Super addictive turn-based strategy conversion from RCI. Reviewed by Richard Goodwin and Theodore Rimspoke.
Heroes of Might and Magic 2 is hailed by some as one of the best turn-based strategy games ever. It was produced by 3DO/New World Computing and was initially released on the PC back in 1997 and there are no prizes for guessing who brought this latest PC classic to the Acorn platform! R-Comp's Matthew Bullock was the one charged with this conversion.
Due to the quality of the graphics and the complexity of the calculations carried out in this game, you¸¹ll need a RiscPC with at least 8MB RAM and 70MB free hard disc space. The game gets its data and also plays audio from the original PC CD so you¸¹ll also need a CD drive. However, speed isn¸¹t important in this case since during play, the game only plays audio from the CD since all essential game data is copied to the hard disc.
If you're not accustomed to turn-based strategy games, think Exodus rather than Dune II. Turn-based means you make your moves or whatever then end your turn so the other players can do the same. This method of play has advantages over real-time play because strategy plays a larger part in the outcome of the game than sheer force. For example, in a real-time game such as Dune II or Command and Conquer, the person who can produce an army the fastest will usually win whereas in HoMM2, you can go into a battle with a weaker army than your opponent and can still come out victorious in the end! This adds a great deal to the gameplay of HoMM2 because even if you are the underdog, it is still possible to take a castle from another player if you are cunning.
HoMM2 features very good, addictive gameplay. It stole an entire weekend of my life and nearly made me miss work when I first got it! The exploration and power elements of the game are what make it what it is. At the beginning of the game, one must spend time exploring the land surrounding your castle and plundering the various abandoned camp-sites for lost gold. Mining is also an essential and worthwhile element in HoMM2 and gaining the control of mines which supply raw materials on a daily basis is essential in order to become dominant.
Once all the land has been explored and pillaged, the opposing sides will build up armies and the inevitable clashes and power struggles will occur. This is the most exciting stage of the game mainly since it determines the outcome. In scenarios where there's a large number of players, it's often a good idea to attack someone during the very early stages of the game just to gain the extra troop production power from their castle. Army production is really quite slow in HoMM2 with new units only appearing for recruitment at the end of every 'week' (once every 7 turns), this is one aspect of HoMM2 I would like to see changed.
Once you're bored of the dozens of scenarios supplied within the game and you've completed the conquest, there's a whole CD of add-on maps to play with. Desecrated Lands is an unofficial levels collection which is included with HoMM2 at no extra cost and although many of the games lack helpful textual descriptions, the CD is still a very valuable resource and adds to the game immensely.
HoMM2 includes a level editor that caters for the creation and editing of levels and maps. This allows for the alteration of all main game aspects including the initial armies of both castles and heroes. The editor adds greatly to the longevity of the game as well as allowing the production of customised maps to play against friends with so they just don't know what's around the next corner! However, the editor does have the occasional 'funny turn' where it refuses to place water tiles or does them in funny ways but this can be worked around quite easily. I would have liked to have seen the capability to alter the in-game graphics since that would allow for the production of graphics to convert HoMM2 into a modern-day strategy using up to date tanks and army units.
Some other games of this kind feature support for communication between opposing sides. This is something that HoMM2 is sadly lacking. Exodus had this feature along with the ability to forge both trading and military alliances with other players. In HoMM2, the computer players don't even ever seem to bear a grudge against you for taking their best castle. This lack of detail in the computer player's AI (artificial intelligence) brings down the standard of an otherwise very good game. In fact, Andrew Rawnsley assures me that HoMM2's node based system of AI is far superior to the model present in Exodus but it just feels like the computer players are bearing a grudge in Exodus but it's not so apparent in HoMM2. It's worth noting that on anything less than a StrongARM, the AI is rather slow but then the PC version does require at least a 100MHz Pentium so us humble ARM6/7 owners should be grateful that it even plays on our machines!
The graphics and sound in HoMM2 are second to none on the Acorn platform at the moment. Audio is played directly from the CD and complements the game's own sounds to great effect. The audio tracks provide a good backing to the game and the sound samples used both as ambient effects during exploration and during battles are of a very high quality. My only niggle with the graphics is that scrolling the landscape is a little jerky on anything less than a StrongARM but that's not really a problem. Whilst on the subject of graphics, the bug involving 256 colour filer icons and the HoMM2 front-end has now been remedied as has another minor bug mentioned on the gaming news group.
