* Prices may differ from that shown
This is a fairly new game, so it currently costs £24 on amazon. It will come down in price, probably quite soon.
The 'Heroes of Might and Magic' series for PC has been going for years, but has never quite got the name recognition of other fantasy games. This may be because it's a slightly odd format - it's more of a strategy game in the point-and-click style of the Total War series than an RPG like Elder Scrolls. Your heroes are actually generals of little armies of fantastical beasts, and the game generally involves to pitting your armies of beasts against those of other characters. You need cities to build more creatures, and have to capture resources - sawmills, gold mines etc - in order to fund your crazy armies.
Heroes 6 has reversed the order of the name, for some reason. It is actually a prequel to the previous version, although it won't make a blind bit of difference if you've never played any of these games before. I've played all of them since number 2, and have always enjoyed them. This one, though, is a mixed bag.
There are plenty of good things on offer in the game, and it fits comfortably within the Heroes series. You still gallop around the map picking up resources and fighting anything you find to fight. The map is rather like the maps for Rome Total War, but with more magic stuff. When fighting, you go to a battle screen. Fights are turn-based, and you pit your monsters against the other guy's. Each type of creature has different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and you pretty quickly figure out the best tactics. Your hero belongs to one of several different factions, and different monsters are available to each one. So the Necromancy faction gets skeletons, vampires etc, while the Stronghold faction gets Orcs and Ogres.
Battles themselves are fun, if often frustrating - it can be dispiriting to see a hundred of your finest hellhounds get blitzed by an angel, and having your succubi divebombed by a griffin is nowhere near as sexy as it sounds. There's a story mode and an online, multiplayer mode. Story mode gives you a lengthy campaign for each of the five factions, and you have hours of play with each. The story is a little more satisfying than in previous Heroes games; at least it bothers to tie everything together at the end, more or less.
There are a few factions missing from previous versions - no elves, no magicians - but Heroes 5 didn't have a full complement until they'd released a couple of expansions, so perhaps that's the intention here. There's one new faction, Sanctuary, which includes creatures from far eastern mythology for the first time. I was not hugely impressed with that faction, but that might just be because I found the story mode missions a bit irritating for them.
As with most fantasy-based games, as you win battles you earn experience, and get to 'level up' your character, unlocking new powers. You choose either to be a 'might' hero, with bonuses to your armies' strength, or a 'magic' hero, who gets to learn hefty spells to damage his opponents and resurrect his own fallen armies. There's generally a good balance - some factions clearly favour might over magic, or vice versa, but they're all fun to play when you get into them, except maybe Sanctuary. Level ups come round fairly regularly, which is a good way to keep you engaged, and it's impossible to give a hero every ability at once, giving you the incentive to try again later to unlock different ones.
The graphics are pretty nice, and the animations work well enough for the most part. It isn't as visually inventive as previous versions, and the game has been simplified in various ways. Some of the more annoying, over-powered creatures have been toned down a bit, but the number of resource types has fallen, and you can no longer steal each other's mines without first conquering any local cities.
The music is rather lovely. Heroes games have always had good music. It's orchestral, but quite charming and lacking bombast.
Firstly, the game was released with a ridiculous number of bugs in it. Most of the really drastic ones have now been patched, but there are still some creatures whose special abilities won't work, and a couple of hotkeys don't do anything. Even though the game claims to support my graphics card, it didn't work until I'd made some changes to the registry files (luckily someone online had already figured out a fix). The rush to release games is understandable, but there's no incentive to buy things in the month of release if they're not going to be playable for weeks. If you're going to buy this (and you're not - see below) then I'd leave it until at least June 2012.
Although there is a lot of gameplay in single player mode (the box says 100 hours, which could well be true, although I've not been timing myself), much of it is very samey. Each individual mission - and these can take eight hours of your life to complete - will tend to only pit your hero against enemies from one faction. You'll effectively fight the same fight over and over again, as enemy armies containing the same numbers of creatures do exactly the same things in exactly the same order. This is tedious, clearly, and makes it hard to play this for the kind of day-long sessions a game like this needs.
Add to that some ludicrous spikes in difficulty on some missions, and bugs that stop you completing certain goals, and this is nowhere near as engaging as Heroes 5. There's no obvious order to play the separate campaigns in, and as people instinctively read from left-to-right (at least in Europe and America), most will start with the Necromancy campaign. This is a mistake, as it's easily the most fun. Everything afterwards feels anticlimactic
Although the story is fairly coherent, the dialogue is abominable. Other fantasy games like Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age understand that we need characters to relate to, so among the pompous speechmaking, characters get to be relaxed and human and funny. In Heroes 6 they're just pompous, pretty much all the time, with the exception of the Stonghold hero, who is quite funny. But that's one campaign out of six that is feels in any way human. All the heroes are siblings, but it's impossible to relate to or care about any of them. And on top of that, the voice acting is absolutely dreadful (not as bad, admittedly, as in Heroes 5, which had the worst voice acting I've ever heard in a game). The cut scenes look quite nice, but they're too slow paced, and I ended up skipping most of them.
Although the game has its faults, it's not too bad in and of itself. It's not quite the leap up from Heroes 5 that I'd hoped for, but I was still able to play through it, if a bit more slowly than I'd expected. The reason that I hate this game is because of Ubisoft's continuing obsession with effectively criminalising its customers. They have always been ludicrous about the DRM protections on their games, but now they've gone too far for me. I understand that developers want to protect their work, but I have never illegally downloaded a game and I never will. If we don't spend money on games, then there will be no more money to develop games, and everyone will lose. Obviously.
You have to register this game online before you can play it. OK, I can go along with that. Except that there's nothing telling you which ports to open so that you can see Ubisoft's server through your router/firewall/whatever. Once you've found that information on their website somewhere (like most modern PC games, this doesn't bother to include a manual) you can finally register, assuming their servers are working.
But then you have to be online when you play, too. And your saved games are kept on a server online, and are inaccessible to you except through the game. The servers are frequently not running properly - on those occasions, you can theoretically play offline, but because you won't have access to your saved games, you won't be able to play any but the first training mission in story mode. This is absolutely pathetic. If you're going to casually assume that all your customers are itching to rip you off, you have to at least give them a reason to want to - providing the basic means of actually playing the game properly would be a good start.
I haven't mentioned the online multiplayer version because I haven't been able to play it. The times I tried, either the server was down or it couldn't find anyone to pit myself against. Frankly, this is no great loss. I can't see myself playing this again - although I can't sell it second hand, because my copy is registered to me and wedded to an online account in my name that I was forced to set up in order to play it.
So basically, a pleasant enough game - not a brilliant game, but a decent one - has been ruined by the heavy handed nonsense imposed by its increasingly paranoid developer. There is no danger of my ever buying a Ubisoft game for PC again (I might do for Xbox), which is a shame, because this has been one of my favourite series over the years.
So basically, don't buy this. Illegally download it if you like*, when someone cracks it (if they haven't already).
*Don't illegally download it, obviously. That would be illegal. Tsk.