The Price of Loyalty: an expansion pack for R-Comp Interactive's Heroes of Might and Magic II, reviewed by Theodore Rimspoke. Note that this is not a stand-alone product: a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic II is needed in order to use it.
A heroic effort
It's getting on for a year, now, since R-Comp Interactive released its RISC OS conversion of Heroes of Might and Magic II (which I'll refer to from now on as "HoMM2" to save space). At the time it was released, the Doom+ upgrade had just come out, and since Acorn gamers have been so preoccupied (if not to say obsessed) with Doom, I rather suspect that its release was overshadowed to some extent.
After all, Doom is fast-paced and exciting. It's the definitive 3D shoot-em-up. And what's more, the RISC OS conversion is the best version around. But HoMM2 is a turn-based strategy game, and strategy games (especially turn-based ones) are boring. Right?
Wrong. Heroes of Might and Magic II (I'll spell it out one more time for effect) is a criminally underrated game (on all platforms, not just on RISC OS). If you haven't given it a try yet, you must. OK, at £35 it's relatively expensive, but it doesn't half repay the investment. Take it from me: being an old fogey, I've been interested in computer games since (shock horror!) 1981 (the computer's "sand age", you might say). Hand on heart, I can honestly say that HoMM2 is my favourite game, bar none. I bought it on a recommendation a year ago, and I didn't think it was really my kind of game. I couldn't have been more wrong, though, because I was instantly and irretrievably hooked. What's more, it hasn't lost any of its appeal for me in the intervening months. That's really unusual; I've never before played a game that's held my interest for such a long time. I just love it to bits.
But I'll stop blathering on about the basic game, because this isn't supposed to be a review of HoMM2 as such. You can find the original review elsewhere on this site, and you should read it if you're not familiar with the game. I agree broadly with the previous reviewer's comments, except for the overall ratings, which I would put much higher. (I also disagree with the comment about the rate of troop production. To me, the balance of the game seems exactly right.)
The Price of Loyalty
No-one could say that HoMM2 isn't excellent value in terms of the amount of life you get out of the basic box. Apart from the campaigns and all the individual maps, there's a further CD (called Desecrated Lands) which contains lots of maps grabbed from the Internet, so there's literally months of playing time in there.
But a good game becomes even better if you can add new features to it, and that's what The Price of Loyalty is all about. It's not just a set of new maps and campaigns; it actually adds a number of extras to HoMM2.
The Price of Loyalty (which I'll refer to as PoL from now on) is a fairly lush package, and comes in a large box (the same size as the original HoMM2 box, so you can't do anything convenient like putting one inside the other). Aside from the RISC OS-specific material inserted by R-Comp, you get the following:
- The Price of Loyalty CD (with some new audio tracks: see below)
- A brief manual, telling you about most of the new features
- A spare creatures/castles reference card (the same as in the HoMM2 box)
- Heroes of Might and Magic for DOS
For a start, there are thirty new stand-alone maps. Then, in addition, there are twenty-four new campaign scenarios, divided into four individual stories:
- The Price of Loyalty (long campaign)
- Descendants (long campaign)
- The Wizard's Isle (short campaign)
- The Voyage Home (short campaign)
All the maps have been designed by the same people who created the original game's maps, so the same high quality is largely maintained. Actually, the fact that this expansion pack has been produced in association with Cyberlore (a company which also produced an expansion pack for Warcraft II, the PC/Mac real-time strategy game) means less than you might imagine, because a large proportion of the team who created HoMM2 were also involved in creating PoL. That's great, because the update is generally very much in keeping with the style and quality of the original.
So, the map design is on a par with the original game; but PoL is more than just a set of new maps. It enhances the game with some new features, as follows.
New game features
Although they don't add anything to the game as such, there are eleven new characters in PoL. The character portraits aren't in quite the same style as the other heroes, which is a bit of a shame. They're very nicely painted, but are stylistically slightly different, which means that they don't fit in as well as they might. And why are there eleven of them? That seems a strange number, but I have my suspicions: in the credits in the manual, it appears that eleven main people were involved in creating the game, and the male/female ratio matches, too, so I rather suspect that the new heroes are modelled on real people. It would be interesting to know who's who...
