passing references to the most famous old heroes.
Long load times.
The cinematics are terrible, even by 2006 standards. Ffs, in the base game, the heroes' mouths don't even move when they talk in the cutscenes. Luckily, this is partially remedied in the expansion packs, but still...
The AI takes too long to end the turn.
The game overall feels far slower-paced compared to its predecessors (partially caused by the 3D animations), with siege battles being especially tedious.
Even with the two expansion packs, the game feels somewhat empty and lacking in content. I haven't counted all the creatures, artifacts, etc. in the game, but it just feels overall less explorable than the previous games.
While the Heroes of Might & Magic games aren't casual games by any chance, Heroes V is a bit more difficult to randomly pick up and play than its predecessors. Probably due to the intensive 3D graphics and long load times.
Despite all the negatives I said, it is still a good game, both as a standalone, and as an entry to the Heroes of Might & Magic series. Let's not kid ourselves: trying to please the Heroes III fans would have never worked. Even a 3D remake of Heroes III would not have satisfied those folks, and I'd rather see a half-ass attempt at experimenting and innovating, than making the whole series stagnant.
Remember what I said about time vindicating games that weren't received too well upon release? Heroes V - and to a lesser extent IV - are perfect examples. While fanatical Heroes III fans hated them upon release, the catastrophic failure of Heroes VI and VII resulted in many of them looking back at IV-V thinking "perhaps I was a bit too harsh to these two", vindicating these two games after the fact.
Anyway, to me, Heroes V is the last good Heroes of Might & Magic, but before we talk about the rest, let's talk about...
Dark Messiah of Might & Magic was released in 2006. The question is.... was it good? Meh.... maybe?
Look, I think at this point, it's quite clear how spoiled and entitled the Might & Magic fandom is. We wanted strawberry ice cream, and when we got cherry ice cream instead, we all collectively threw a massive temper tantrum, even though we could have gotten no ice cream at all. Which is to say, we wanted Might & Magic X, and instead, we got... well, whatever this is:
It's an action-adventure game, not an RPG. You control only one character, who already has a name and an established personality, there are no sidequests, no sandboxing, only minimal interaction with friendly NPCs - in this game, you spend 80% of the gameplay in combat, 10% at stealth, 9% exploring, and maybe 1% puzzle-solving. Nevertheless, there are still some RPG elements, like Sareth gaining experience points, which you can put into upgrading his combat, stealth of magic abilities.
The game uses the Source engine, along with its neat physics, but also suffered from game-breaking bugs at release. The gameplay is fine, I've seen games that aged far worse, but overall, it's nothing to write home about. There are other games that do whatever Dark Messiah was trying to do better, just without the Might & Magic trademark. If we disregard the fact that it's not the game us entitled fans were expecting, it's a decent-ish game that's mediocre at worst, and really, action-adventure spinoffs aren't that alien to the Might & Magic franchise anyway (remember Crusaders of Might & Magic from the previous article?). In fact, you could even argue that Dark Messiah is a spiritual successor to Legends of Might & Magic, both being first-person shooters set in the Might & Magic universe.
Plot-wise, we're stil in Ashan - where else? -, set roughly twenty years after the events of Heroes of Might & Magic V: Tribes of the East, with the protagonist of that game's last campaign - Arantir - being the antagonist of this game. I'm not going to spoil much, but basically, Arantir is a necromancer, who is actually a good guy trying to prevent the demon messiah - who is secretly you, Sareth - from freeing his father from some sort of demonic prison. But you don't learn any of this until the late game, and thus, unless you played Heroes V's last campaign, you are most likely going to spend your entire playthrough assuming that Arantir is being a villain just for the sake of evil, when in reality, he's an anti-villain trying to prevent an even greater evil - potentially you - from.... I just said it, haven't I?
Yeah, that title confused me too. Seriously, what? It seems like after 2010ish, everyone decided to name their games backwards. Might & Magic Heroes VI... just why?