Some games of this kind, for example, Exodus, lack graphical variety because all the areas look the same and apart from colour differences, there's no new units or buildings to play with. HoMM2 is brilliant if you like varied gameplay. There are numerous different types of castle, each of which allows all the basic buildings to be produced along with some which are specific to that castle. Each 'house' also has its own set of military units a bit like in Dune II but here there is far more variety. The landscape graphics are also varied and the map design is generally very good.
HoMM2 features a well thought out front-end which does such clever things as giving information on add-on levels prior to loading them and allowing aspects of the game including a disc cache to be configured.
The PC version of HoMM2 featured a rather comprehensive range of multiplayer options including direct dialled modem linkup, null modem cable and internet play. All of these multi-computer options have been left out of the Acorn conversion with the exception of the hotseat method where two or more human players take turns to play on the same computer. Although this sounds like a case of 'Acorn version having less features than PC version', multiplay is a tad boring across multiple machines because you simply have to sit there and wait whilst your opponent takes his/her turn.
Hotseat multiplay is still very good fun and is a worthwhile feature though, if you can bear the sweat of your opponent on the mouse as you beat him silly with your Necromancer Lord!
Although I have numerous criticisms for HoMM2, don't get me wrong, it is a very good, addictive game. It's just that a number of improvements could be made to create the best strategy game ever. At £35, although it's at the top end of the price band, it's well worth the money because it will keep you happy until well after the Christmas turkey is done with! So get out there, into the fabled lands of mystery, magic, and mage, practise your fighting and spell casting, learn how to command vast armies, build castles, and, finally, RULE THE WORLD!! You won't regret it.
I'm writing this 'second opinion review' of HoMM2 after having owned the game for a little over two years. I also reviewed the HoMM2 Price of Loyalty expansion pack for Acorn Arcade back in 1999, so if you're interested in this game you should have a look at that review as well.
I should say from the outset that, having bought HoMM2 with no prior expectations about what it would be like, it became my favourite game almost instantly, and has remained my favourite game ever since. In fact, I was initially slightly prejudiced against it because I didn't think that it was really my kind of game; I only bought it because I'd been persuaded that it was exceptionally good. But my initial experience with it was almost the same as the one Rich Goodwin refers to above: I lost an entire weekend to it (the time just disappeared!), and I found it very hard to get back to work on the following Monday morning!
What's it all about?
The game basically involves controlling a selection of characters ('heroes'), each of whom rides around a land on horseback, gathering resources and other objects from the countryside, battling wandering bands of hostile creatures, fighting the heroes controlled by your opponents, and conquering towns and castles. The overall aim is usually to defeat all your opponents and capture all of the towns and castles in the land, though the victory conditions can vary somewhat in different scenarios.
That's the basic game in a nutshell, though of course there's actually a lot more to it than that. Much of the emphasis in the game is on building up your own set of castles so that they produce more and better troops for you to use when battling your opponents. In many games you will start off with a single town and hero, though that's by no means universal, and you will want to begin by building up your town as quickly as possible, so that your first hero has enough troops to be able to explore the surrounding countryside without being clobbered by some wandering creatures.
There are six basic types of town and hero in the game: knight, sorceress, wizard, warlock, barbarian and necromancer. The different towns all contain a variety of different structures. The term 'town' and 'castle' is often used interchangeably in HoMM2, but in fact the basic unit is a town, and you'll want to upgrade it to have a castle as soon as possible, because without a castle you can't build the other structures that produce troops for you. Most games begin with the initial town already upgraded to include a castle and one or more creature dwellings. In order to build more structures in your town, you'll need appropriate amounts of gold, wood and ore to finance their construction, and perhaps some other resources (gems, crystal, sulphur or mercury) for some of the more expensive or specialised structures.
Each of the six types of town will have some unique structures (for instance, the knight's castle is the only one that can build fortifications on its walls to give them extra strength during a siege), but all town types have a lot of features in common: i.e. they'll all allow the construction of a multi-level mage guild (which will contain a unique selection of magic spells for that town), and they'll all allow a maximum of six different creature dwellings to be built. These are the structures that produce new troops every week in the game.