One slight oddity in the original game was that the Necromancer castle had one structure fewer than the other five castles. That empty slot has now been filled in the PoL maps. The addition is called the Evil Shrine in the manual, although the game itself just calls it the Shrine. It's not terribly exciting; if present, it just makes all the Necromancer heroes owned by a player generate 10% more skeletons after each battle. So, Necromancers get a slight boost over the other character classes in the game, which is quite handy given that skeletons are probably the most useful 'weakest creature' of all the hero types.
|Detail of the Evil Shrine;|
click the image to see a large view of the Necromancer castle, complete with all structures
Most exciting of the new features is the new set of locations that you can visit on the maps. The map designers haven't gone overboard on using these new features, so it'll take you a fair while to find all of them; but that's good, because if they had been over-used it would have unbalanced the game. As it is, the new landscape features blend in well. They are as follows:
- Alchemist's Tower: go here and pay up if you want to get rid of an evil artifact; Great if you've picked up the Tax Lien, Hideous Mask or Fizbin of Misfortune!
- Arena: this can be visited only once by any hero, and allows you to choose one of three skills (Attack, Defense or Spell Power) to be improved by one point
- Barriers and Tents: Barriers (of which there are up to eight types) block your progress until you have discovered the password which causes them to vanish. This is chosen at random (so, by contrast with Pyramids, you can't cheat by examining the map file!); but it's usually a game-related word (like Troll or Sulfur) so if you were really patient you might guess it
- Barrow Mound: Ghost recruitment station
- Elemental Summoning Altars: recruitment stations for Air, Earth, Fire and Water Elementals
- Jail: this holds a hero, who will join you if freed
- Mermaids: visiting these increases your luck for the next battle
- Hut/Eye of the Magi: Eyes of the Magi are placed around a map and behave like observation towers, except that the area around them is only revealed when you visit a Hut of the Magi. They enable you to see distant areas of the map long before you actually visit them
- Sirens: these may be visited once by any particular hero and will grant experience; unfortuantely they also kill a percentage of your troops
- Stables: visit these to travel a bit further in a week and, more usefully, to upgrade cavalry units to champions
|New map locations;|
click the image to see it at full size
Seventeen new artifacts can be found in the game, and they're quite interesting because they're not always exactly beneficial; some of them are only useful in some situations, or they may combine a benefit with a penalty. Read on to see what I mean:
- Spell Scrolls: each Spell Scroll contains a single spell, which is added to the Spell Book of the hero holding it
- Sword of Anduran: +5 Attack (see Battle Garb)
- Helmet of Anduran: +5 Spell Power (see Battle Garb)
- Breastplate of Anduran: +5 Defense (see Battle Garb)
- Battle Garb of Anduran: what you get if you manage to collect all three Anduran artifacts; it combines the power of all three and also gives the hero holding it maximum Luck and Morale, plus the Town Portal spell
- Masthead: +1 Luck and +1 Morale, but only in sea combat
- Legendary Scepter: +2 for all skills
- Staff of Wizardry: +5 Spell Power
- Gravedigger's Shovel: increases the holder's Necromancy skill by 10%
- Crystal Ball: gives detailed information on adversaries and towns within a certain radius of the hero holding it
- Arm of the Martyr: gives +3 Spell Power, but adds the undead morale penalty
- Heart of Ice: halves damage from cold spells but doubles damage from fire spells
- Heart of Fire: halves damage from fire spells but doubles damage from cold spells
- Broach of Shielding: halves damage from Elemental Storm and Armageddon spells, but has a penalty of -2 Spell Power
- Sphere of Negation: prevents the use of magic during combat; excellent for a Barbarian or Knight with strong troops but poor magical abilities
- Sword Breaker: +4 Defense and +1 Attack
- Holy Hammer: +5 Attack
Click the image to see it at full size
Like the original HoMM2 CD, the PoL CD is also an audio disc, containing musical tracks that play in the background during the game (and to signal certain events) together with a set of 'operatic' castle themes. You are well advised to leave the CD in your CD-ROM drive because the music on the disc is absolutely splendid (make sure you select "CD Stereo with Opera" in the game; sadly, the MIDI version of the music is poor).
Speaking as a musician, I can say that I've never heard better music in a computer game than the music in HoMM2: it really is ear-candy to match the game's eye-candy. It's highly memorable (you'll find yourself humming the tunes when you're not playing) and properly composed rather than thrown together (as is the norm with game music). The man behind the castle themes in particular, Paul Romero, clearly has a lot of talent. They are very attractive indeed, with full orchestral arrangements and vocalists on top. Much of the orchestra is synthesised rather than live, which is a pity as it spoils the sound quality, but we can't have everything. Even the basic in-game music is exceptionally good (the 'snow music' is particularly nice, as is the 'at sea' theme.)
