Platform: Browser (F2P)
Developer: Blue Byte
Might & Magic Heroes Online has the biggest star power out of all Ubisoft's upcoming Free To Play games, and frankly, it's already a pretty good fit. The infrastructure's ready and waiting: sumptuous sprite-based artwork, strategic yet relatively short turn-based battles and deep progression systems just aching to be shoved into a browser window. It's a smart move too, since fans and newcomers alike will be able to get in on the ground floor with no barrier to entry. You'll only need a Flash-capable web browser to descend back into the world of Ashan, without having to worry about downloading a client or even installing a new plugin.
Blue Byte still have plenty of work ahead, however. In contrast with Anno Online and Silent Hunter Online, both of which offered a polished beta build, Might & Magic Heroes Online was in a primitive state when I played it in Dusseldorf. Placeholder assets and unfinished elements liberally peppered the GUI, while cooperative play was only supported in the most limited fashion.
However, even in this early iteration, it's clear that Might & Magic Heroes Online plans to be a legitimate part of the beloved fantasy universe. A next step for the strategic franchise, not a cheap and nasty spin-off.
Set between Heroes Of Might & Magic V and VI, Heroes Online intends to genuinely build upon the familiar fantasy foundation. After choosing a faction and hero, (a mounted knight in the service of the medieval Haven faction, in my case), players enter their non-instanced starting town and navigate it in real-time. It's relatively standard RPG fare; instead of turn-based movement, you'll freely click your way about isometric environments in search of quest givers, merchants and army recruitment personnel. Other players on the same server will also be milling around, allowing you to chat, trade and potentially sally forth as a party.
Your character can be augmented with a range of items and armour, and your all-important armies need to be organised into an elite fighting force. Much like the original games, heroes resemble cheerleaders and stand-off spellcasters rather than hands-on who lead from the front, meaning that the real work will be accomplished by your loyal cadre of warriors. Having chosen a starting force of durable swordsmen and powerful yet fragile bowmen, I set off into the wilds.
In PvE, maps will be instanced for parties of heroes, who can explore the environments at their own pace. Piles of gold and raw materials lie scattered around the expansive maps, though usually guarded by static enemies such as animated trees, wolves and the occasional animalistic shaman (in the early Haven campaign - Necropolis players can expect to quell a revolt on a savage prison island). Enemies obligingly wait for you to make the first move, but sooner or later, battle must be joined.
The basic framework remains broadly unchanged. Your hero skulks beyond the left hand edge of a hex-based grid, while both armies line up on opposite sides. Units take turns in order of initiative, with limited movement and abilities mapped to simple context-sensitive clicks and shortcuts. One-click controls put everything at a single fingertip, but while this might sound accessible, there's certainly no in the strategy department.
Blue Byte explained that ranged attackers have been slightly decreased in power this time around, making careful deployment and positioning more important than ever. Units deal substantially more damage when they attack from the rear or flank, while automatic counterattacks decrease in potency when bushwhacked. The ruthless AI will gleefully assault vulnerable ranged or support units whenever it gets the chance, meaning that you'll have to constantly think one or two moves ahead to create choke points and maintain an appropriate distance until your melee units are ready to pounce. Hero abilities, which run the gamut from direct damage spells to buffs and healing skills, can turn the tide of battle, but are no substitute for sound strategic planning.
Thanks to the relatively intimate battlefields, skirmishes in MMHO will be dense, brutal and quick; swift yet satisfying matches perfect for the new browser format. However, realising that Might & Magic fans absolutely crave strategic depth, Blue Byte has also added a few new tweaks to the formula. 'Feature Battles' add in impassable terrain such as bridges, rivers or ravines, creating pre-made choke points and new avenues for tactical play. Advanced heroes can also engage in enormous multi-stage boss battles that require them to nurse a single force through numerous smaller battles against an evolving foe, which will force you to agressively shut down the enemy forces as quickly as possible to avoid incurring too many losses.
Cooperative multiplayer will also be a key part of the proceedings, as will PvP, but we'll have to wait until future betas to get a handle on how that works.
MMHO also looks fantastic for a browser game, let alone a Flash-only title. Blue Byte frequently describe their wares as 'Triple-A Free To Play," and here, the gorgeously detailed sprite work, backgrounds and animations are a joy to behold despite a plethora of placeholder GUI elements. The shift back to two dimensions should ensure that MMHO ages gracefully over the course of many years, and neatly skirts around the extra libraries and plugins that players would have to download in order to run true 3D visuals in-browser.
After each battle, you can optionally revive lost troops using Hero Seals, the second major in-game currency that will probably become much more important than Gold in the long run. These seals will be freely dished out if you log in regularly, though it was unclear how (and how often) they'll be delivered for quest completion and rewards. Since MMHO will be free to play, I daresay that paying to quickly refresh and revitalise your armies will be a key part of Blue Byte's monetization strategy.
Indeed, "where's the money?" is still the biggest question surrounding Might & Magic Heroes Online... but at least we know where the strategy and customisation is going to be. Right there in your browser. For free. Go on then.
Silent Hunter Online will release later this year, and you can currently sign up for the beta. Check out our Anno Online Hands-On Preview and Silent Hunter Online hands-on preview for more F2P details.
Disclosure: Ubisoft paid for one night's accommodation and return flights to Dusseldorf, where Blue Byte are based.