Generally you'll want to have a hero of the same type as the castle you own, although you're under no obligation to match the two together. Heroes are skilled in attack and defence capabilities, and in their knowledge of magic and the power of their spells. As the heroes progress through the game and win battles, they gain experience and improve in these four primary skills. They will also gain in a selection of secondary skills, such as wisdom (for the understanding of more powerful spells), navigation (for the sailing of ships), archery (which improves the strike rate of ranging weapons) and so on. Each secondary skill starts off at Basic level, and can be improved to Advanced and Expert levels as your hero progresses.
You can recruit new heroes at any time, up to a maximum of eight, and as the game continues your heroes will increase in skill while you acquire more castles, and in order to build more structures in those castles and pay for the troops that they produce, you will need to acquire more and more gold mines, sawmills, ore mines and so on to keep your resources topped up. Each mine produces a fixed amount of its resource every day, the number of castles you own increases your daily income, and all the creature dwellings in each castle produce a new round of troops at the start of every week in the game.
So, as the game progresses, both you and your opponents become increasingly powerful, and you must plan your strategy carefully in order to be able to conquer an enemy castle successfully and have enough troops left to defend it afterwards, whilst also making sure that your other castles remain adequately defended. The balance of power in a good game can go to and fro as castles exchange hands. Incidentally, the computer AI is exceptionally good in HoMM2, and it's a definite bonus that the computer is not necessarily vindictive (though it can feel that way at times!); it just knows how to play well, and runs when it knows it can't win. It's true that it is still a computer, of course: a good human player should be able to beat it most of the time, and it has its weaknesses, but it will always give you a good game. Considering the unusual subtlety and complexity of HoMM2, the quality of its AI is all the more impressive.
Fighting battles with might and magic
When you're not exploring the terrain, the main thrust of the game is in fighting battles, either as aggressor or defender (particularly when your castle is under siege).
This great emphasis on fighting might make this game sound violent or bloodthirsty, but in fact the reverse is true: it's actually one of the most appealingly non-violent games available, despite all the power-play. In fact, the battles are all about thought and strategy rather than blood and gore. There's actually no blood or gore at all; if attacked, a creature will make an appropriate sound, but these are amusing rather than unpleasant. A vampire will emit a most convincingly vampire-like 'Bleurgh!', for example, or if you defeat a set of mummies, their bandages will unravel with an amusing 'whop-whop-whop' sound. Clean, family entertainment.
Each creature in the game has its own set of characteristics and strengths. Dragons, for instance, are particularly powerful, and can attack two adjacent sets of creatures with their fiery breath, whilst the multi-headed hydra can attack all the creatures surrounding it at once, and the gaze of the cyclops can paralyse its opponents with fear. Knowing the individual characteristics of each kind of creature is essential for success in the game.
In combination with the might of the creatures, the magic available to your heroes is also of great importance in the game. In battle, you can cast lightning bolts on your opponent's creatures, or bless some of your own so that they attack more effectively. The more magically skilled and powerful your hero, the easier you'll find it to win battles, as the magic is definitely of as much importance as the might in this game.
Outside the field of battle, magic is useful when exploring the land, as you can use it to transport your hero between locations, or back to one of your castles, summon a boat out of nowhere, or locate needed resources on the map.
Another important element in the game is the various artifacts that you'll find lying around the countryside. Each hero may pick up and carry a limited number of these, and they'll generally either increase one of the hero's basic attributes (e.g. the attack skill), or maybe produce an extra unit of a resource each day (which is like having a portable gold mine or other resource-generator). Almost (but not quite) all artifacts are beneficial, and if you defeat an enemy hero in battle, you'll acquire any artifacts he was carrying.
The appeal of the game
HoMM2 really does have a unique appeal, and whilst it's really not possible to define exactly what's so attractively atmospheric about it, there are several things that are easy to identify.
The characters: the game contains a large number of heroes, both male and female. They all have names, they're all immediately recognisable, and when you've played with them for a while they'll seem like old friends. Their allegiances change between scenarios, of course (and in fact they can change sides within single games, if they've been defeated), but their names and faces soon become familiar, and you soon start to have favourites. The portraits are hand-painted and are particularly well done; some of the lady heroes are actually surprisingly attractive!
The graphics: all of the graphics in HoMM2 are really exceptionally good. From the realistic character portraits to the six attractive town designs to the extremely detailed landscape scenery, everything is beautifully drawn and animated. You soon become absorbed in the game, and lost in the countryside as you explore.