Released in 2011, published by UbiSoft and developed by Black Hole Entertainment (my fellow Hungarians), plot-wise the game acts as a prequel to Heroes V, set around five centuries earlier. Gameplay-wise... ho boy, is it a huge step back. But more on that after the positives.
On the positive side, the graphics are stunning, the music is great (it intentionally appeals to our nostalgia senses by remixing and rearranging songs from previous entries of the series), the cinematics are great, the UI is clean-cut.
Now, on the negative side...
The base game didn't even have proper town screens. This was fixed in the expansions, but still.... what the hell?
No more creature dwellings. Seriously, wtf?! Basically, map buildings as a whole are replaced by some kind of "kingdom" system, where captured towns project a zone of influence around them, bringing with them all the mines and whatnot.
Both the old skill system and magic system replaced by some sort of weird "talent" system.
The base game only came with only five factions (Haven, Sanctuary, Stronghold, Inferno, Necropolis), with Dungeon being added in the expansions. Where did the Academy/Tower go?! What about the Sylvan Elves?!
Only four types of resources: gold, wood, ore and crystals. Seriously, wtf?!
You can convert towns, forts, etc. to your faction. Now, I'm not offended by the inclusion and implication of genocide in a video game, but this just makes factions pointless. In the previous games, you could mix and match units from different factions, albeit at the cost of morale for the army as a whole. Here, there is no incentive for that.Now, yes, there are some missions in Heroes V where this very thing happens, but still, it was in a campaign, not a base game feature.
The old strategical considerations of transporting armies from one town to another and merging armies? Gone. Replaced by a system in which all towns generate units into a common pool, from which your hero can drain the creatures. Seriously, why?
The game is chock full of DRM and really trying to push the whole always-online bull****. The game is very much a product of its time, and I mean it in a negative sense.
The game is overall simplified and cassualized to a degree I feel rather uncomfortable with.
If you thought the plot of Heroes V was written by teenagers, then good lord, is the one of Heroes VI even worse. They shoehorned the exact same family - the Griffin family - into all factions of the base game, somehow. Could they not get any more creative ideas?
Speaking of which, the Sanctuary faction is a faction of Nagas with really bad Japanese accents. Heroes VI is a prequel to Heroes V, plot-wise. So, what happened to the Nagas after the events of this game? They are suspiciously absent from Heroes V. Was there some sort of Naga genocide?
Heroes VI also adds a sort of reputation system, where the more violent your heroes act, the more evil powers they unlock, while being merciful unlocks other abilities? I dunno.... Meh?
Now, I'm not necessarily saying that Heroes VI is a terrible game. Perhaps if it was a standalone game without the (Heroes of) Might & Magic trademark, I would be less harsh to it. But this just barely even feels like Heroes of Might & Magic at this point. Yes, even Heroes IV felt more like Heroes.
Hell, at this point, even Age of Wonders III feels more like Heroes of Might & Magic, than Heroes of Might & Magic VI does! How screwed up is that?!
Released in 2016, the sh!tshow continued with Might & Magic Heroes VII, developed by Limbic Entertainment and published by Ubisoft, and the last Heroes of Might & Magic game to be released as of date.... Ho boy. We're really in for it, are we not?
Alright, let's get over this trainwreck already.
So the game is set a couple of centuries after the events of its predecessor, but still one century before the events of Heroes V, making this game a prequel as well.
The base game features just six factions (Academy, Dungeon, Haven, Necropolis, Stronghold, Sylvan), with 8 units per faction, if not counting the upgraded variant of each unit, plus three unique war machine type units, which is pretty impressive and commendable. An expansion brings in the dwarven Fortress faction, bringing it back from Heroes V. Each faction has two types of heroes, just like in Heroes III and IV, on top of the whole blood-reputation thing carried over from Heroes VI.
Hero development and town development are decent, combat is good, but the AI is tererible, and the campaign is even more so. Still, the game brings back the resources from the older games, as well as the original magic system and skill wheel from Heroes V.
Overall, not THAT bad... They really paid attention this time, and rolled back some of the changes that people complained about in Heroes VI.