The Price of Loyalty retains the same in-game music as HoMM2 except for the fact that there's a new set of castle themes. I had grown so attached to the old ones that I was initially quite upset that they had been replaced, but I'm pleased to say that the new ones are also very good. Again, they're by Paul Romero, and in very much the same style as the ones they replace. To be honest, I do still prefer the originals overall, although I suspect I like the new Sorceress castle theme better than the old one. (Strangely, the Knight castle theme is a new arrangement of the 'win game' music rather than an entirely new composition.) Anyway, the new themes retain the atmosphere of the game very nicely, and the change in music actually serves to inject some new life of its own into the game. I just wish that both sets of castle themes could have been present on the one CD, so that the new tracks would play in expansion maps and the old themes could be retained in standard scenarios.
Either way it doesn't really matter; if you prefer the old themes, just put your HoMM2 CD in the drive rather than the PoL one!
As an aside, the new themes have added a live saxophone and replaced the bass soloist. The new bass isn't as good as the old one, and sounds a bit amateurish, but luckily he doesn't have too much to sing! I was rather dubious about the saxophone, because I don't much like them and didn't think it would blend in well, but in fact it does. (It's an alto sax, but sounds like a clarinet.) The soprano soloist remains the same as in HoMM2 (though she doesn't sing just as well on the newer disc), but in PoL she is named as Karin Meshagin, rather than Kareen Meshagan in HoMM2. Which one is right? The world should be told!
The map editor provided with the game is also updated when you install the PoL pack (which is immediately obvious from the new title screen). It operates in exactly the same way as previously, but now allows you to access all the new features in the game. If you save a map that contains any of PoL's extra features, an expansion map is created, which will only play on the updated version of the game; but if you don't use the new features, then the map file that gets created is in the standard HoMM2 format, so compatibility for HoMM2 users is retained.
However, by far the most exciting aspect of the updated map editor is that it now contains a random map generator! This allows you to drag a few sliders to determine the percentage use of particular terrain types and landscape features, and also lets you decide whether the land masses should be centralised or scattered. Once you've made your choices, just click OK and wait for a few seconds, and hey presto! Up pops a nice-looking random map. You can either play it straight off or edit it further (and you'll probably want to tweak it to some extent). But this feature certainly adds a lot of extra life of its own to the game, and makes the creation of new maps a real doddle.
|The PoL map editor's title screen and random map generation screen;|
click on the images to see them at full size
As I said at the start, HoMM2 is my favourite game, so any expansion pack for it was going to be pretty welcome as far as I was concerned! Looking at it objectively, though, there are a few disappointments.
For a start, the new map locations don't make a huge difference to the game. They're a welcome addition, certainly, but there's nothing that really adds anything new to the gameplay. Indeed, there are no real additions to the way the game works at all. Whilst I'm tempted to say that it's hard to improve on perfection, it might have been possible to add a few extra creature types, for example.
Also, some of the additions seem faintly unbalanced. For instance, the Necromancer has received a significant boost, whereas the other hero types have not. Not only is there the new Shrine in the Necromancer castle, which enhances the Necromancy skill (i.e. the ability to produce skeletons after battles), but one of the new artifacts also enhances the same skill. So if your best Necromancer is carrying the Gravedigger's Shovel and you also have the Shrine in your castle, the hero will be producing 20% more skeletons than normal. The other hero types don't have anything similar to enhance their armies.
It also seems a shame that there aren't any more interesting additions than the new locations and a few extra hero portraits. Some new spells, for example, would have been most welcome, but there aren't any (the Spell Scrolls are a good idea, but the spells they contain are just the standard ones).
It could be argued that the ability to recruit ghosts is an unwanted addition because they're so powerful (they build up in number as they kill their opponents, so more than a handful of ghosts can be hard to beat). But at least the Barrow Mound is not a common map feature, and all players have access to it, so I don't really think that it unbalances the game.
As for the new maps, whilst they're very much in keeping with the style and quality of the standard HoMM2 ones, they also come in for a certain amount of criticism because in a few cases it seems as though they're a little unfair, or less well designed than they might be. As an example, the Voyage Home campaign features a Knight called Gallivant (because he's been gallivanting off... ho ho!) who has to get home. In the first map, it's necessary to conquer the opposition on the same land mass as you, then build a boat, cross to a separate island, and capture the castle there. Fine; conquering the first opponent is easy, and you've got quite a nice army by the time you've done it, so you cross the water and take on the last castle. Big mistake! The forces here are so immense that you're totally annihilated. Instead, you have to just sit around wasting weeks of game-time in order to build up an army that's large enough to take on the last castle. So that particular scenario is a good example of unbalanced map design. Luckily that's pretty unusual; most of the maps I tried were excellent, and later maps in the Voyage Home campaign are also very good, but that first one put me off somewhat. The balance of progress in HoMM2 is generally just right, so it was a shame that I started off PoL with a map that seems to get it wrong.
