Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fool Reviews Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes

Hello everyone, and welcome to another installment of Fool Reviews. Not that there's anybody actually reading this, but still. Today I'm going to give my opinion on one of the installments in the long-running Might and Magic series.

Now, before I begin, I think I should make this clear: I've never played any Might and Magic games before. In fact, before playing this game, I'd never even really heard of them, so I went into this gaming experience basically blind. In fact, I still don't know much regarding the rest of the series, so Clash of Heroes is going to have to stand on its own merits. 

Let's see how it holds up, shall we?

Let's start with what is obviously the most important part of the review: the gameplay.

For those of you who don't know, Might and Magic is a strategy game series which has garnered a large amount of critical acclaim for its innovative battle system. It's not a pure strategy game, but rather a mix of strategy and, of all things, puzzle mechanics.

Yes, you read that right. Might and Magic's battle system is seriously a strategy-puzzle hybrid.

Here's what really surprised me, though. It works. It works really, really well. It's actually incredibly addictive and highly entertaining. Let me break it down for you.

Tetris meets WarCraft. You may geekgasm now.

The battlefield is divided into upper and lower halves. Your army sits on the lower half, with your opponent's army occupying the upper. Each player has a certain number of hit points, which can be depleted when enemy units manage to break through your ranks. The objective is to reduce your opponent's HP to zero. Fairly simplistic, really. 

Here's where the "puzzle" part of "strategy-puzzle hybrid" comes in, though. The battlefield is divided into grid squares. In order to issue an attack order, you have to stack up three units of the same type and same color in the same column. This will join those three units into a "charge" and start its attack timer. When that timer hits zero, the charge begins, and your units will stamped upwards, trying to punch through the units in their way to reach your opponent.

You can counter this by just leaving lots of units in front of each attack, of course. That'll at least soften the blow. But the best way to protect yourself is to line up three or more units of the same type and color in the same row, which will turn them into a wall that has much more ability to withstand punishment than normal units. You take turns with your opponent to attempt to complete charges and walls.

This isn't all there is to it, of course. You only get so many moves per turn, and you can only move units from the end of a column onto the end of another, solitaire-style. You can also delete your own units if they're getting in the way. Since your units automatically move forward to occupy the uppermost part of your battlefield, this can be used to complete charges and walls that would otherwise be impossible (and when you complete a charge or wall, the units shift so that the walls and charges are at the top, which adds extra layers of combo-stringin' goodness). Or you can call in reinforcements to deplete an almost-empty battlefield, since units which charge get removed from the battlefield after completing their attack.

But even with that, Might and Magic offers still more depth and complexity to satisfy dedicated puzzlers. As mentioned above, your units can each be one of three colors, and they all have different charge-timer lengths, so they take different numbers of turns to actually launch the attack that you've set up. Setting up attacks of same-color units which will launch on the same turn will give each charge an attack boost. Putting two charges of the same color and type on the same column will fuse the two units together for extra punch, which has the added benefit of freeing up more spaces for you to coordinate with. 

And, for still more puzzly fun, the game has Elite and Champion units, which take up extra space on the battlefield and have to be "fueled" by forming a charge behind them with smaller units (which are then consumed by the larger unit), but have special abilities and added attack power. A normal infantry charge can bring seven points' worth of attack power to the battlefield, while a Treant Champion unit can send seventy-five points' worth across two columns at the same time after eating four normal infantry.

All of this means that Might and Magic challenges you to think both strategically and... puzzlingly(?). You have to coordinate your attacks and defenses so that you aren't getting in your own way with your units and are hitting your opponent's weakest columns, but you also have to have a puzzle gamer's ability to sort and coordinate the movements of your units so that you aren't tripping over your own moves while attempting to coordinate multiple attacks. It's incredibly addictive, simple to learn, and, most importantly, lots of fun. Battles in this game are a blast.

More than that, each army feels very different even though the gameplay between all of them is exactly the same. The Elves are fast, but not the heaviest hitters. The Griffin Empire are slow but very hard-hitting, the Demons are still slower and still more powerful, and so on.

Unfortunately, the battle system does have a few minor flaws. A few of the units feel entirely useless and only serve to get in the way. For example, the Fairy unit, a part of the Elf army, seems to be entirely worthless in every situation. Fortunately, there's no pressure to use it in your army. You get the privilege of choosing three core units and two Elite or Champion units to form your army, and you can double up on the three possible core choices so that you don't have to take any kind of unit you don't want to.

Beyond that, the system is slightly arcane. The game does provide a tutorial for most of the features, but there are a few things which will surprise you the first time. The most annoying part of this lack of information is the fact that the game doesn't tell you what the special abilities of your enemy's Elite and Champion units are. You know that Elites and Champions are powerful, because you've got some of your own and they're awesome, but the only way you're going to figure out what's about to happen to you when your enemy fields one that you haven't seen before is to wait for it to explode in your face. 

The other part of the battle system that I'm not too fond of is the reinforcement system. When your side of the battlefield begins to get low on troops, whether because you've been charging a lot or because your opponent has wiped out your defenses, you can spend one of your actions to call in more units to refill your ranks. You can do this as many times as you like - the game doesn't end until one player's HP has hit zero, and there's a very high rate of turnover on units, so having infinite troops is important - but the units you get, what color they are, and where the game drops them in is always random. Calling in reinforcements can be nail-bitingly tense, since you don't know whether or not the computer is going to give you what you need or completely screw you over. 

Still, neither of these are game-breaking problems. The reinforcements being random adds a little more tension to the gameplay, similar to Tetris when you're waiting for the perfect block. It does mean that the game has an element of luck that might not sit well with hardcore strategy gamers, but it's still fun, and the surprise of figuring out what an enemy Elite does for the first time, while frustrating, is also interesting.

It's kind of obvious what the berserker with the giant axe does though.
Unfortunately, outside of the battles, the game starts to drag a little. The story is well-told but very simplistic, and shows more than a few signs of being an Advance Wars ripoff. Demons from another world are posing as agents of certain factions in order to start a global war so that they can take over when everything's done with, and you have to fight your way through the enemy nations in order to unite them as one and bring them against your common foe. 

The main complaint that I have outside of the battles, however, is the overworld travel. Your character walks from "node" to "node" on a map at your direction, talking to people and getting into more battles. There really isn't any point in it, since you can't move off of the designated nodes, and thus there's no exploration. It feels like padding, and that feeling only gets more pronounced when the game has to load as often as it does. The map sections aren't very large, and the game loads each one when you move to and from them. Loading screens are quite common here, and last a little longer than feels necessary. I don't think it would have been that hard to roll a few of the map sections together and load them all at once, so the player could just sit through one loading screen and then have a while before they have to see one again.

It also kind of stretches disbelief when Satan is three feet away and yet you can't leave the node path in order to flee.
The multiplayer portion of the game, fortunately, really makes up for it. The online portion of the game offers two-on-two battles in addition to the standard one-on-ones, and each player can customize their own armies and commanders (which give passive buffs to the whole team and can cast spells to help their units). This amount of customization makes every multiplayer game different and engaging.

And that's Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. My final verdict is that this is a great introduction to the series for someone like me, who's never played the games before. The overworld navigation gets tiresome, particularly since nothing happens in it that couldn't be handled through a much-faster menu system, but the gameplay itself is an absolute blast. Particularly at its current XBox Live Marketplace cost of 1200 points ($15.00). I would highly recommend this game to people who are fans of strategy or puzzle games, and particularly to those who, like me, enjoy both.

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