If you're new to the Might & Magic Heroes series, sorry, but the seventh instalment isn't going to make things easy for you.
Set between Heroes VI and Heroes V (yes, they're in canonical order, just run with it), Heroes VII chronicles the epic power struggle ignited by the Falcon Empress' murder. Ivan Griffin, a noble member of the Griffin Family, steps into the vacuum and gains the support of the other races of Ashan, who advise him from behind the scenes as a Shadow Council. In order to convince the unwilling hero to step up to the plate, the council representatives tell their own stories to convince him that he's the right man for the throne.
Or, in other words, we've got another excuse to partake in some streamlined strategic turn-based battles that resemble Chess and Pokemon in equal measure, with all manner of mythological creatures at our command. Limbic Entertainment clearly don't want to deviate from the formula, but they have been busy ensuring that Heroes VII makes Ashan feel like a living, real place.
It all comes down to the world map. Ashan is now rendered using Unreal Engine 3, with plot events playing out directly in front of us. In the Gamescom demo I was shown, the sample map was already distinctly pretty in a familiar fantastical sort of way, from snowy mountains and pine forests to the cities and fortifications below, with towns and fortresses ripe for the capture (and subsequent resource generation). A catapult then destroyed a bridge to stop a marauding enemy army from retreating, leaving a force of enemy Titans and harpies to turn around and march towards the siege weapon.
Seeing all of this happening directly on the world map in full 3D made Ashan feel less like a level select screen and more like an actual dynamic world to explore, especially since the battles have been thematically and visually tied into the terrain.
For example, the first engagement took place around our catapult that was visually represented on the overworld. Everything was present and correct, from the the siege weapon to the wood piles and debris around it, forming choke points and cover on the grid-like battle arena. Everything is designed to feel connected, part of the same holistic setting, as opposed to a map and instanced battles existing separately side by side.
Battle-wise, of course, Heroes VII is classic turn-based fare. Intelligently placing your units to take advantage of cover and choke points, utilising fliers to gain situational advantage, ensuring that you don't leave fragile ranged units in striking distance of savage melee foes and other basic tactical concerns came flooding back, though Heroes VII does have a few more tricks up its sleeve. Facing is now doubly important, as attacking a unit from the side or rear deals additional damage, adding an extra dimension to the combat. Some quick and effective (not to mention a few fortuitous spells lobbed by our general from the sidelines) manoeuvres later and the enemy was put to rout, allowing our surviving catapults to kill the Titans as their wizard leader fled into a fortress, then further back into his own domain after blocking our advance with an avalanche.
Again, Limbic stressed that making Ashan feel real and alive is one of the key parts of the Heroes VII experience, with exploration and even light puzzle solving as weapons in their arsenal. Subterranean maps allow you to delve deep below the surface in search of optional quests, new resources and units, but doing so in the demo map brought us beneath the surface of a lake, where we beheld a bizarre statue. Destroying it collapsed the roof and drained the lake, allowing us to advance around the avalanche. This was a very basic and arch demonstration of how we'll interact with the world outside of battles, due to time constraints, but an effective one nevertheless.
Finally we reached the Arabian-inspired Seven Cities, from where our mysterious Wizard foe hailed as a member of the magic-obsessed Academy faction. Once again, the attention to detail was impressive as sweeping camera pans showed off the eastern architecture, while a sprawling desert city protected by a magical shield presented a stiff defensive challenge to overcome. Storming these massive metropolises will require siege weapons, multi-stage endurance battles and fearsome battle magic.
Luckily some powerful magic was nearby. After a major Heroes VI post-mortem, Limbic decided that Heroes V's system of delivering spells via discovering arcane libraries, taking over cities or quest rewards was eminently satisfying, meaning that a nearby library conveniently (this was a time-sensitive demo build, remember!) had a Dispel Magic ability capable of taking down the shield dome. The battle was joined, but in an act of desperation, our wizard nemesis summoned an arcane eagle into the fray. Which, sadly, faded to black.
It was a promising early look at Might & Magic: Heroes VII, but as a guided hands-off presentation running live demo code, we'll have to wait for a more extensive hands-on before we're able to make a value judgement. For now, if you're interested, the official website is continually hosting votes to decide the last remaining races ahead of launch next year.