But that's just one map out of over fifty, so it's harsh to really criticise the pack on the strength of it. On the whole, the quality of the new maps is a good match for the scenarios that came with HoMM2.
|Screenshots from The Price of Loyalty;|
click on the images to see them at full size
The Price of Loyalty pack gives you more of the same without doing anything terribly innovative for the basic game. This was probably a good idea for the publishers, as they wouldn't want to detract from sales of Heroes of Might and Magic III! For us RISC OS users, it's a slight pity that there isn't a little more in terms of new ideas, because we're unlikely to see a conversion of HoMM3 on our platform. (Please prove me wrong, RCI!)
On the other hand, the game is so good anyway that to change it dramatically would be to run the risk of spoiling it. Whilst a few new spells wouldn't have gone amiss, I'm not too upset that there aren't any huge changes like new character classes or whatever. The game is just given a slight improvement, overall, combined with enough maps to keep the interest up for another year or so!
So, if you haven't bought the basic HoMM2 yet, you must get it immediately! (It's the best game so far on the RISC OS platform as far as I'm concerned.) And if you do have it, then whilst the PoL pack isn't quite such an essential purchase, it's well worthwhile; it gives the game even more life as well as rounding it off a little with the additional features. It's not an unreasonable price either, particularly if you have a PC card that enables you to play the original DOS game. I describe that at the very end, so keep on reading beyond the ratings.
To sum up
Heroes of Might and Magic II
The Price of Loyalty pack
Appendix: Heroes of Might and Magic
As I mentioned at the start, there's an extra freebie in the PoL box: the DOS version of the original Heroes of Might and Magic game.
Now I have an admission to make. Or, indeed, two admissions. The first is that, as well as my Risc PC, I own a Mac. The second is that I like HoMM2 so much that, when I came across HoMM 'classic' (the original game) on a Mac compilation, I couldn't resist buying it to find out what the first game was like.
So as it happens I've actually spent a lot of time playing Heroes of Might and Magic as well as HoMM2, and I'm pleased to report that it's actually a very good game, so its inclusion in the PoL pack is a really nice bonus.
Certainly it's not as good a game as HoMM2, but it's far from being a poor cousin. Indeed, it's just as involving in its own way; it's just not as varied, and the graphics aren't as nice. (Nor is the music, though it's still very good.)
Whilst I'm not going to review it as such, I'll just list some of the main differences in the original game, compared with HoMM2:
- Four hero classes rather than six (no Wizard or Necromancer)
- No skills to learn (different hero types have their own inherent characteristics, but these can't be changed, and you can't learn additional skills like Navigation, Archery or whatever)
- The spell-casting system is different. There are four levels of spell (rather than five), and the number you can learn is based on your Knowledge level. When you've used all your spells of one type you forget the spell, and have to revisit its source (usually a particular Mage Guild) to learn it again. The range of spells is also much more limited than in HoMM2
- The battle arena is smaller (though battles play out in much the same way as in HoMM2) and conquering a castle is a much less sophisticated process than in HoMM2 as there is no moat, no drawbridge and no turrets; you just have to knock the castle walls down
- Not nearly as many buildings are available in castles (no creature upgrades, no defences, no markets and no 'special' buildings like the Wizard's Library)
- The graphics are crude by comparison with HoMM2
So if you have a PC card, or indeed a PC, then the inclusion of the original HoMM game is a great extra, and you should definitely give it a whirl. (It's a DOS game but you can play it quite happily under Windows.)
There are only two negative points to make about this particular version of HoMM (aside from the fact that there's no RISC OS player for it!): firstly, the range of maps provided is relatively limited, and it seems that not all of the standard maps have been included. (Only eighteen are listed in the DOS game, whereas the Mac version came with thirty.) And secondly, the editor is sadly missing, so you can't create any more maps of your own. A map editor for HoMM definitely exists, but it isn't on this CD; and there seem to be very few extra HoMM maps on the Internet these days (I could only find three!), so the game will have a limited life. Still, as a freebie it's well worth having.
|Screenshots from Heroes of Might and Magic;|
click on the images to see them at full size