Heroes of Might and Magic II may just be my favourite strategy game of all time. Is it the best? Probably not, but it's certainly the one I've sunk the most hours into over the years. While most of my friends growing up were honing their platforming skills with Sonic and Mario, I was blowing invertebrates up and discovering LucasArts' and Sierra's adventure titles.
When I wasn't storming castles with Black Dragons, that is.
The story really begins back in 1990, when Jon Van Caneghem and his band of developers at New World Computing finished work on a turn-based fantasy strategy title named King's Bounty. It was a turn-based strategy affair that saw you slip-sliding around a 2D map on horseback, picking out one of four classes for your hero and marshalling a binch of monsters around the place to help lay the smackdown on your foes. The catch? Well, you could only prevail over five different unit classes and the size of your army was determined by your hero's leadership level.
Leadership and morale were key factors upon the battlefield, with high factors leading to extra turns and low levels of either often resulting in rebellion in the ranks and units refusing to fight. On top of that, spells augmented the combat - their efficacy and nature determined by the class of hero you'd chosen - and you could garrison the towns and cities you conquered, building them up for better units, stronger fortifications and the harvesting of greater resources.
These systems would be expanded upon and combined further with New World Computing's popular Might and Magic setting and storylines, following a deluge of RPG titles towards the end of the 1980s and through the early 1990s, to create a series of turn-based strategy titles that would change the face of strategy forever!
Well, maybe not quite, but they certainly stamped their mark, with the series proving popular to this day, the sixth game in the series having launched late last year.
The first game - Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest - launched in 1995 for MS-DOS, releasing the next year for Windows. The story followed Lord Morglin Ironfist, forced to flee his homeland through a magical portal, because his evil cousin, Ragnar, had gone and usurped the throne after Ragnar's father, killed Ironfist's father, the legitimate owner of the throne. That's not particularly important...what does matter is that Ironfist finds himself adrift in a new land called Enroth: home to a bunch of quarrelsome warlords, and it's up to him to found a new kingdom and unite the land.
In all honesty, Heroes 1 was a bit drab. The presentation was fairly hideous, the story wasn't exactly gripping, and the gameplay, although promising, could have used more depth. Thankfully, NWC returned to the Heroes brand for a second outing.
Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars picked up with the death of King Ironfist, adding two new classes into the mix - the Necromancer and Wizard factions - who joined the Knight, Barbarian, Sorceress, and Warlock from the first game. The creatures from the previous titles remained intact, but each of the classes were given upgrade options for their creatures. A Knight's Paladins, for example, could now become Crusaders and the Warlock's Green Dragon, could now evolve into the fearsome Black Dragon.
Heroes II also introduced a number of new features that the series has kept ever since, many of them exhibiting RPG-esque element. The skills system, for example, saw heroes gaining in experience after each battle, with the option to choose up to eight out of a maximum of fourteen skills to indulge in. These could range from Pathfinding (which would see heroes travel further each turn, with less penalties for veering from the roads) to Wisdom (which allowed for the learning of higher level spells). Spells now used up spell points, with the three magical classes - Sorceress, Wizard and Warlock - naturally receiving bonuses in that area.
The game, as with its predecessor, featured a large map, with up to eight players engaging in turn-based machinations against their fellow lords. Exploration and travel across the land was handled by you titular heroes, the range of whom was determined by their pathfinding and logistics skills. It was classic conquer or be conquered gameplay, with strongholds both providing seats of power and upgradable bases from which units could be bought each week.
Naturally resource management featured heavily. Relatively simple classes like the Knight had relatively simple requirements for their buildings and units. Gold, wood and ore were the order of the day, with most units just requiring gold. The Warlock, however, with its dragons, required sulphur, and lots of it. Resources could be found strewn about the map, but better still was to capture the various mines dotted about the area, taking care not to let others take them from you.
The story, as the title suggests, revolved around the squabbling between Ironfist's sons - Roland and Archibald - following his demise. Fittingly, each class alignment was one of the game's two campaigns. Archibald's campaign featured the three "evil" town alignments, while Roland's campaign featured the three "good" town alignments. One thing that Heroes II seemingly did better came in the way you felt connected to your heroes. The skill system meant that if you'd levelled a particular hero up rather nicely, losing him or her in battle was a real blow.
At the end of the day, though, Heroes II was a colourful, fantastical title that never took itself too seriously and struck a perfect balance between its deep, turn-based strategic systems - both in combat and on the world map - and the RPG elements that made the game one worth playing for hours on end. Add multiplayer into that as well, and there'd be plenty of days I'd spend hotseating the game with a friend.
Heroes III was arguably a better game, branching out further without diluting the core essence of the series thus far, but after that the series stagnated somewhat, either becoming overly complex or simply because after spending so much time in Enroth, many were sad to see it go. The series passed along to Ubisoft with the fifth instalment, and the entire narrative got a reboot. Things were never really the same.
Then again, thanks to GOG.com we can go back in time.
Heroes of Might and Magic II proved to be the game my dad would always find me playing whenever he wanted to use the home computer for work. It was one of the first games I set secret alarms for so I could wake up in the middle of the night and sneak downstairs to play. Despite discovering and falling in love later with the likes of Civilization, X-COM, Command and Conquer,and Master of Orion, this would always be my first and favourite strategy game from the 1990s.
And it's begging for an iPad port. Hint!