Yet it was a little too late. They went completely off the rail with the campaigns, and already burned their bridges with the fanbase, which has all but abandoned the hopes of a good Heroes of Might & Magic game ever being created under the corrupting influence watchful eyes of Ubisoft.
Between being a buggy mess, having terrible AI, terrible plot, missing content/factions.... I wouldn't hold my hopes up.
The game we all expected to get in 2006, only to get Dark Messiah of Might & Magic instead. Might & Magic X: Legacy. Released in 2013 (three years before Heroes VII), it... Well, I can't review a game I never played, but I can still talk about some of it.
Set in the same world of Ashan as Heroes of Might & Magic V-VII and Dark Messiah, Might & Magic X specifically takes place a couple of years after the events of Heroes VI, starting out in a suspiciously familiarly named town named Sorpigal(that was the starting town in the original Might & Magic I too, back in 1986).
And this is all we need to know: after the disappointments caused by Heroes V, VI and Dark Messiah, Ubisoft must have been really desperate to win back some of the old Might & Magic fans, so they asked Limbic Entertainment - yes, the very same Limbic Entertainment that would developed Heroes VII too - to bring the main series into the 21th century, or die trying.
Did they succeed? Well, the game got generally positive reviews, and underneath the modernized 3D graphics, it plays almost exactly like Might & Magic III-V, from the early 1990s. This, did alienate a few fans of the latter entries of the series (VI-IX), but oh well. As I said, I sadly never got to play this game, even though by the looks of it, I would absolutely love it.
While the last two entries of the franchise - Might & Magic X and Heroes of Might & Magic VII - were rather well-received, and reignited the hope of the franchise's revival, I won't hold out much hope: Ubisoft has been abandoned franchises left and right to focus on their beloved Assassin's Creed. Not to mention, before M&M X and HoM&M VII, Ubisoft's treatment of the franchise left a rather bitter taste in the mouth of the fans, leaving them - and me as well - rather cynical about the future of the franchise.
We don't know when the next (Heroes of) Might & Magic game will be developed, if at all. And that is perhaps for the best. I'd rather my beloved die with dignity, than literally fade away and go out with a whimper. In fact, many would argue. While Heroes of Might & Magic III and some of the Might & Magic RPGs still have a fanatical fanbase, and are fondly remembered, the post-2006 installments.... not so much. Very forgettable.
And that is the story of the Rise and Fall of the Might & Magic franchise.
We can all argue about where and when did it truly start going downhill. Some say it all went downhill the moment Ubisoft acquired the franchise and started to run it into the ground, watering it down, completely ruining the lore and distorting the series and everything it stood for. Some say it started going downhill before that, in 2000, after Might & Magic VII, with Might & Magic IX and Heroes IV. And some would argue, that the seeds of decline were planted as early as the mid-90s, when 3DO refused to greenlight the Might & Magic MMORPG project, causing the whole series to start its slow-motion downward spiral into oblivion.
Maybe it's for the better, if Ubisoft doesn't make any new (Heroes of) Might & Magic games. Maybe we should let the franchise die with dignity and/or pass the torch to someone else to carry on its legacy.... which brings me to repeating myself, and bringing attention to the fact, that even Age of Wonders III felt more like Heroes of Might & Magic, than Heroes of Might & Magic VI did. Now, Age of Wonders is not a new series, since its first installment is from the late 1990s, but it still feels like the true spiritual successor of the Heroes of Might & Magic series. It's basically Heroes of Might & Magic meets Sid Meier's Civilization, if those two games had a baby.
Might & Magic may be (un)dead in the hands of Ubisoft, but its legacy lives on, with still a large and dedicated fanbase hell-bent on preserving its legacy and telling everyone about the second greatest story ever told, about a fictional universe almost as expansive as that of Star Wars, with a lore just as detailed with a special attention. As such, I will always remain a fan of Might & Magic, which will forever continue to hold a special place in my heart.
And thus, to close, I leave you with a series of songs: