Heroes of Might and Magic

Last Rant on Videogames: Oh, How the Mighty are Magic

What's this?!  A post from Tyler?  No way!

Yes, I've gotten off my lazy arse to ramble for a bit.  Really, not much of a change, but it's in text again!  Now, on to this week's subject.

It is not often that I am nostalgic for games of my youth, and it is rarer yet that I find that nostalgia validated upon further inspection.  Generally, games that I don't remember well but remember fondly tend to be a bit disappointing.  No surprise there, really.  However, there is one game that holds a special place in my heart that might be objectively terrible.  Alex likes it, too, though, so it must be at least enjoyable.

Those who know me occasionally are pitched the request to play what I refer to as Heroes.  Once upon a time, when I was but a lad of 12 or 13 (my lad-esque qualities were waning by this point), my dad brought home a computer for repair.  Stuck inside this computer's CD tray was a game I would later dump several hundred hours into.  The disc bore the rather grandiose image of a blue genie doin' his genie thing.  I wasn't sure what to think, but I was lucky in that I had a computer to run it.

I popped the disc into my tower, a stately HP in awkward ivory, and let it install.  To this day, it complains about not having DirectX 6 or so.  After a rather silly intro, which I thought was amazing at the time, the game begins with some of the best menu music ever.  It's bright, colorful, loud, and ostentatious.  I can't quite tell, even know, how serious they intended it to be, but they got a great combination regardless of intent.

Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is a game about all of generic fantasy being segregated into their logical divisions (because dwarves love golden dragons) at war with each other.  There's a story of some sort, I suppose.  The queen of Erathia, one of the long standing countries, finds itself beset by devils and troglodytes while the elves and wizard guys are reluctant to help because it's expensive.

That genie earlier?  He accidentally pledged himself for the life of his master to an immortal, who happens to be the ruler of the wizards.  Oops.

At any rate, lets get down to the meat of the game.  When you first start, you're often treated to piles of text boxes explaining the story behind the scenario.  These are useless, but mildly interesting on some of them.  The world map is a sprawling expanse of forests, oceans, subterranean caves, and volcanic wastelands.

You, brave general, have a guy on a horse.  This is an avatar of that person and their potentially enormous army.  You may consume your green bar next to the hero's portrait to move around.  Essentially, you wander around the map, collecting resources and production points while revealing the fog of war.  At times, you'll come across large structures that are home to your rivals.  Your own larger structures allow you to recruit various hordes of monsters to help defend your kingdom.  The goal, usually, is to take as many of these creatures from your home towns, give them to however many heroes you have recruited, and stomp the life out of your opponents.

Life stomping is actually pretty fun, if a bit... broken.  Monsters are divided neatly into tiers, ranging from 1 (imps, centaurs, guys with pikes) to 7 (angels, devils, dragons).  Every tier, barring some neutral units, also has an elite version, which may be obtained by taking them to a point on the map specializing in upgrading units, or, more easily, just building the appropriate structure at home.

The combat is turn-based on a hex grid.  Units of the same type may be stacked, and the limit on the stack is so absurdly high I've never found it.  You can have 1000 halberdiers all attacking a single archer if you wish.  A stack has a speed, mostly determined by the type of unit.  This speed not only determines turn order, but how many hexes that stack can move in a round.  Attacking almost always results in a counter-attack from each enemy stack as it is hit the first time.  This lends some strategy to the combat, as you must decide which of your units must take that first hit each round.  Because of this, though, the correct option, if you can manage it, is almost always overwhelming force.

Units can do some special stuff, too.  Some prevent counter-attacks.  Some, primarily dragons, can hit multiple enemy stacks.  Ranged units are exceptionally useful, especially when defending against a siege.  Ranged attackers have limited ammo, though you'll rarely encounter the limit, and do half damage to enemies farther than halfway across the combat map.  Sieges against towns encounter defenses which may be purchased, including moats, walls, and archer towers.

While I enjoy having waves of hydras wash over my enemies, the real power in this game, especially as your avatars gain levels, is magic.  Heroes are divided into two attribute trees.  Might heroes level more readily in attack power (affecting your stacks' combat prowess) and defense.  Magic heroes instead get (spell) power and knowledge, every point of which yields 10 more MP.  Spells range from allowing your stacks to do maximum damage (almost all units do a range of damage) to throwing AOE fireballs to resurrecting your own units.  Some utility spells, such as Town Portal, will allow you to move around the map or summon a boat so you can cross water.  A single well-placed lightning bolt can make up for lacking a stack of 7th level creatures, so it's often my preferred path.

Your heroes may, in addition to learning spells and gaining the aforementioned attributes, also learn various skills.  Old witches in huts will teach you some, and your hero's type will affect which ones they have an opportunity to learn upon gaining a new level.  Wisdom allows you to learn more complex spells, luck affects how often your stacks will strike critically, intelligence will grant more spell points.  There are a wide variety of abilities, though Expert Earth Magic/Town Portal is a tad gamebreaking on large maps.  The right trees depend on your play style, the map, and the number of heroes you've got mucking about.

Of course, some skills are stupid, and we say bad things about them.

Additionally, there are an assortment of artifacts laying about the map that may buff your attributes, render your units immune to certain spells, or grant you knowledge of certain abilities.  The right allocation of artifacts (read "all of them!") can guarantee your victory in many situations.

In your towns, you may spend the resources you gather to recruit monsters and, once per turn in each town, build a new structure.  Some have prerequisites, but they mostly provide the units specific to each town.  All towns, unless restricted by scenario, may build a Castle, the highest level of defensive structures available.  This becomes confusing given that one of the town types is also called Castle.  Yeah...

All the towns have some unique structures, but my favorite is one of the Rampart's (generic woodland stuff; the most Tolkein themed).  The Treasury gives you a 10% bonus to your gold at the start of a new week, which can be pretty useful if you horde it appropriately.

The different types of towns seem to be a bit unbalanced, with Castle and Rampart on the top, and Fortress/Stronghold (I consider them roughly tied) and Necropolis on the bottom.  While I enjoy playing as most of them, it hurts when your most powerful creatures are clearly inferior to the enemies'.  I haven't actually bothered to do the math on it, but I suspect someone has dissected this.  All the towns have a unique flavor though, and their own theme music when you're viewing them.

Speaking of music, the tracks in this game are amazing.  Some are appropriated from public commons stuff, but it's a symphonic wonder, each action accompanied by a fanfare regardless of its actual relevance.  It's fun to listen to, and gives some slight reinforcement for playing the game.

In all, it's a fun game, but it's pretty unbalanced, and has some FOO strategies that may actually be universally optimal.  It's not hard to find these days, and has a pretty substantial fan base despite its age.

Last Rant on Videogames: Heroes and Hostages

I've been talking a bit lately about returning to a game of my youth.  Way back when, the other hosts and I went to a cyber cafe and played long hours of Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat, shouting at each other across the room and generally having a grand ol' time.  Given that we were the only ones there most days, I don't find it hard to believe that they went out of business, but it was one of my first encounters with the now bloated genre that is FPS games.
In preparing for this article, and to back up some wild claims I planned on making, I stumbled across this list, which is fairly complete, and highly informative.  That said, Counter-Strike doesn't even make an appearance.  Given that this was one of the most defining entries to the genre for me, I am a little surprised.  I suppose it might fall under the tactical FPS genre, but I feel they're all fairly similar.

At any rate, I feel that, while it's definitely not the first, it might have been one of the most defining games for what we see in modern shooters today.  I've played my share of Call of Duty, and have never found it terribly engaging.  Yes, I'll play indefinitely, but that's only because I have some primal craving for competition.  Really, though, I've felt these games somewhat lacking.  I always feel sluggish, have a far harder time aiming than it seems I ought, and randomly get caught on obstacles outside my peripheral vision.

Counter-Strike, by contrast, feels clean and fast.  Maybe it's just that I have a far easier time with computer controls, but there's a certain amount of frenetic energy in every match that I just don't get in a Slayer round, even though there's arguably more happening there.  Zach pointed out that it's probably because of the size of the maps, and I would further add the effectiveness of almost every weapon over the range of the map.  I think it would be folly to claim that the weapons behave realistically, but you can drop a guy from a fair distance away with a shotgun if you're persistent, which is a feat you should be able to accomplish if you were actually attempting it in our version of reality.

Let's break it down a bit.  The weapons come in multiple flavors, and are grouped for you.  I'll explain the mechanics of acquiring them in a moment.

Pistols are low in damage and fairly high in firing rate and accuracy.  They're side arms, and are used as such.  You won't generally have much use for them unless you need to reload in the middle of a fire fight, but having a good one can save your hide on occasion.

Shotguns are shotguns.  Have you played an FPS?  Then you're educated.

Submachine guns are good in this game at what they're supposed to be good at in real life.  They're the every-man's weapon.  They're great at mid to close range and allow you to spray bullets indiscriminately while more specifically armed teammates do the rest.  There's rarely a bad situation for one, unless the other guy's got a sniper rifle and you haven't noticed him.

Rifles come in two flavors, but are lumped under the same category.  Similar to SMGs, there are assault rifles.  You can think of them as the big brothers of most SMGs.  They've got a bit better accuracy at a distance, and some let you zoom your sight a bit.

Snipers, on the other hand, do massive damage from a range with insane accuracy.  Additionally, all guns fire in the exact center of your screen within an error tolerance, so it's quite possible to noscope everyone if you're good enough.

Finally, there's a machine gun.  Just one.  It never runs out of ammo.

There are also some grenades, of the flash, smoke, and HE varieties.  Buying some armor will often save you.  Really, I didn't need to tell you any of this, though.  IF you've ever played an FPS, you know this.

Counter-Strike, then differs in that every action may affect your bank account in some manner.  By default, you have a limit of $16000, but you'll be hard pressed to get there very often.  Killing guys gets you more money, as does completing some of the map objectives.  By default, you start with a small amount and participate in what is known as the "pistol round."  Because you have so little money, the only thing you may buy is a new pistol, and everyone tries to kill each other with them.  It can be one of the more amusing moments in the game, but since the winning team of each round is awarded bonus cash, it can really decide the opening momentum of the game.  The weapons between the opposing sides, Terrorists and Counter Terrorists, don't differ much, but I feel that the Terrorists have a better pistol available.

When you get enough cash, you can start buying your preferred loadout for the map.  Some people love their shotguns, while others hang back with rifles and let others do the dirty work.  It partially depends on which team you're on and the map style.

In the standard Source game, there are only two game types, but near infinite maps if you're willing to look.  My preferred game type is CS, in which the terrorists must prevent the counter terrorists from escorting some number of hostages to escape zones.  I feel there's a bit more strategy involved in this game type, and can lead to some interesting experiences.

The other game type involves the terrorists attempting to plant a time bomb and make sure it detonates before the counter team defuses it.  You can totally be killed by the bomb.  Watch out for that.

Really, though, it comes down to really fast matches and a lot of action.  The downside is that each round is permadeath, so if you suck, you can expect to spend a lot of time not playing.  That said, the online scene is fierce.  The game's been around since '99, and most people who are playing it have been for a long time.  It took me a bit to ramp up to a point where I could feasibly participate, but thanks to copious TF2 and a non-trivial amount of time playing against the remarkably decent bot AI before venturing online, it wasn't too bad.

By the way, this game has bots, and they're pretty good.  If you're like me and have some irrational phobia of playing online, you can do that pretty much forever.

It's usually $5-10 on Steam, and not super graphically intense.  If you've got a decent computer, you can prolly run this without much trouble, and it satisfies and itch I didn't know I was trying to scratch.

That said, if you prefer more specialization in your actions, I might recommend just picking up TF2 instead.  It's pretty awesome, and free.