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Gaming Retrospective: Heroes of Might and Magic III
Gaming Retrospective celebrates the older classics of gaming history while comparing how well they hold up today. You’ll also find links to recommended mods to help you achieve the best possible experience.
This week Ubisoft celebrates the 15th anniversary of Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia. Aside from making me feel super old it gives me a chance to revisit what is widely considered to be one of the greatest turn-based strategy games ever made, and certainly one of my personal favorite games of all time.
The “Heroes of” prefix was used to denote the series as a genre spin-off of the then-popular Might and Magic role-playing series that flourished throughout the late 80s and 90s on PC by New World Computing (and later 3DO). Using what quickly became a standard first person, party-based interface, the main series captivated gamers with its unique fantasy world (with some sci-fi elements – space demons!) and lengthy open-ended gameplay.
The original Heroes of Might and Magic released in 1995 after the successful two-part release of the main series’ 4th and 5th entries, making up the World of Xeen (Fun Fact: Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen was one of the first PC games I ever owned and played). While Heroes shared the brightly colored fantasy world and creatures of the Might and Magic series, the gameplay introduced strategic turn-based combat based around individual heroes commanding large armies of creatures while managing resources, building up towns, and gaining skills and experience. The basic gameplay design was heavily based on New World Computing’s own 1990 King’s Bounty game (which received its own spiritual sequel in 2008’s King’s Bounty: The Legend when the rights were purchased by Russian publisher 1C Company).
The franchise proved successful alongside the main RPG series, and Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia was released in 1999 by New World Computing and 3DO as a highly anticipated followup to the well-received Heroes of Might and Magic II. Heroes II was my first entry in the series and I had been completely addicted for years; in fact its expansion pack, The Price of Loyalty, was the first expansion pack to a game I ever bought. Heroes III (also abbreviated as HoMM3) featured an improved art style, multiple lengthy campaigns, eight factions with seven levels of creatures (with each creature possessing an upgrade, essentially doubling the creatures), expanded hero customization, and tons of individual maps and scenarios that kept teenage me up late way into the night. In fact, I’d get my very own PC (a Pentium II with Windows 98, woo) for the first time just weeks later, so Heroes III is inexorably linked with the joy of staying up late basking in the glow of fantasy armies clashing in the ultimate wet dream of chess matches and fantasy adventure.
I was far from the only one that enjoyed it; Heroes III received universal praise from gamers and critics (9.1 from GameSpot and 9.0 from IGN) and garnered a huge following and community thanks to the wonderful map editor (Fun Fact: The GameSpot review was written by journalist-turned-developer Greg Kasavin, whom you may remember from such games as Bastion and the upcoming Transistor). Sites like the Astral-Wizard introduced me to other Heroes fans to discuss strategies or plan multiplayer matches (these were the days of dial-up modems and AOL Instant Messenger) and more importantly, download tons of awesome user-generated maps. Though I had played around with Heroes II’s map editor, Heroes III was my first real taste of a game that was given additional replay value through user-created content, and I was in love. Hour-tracking software and programs were thankfully non-existent back then, as I’m not sure I want to know how many dozens (hundreds?) of hours I put into Heroes III.
Heroes III contains that addictive Just-One-More-Turn malady that often afflicts Civilization fans; it’s perfectly natural to lose yourself for hours as you scout the map for critical resources, devastating new spells and helpful skills, not to mention the constant battling. Fighting against a single type of creature allows you to exploit its weakness and minimize your losses, while the true test comes from battling enemy heroes with their own menagerie of creatures and powerful spell book. Finding and conquering other faction’s towns allow you to mix and match creatures to your strategical mind’s delight (except for the Undead, nobody likes them having them around). Every creature had its own stats and ranged from weak level 1 creatures that were easily massed like skeletons and gremlins to hulking mega level 7 dragons and titans that could nearly take on small armies by themselves. Knowing which creatures to buy at the beginning of the week when your coffers and buildings replenished was paramount to success, though an intrepid hero could use certain spells or skills to tip a battle in their favor even when out-matched.
The first expansion was released later that year, titled Armageddon’s Blade, containing some awesome new campaigns, map objects, neutral creatures and the super nifty addition of an entirely new faction, the elemental-based Conflux. A second expansion, The Shadow of Death, was less well received with only some new artifact mechanics and even more maps and campaigns. With the release of both expansions the number of official campaigns and maps became absolutely staggering, and when you add in a surprisingly great random map generator and the aforementioned user-made maps, you can quickly see the almost overwhelming amount of content and replayability this single entry in the prolific franchise possesses.
Sadly the Heroes series most assuredly peaked with Heroes III. 3DO was struggling in the early 2000s and a rushed Heroes of Might and Magic IV made the cardinal sin of fixing what wasn’t broken – changing many gameplay mechanics and irritating many longtime fans. The series grew dark after 3DO went bankrupt until the Might and Magic brand was purchased by Ubisoft, who rebooted the entire universe with Heroes V in 2006, bringing the franchise into 3D for the first time (and wisely using Heroes III as its template). Heroes VI was released in 2011 to mixed-to-positive reviews, and while Ubisoft’s entries certainly capture most of the turn-based gameplay mechanics that made the series special, there’s still a magic touch that’s missing from the modern entries (longtime Heroes fans can also look to the fantastic King’s Bounty series, which has since spawned two sequels).
Thankfully the original Heroes III has aged remarkably well with its classy 2D graphics, intuitive interface, and competent AI. GoG has the definitive version of Heroes III Complete, the 2000 release containing both expansions, as well as helpful patches and bug fixes included for $9.99, and it’s constantly one of their best-selling titles. Heroes III is and always will be one of my favorite games, and its timelessly addictive turn-based formula allows me to jump into a game today and enjoy it just as much as I did 15 years ago.
Recommended mods: You really can’t go wrong with the GoG version, but if you’re looking to run the old 800 x 600 game in a more pleasing resolution (or windowed mode), check out the excellent HD mod for your user-friendly all-in-one patch and mod support. If you want to squeeze even more gameplay out of Heroes III, you can download the unofficial fan-made expansion In the Wake of Gods (often called Heroes 3.5) which improves many aspects of the gameplay while adding new creatures, artifacts, objects, and map-making scripting tools. Finally for all your custom map needs, the most prolific and still active Might and Magic fansite is the Celestial Heavens.