The exploration element: I'm quite convinced that one of the most important elements in many games is the excitement of being able to explore. Whether it's mapping an adventure game or seeing what's around the next corner in Doom, the exploration of the unknown holds a lot of appeal. HoMM2 is particularly well-endowed in this area, because vast numbers of maps are supplied with the game (particularly given that the Desecrated Lands CD is supplied as a free extra), and every one is unique and highly detailed. The map is gradually revealed as your heroes travel around it, and you can have as much fun exploring the landscape as in fighting the battles. Each town in the game also has its own name, many of which are quite attractive or evocative ('Erliquin', 'New Dawn', 'Sorpigal', 'Weddington', 'Winterkill'), and being able to think of your towns with unique names adds its own appeal to the game.
Acquisition of skills and artifacts: HoMM2 is a strategy game, not a role-playing game, although it's sometimes incorrectly credited as being an RPG. Nevertheless, it does have role-play elements in that your heroes become more skilled as they progress through the game, and as they acquire artifacts. Building up your characters is definitely one of the most important aspects of playing, and a hero with high skill levels, knowledge of lots of powerful spells and equipped with several powerful artifacts will be able to travel around the map leaving a trail of defeated castles and vanquished enemies!
The music: last but certainly not least, mention must be made of the absolutely wonderful music. Without a doubt, HoMM2 features some of the best music ever heard in a computer game (and it's good by any standards). Each of the six types of castle has its own unique theme music that plays when the castle screen is open, and they're fully orchestrated pieces of music, with a real singer on top in most cases. They're extremely memorable pieces of music which you'll find yourself humming when you're not playing. On top of that, every different type of terrain (grass, snow, desert, sea etc.) in the game has its own attractive background music. It's all recorded on the game CD, so you don't need MIDI (in fact there is a MIDI option but it's poor quality); just leave the CD in the drive and feast your ears! The quality of the in-game music adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.
The above elements are certainly things that help make HoMM2 such a wonderful game, but probably its most important single attribute is its sheer depth, which is something that it manages to maintain whilst still being exceedingly easy to play. You can master the basics of the game in probably half an hour, but its enormous variety and remarkable attention to detail will keep you coming back for more for months. Having spent a lot of time with this game over the last couple of years, I would say that the balance of all the elements within it is just about perfect, and it's almost impossible to fault the game in any way.
With the benefit of hindsight
I enjoyed HoMM2 so much that I subsequently bought both HoMM1 and HoMM3 for my other computer, and have spent a lot of time with all three members of the series. But despite having played these other games, and at a distance of a little over two years since I bought the original HoMM2 game in 1998, I can say quite truthfully that I still like it as much as when I first got it. It's still fresh, exciting and captivating, and there's still an enormous amount of life left in it.
I've never experienced this longevity with any other game. Most games will keep my interest for only a short while; maybe a few weeks or even months if they're really good. But no other game has ever had the endless attraction of HoMM2, or the strong pull that keeps me wanting to go back to playing it when I should be doing something more productive! Now that may well be considered a point against it, because it's undoubtedly the most dangerously addictive game I've ever played. It's easy to spend hours with it when you should be doing something more useful. But equally well, it's a heck of a recommendation about the game's quality. As far as I'm concerned, this is by far the best game on the RISC OS platform. So, if you're after some computerised fun, and feel that the RISC OS games scene is too quiet at present, don't waste your money on a PC or a PlayStation 2. Just buy HoMM2 from R-Comp; you may find that you never need to buy another game again!
As a footnote, it's perhaps worth saying that the appeal of HoMM2 has in no way been diminished by the appearance of HoMM3 on other platforms. HoMM3 is certainly a wonderful game; technically, it's actually a better game than HoMM2 in many ways, and there's quite a lot more in it. But nevertheless, many experienced HoMM players say that HoMM2 is their favourite game in the series overall, even in preference to HoMM3, and I'd agree with that. It just has something special about it which the follow-up somehow lacks, and whilst HoMM3 has more types of castle, creature, spell and so on, in some ways it gets a little over-complex and cluttered. HoMM2 has a perfect balance of gameplay and a certain intangible charm which, taken together, are very hard to improve on. Certainly it's got far more long-lasting appeal than any other game I've ever encountered, so even if the initial price seems a little high, you get undeniably massive value for your financial outlay. So if you've been hesitating, dither no longer: buy this wonderful game.
To sum up
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