Standing on top of a creaking stack of Might and Magic games, Heroes of Might and Magic V hoists the entire strategy franchise straight overhead. Previously a simple 2D isometric game, this lavishly produced sequel drenches the series in three-dimensional splendor, while remaining faithful to the turn-based gameplay that spawned it.
The lion's share of the game consists of six intertwined single-player campaigns that highlight the six factions - each lasting scores of hours. As the title would suggest, you'll command a Hero and his army, building the power of each during battles with marvelously animated creatures and other powerful Heroes.
The battles take place on a chess-board grid, with armies lining up on either side to take turns clanking swords and slinging spells. The firing order is kept neat and clean by a handy indicator towards the bottom of your screen, letting you know just who gets to swash his buckle next. You'll also need to navigate obstacles on the battlefield, and strike from just the right angle. Further layering on strategy are ranged attacks, area-effect spells and brutal counterstrikes; you'll need to plan your attack order very carefully.
But take as much time as you need - this is a turn-based adventure, so folks will politely wait until it's their turn to stab you in the face with a pitchfork or send a magic missile sizzling toward your special place. Heroes themselves are outside the battle arena, but make powerful cameos. They'll hurl spells and swoop in for special attacks - eventually performing a staggering amount of different feats by the end of each campaign. Best of all, each bit of combat has an impressive mini cutscene. We often caught ourselves swinging our arms in the air in anticipation as creatures clashed (no one saw that, right?).
In between battles, you'll gather power, magic and treasure in the Adventure mode. But the world is littered with vengeful enemies like demonic Horned Overseers, undead Wights, and nearly unstoppable Academy Mages. These walking nightmares also guard over the most powerful artifacts and spells - everything a growing Hero needs - so you'll need to strengthen your army and defeat them if you are to survive.
The Adventure mode is turn-based as well, but as alive and awash in motion as any action game. Finely detailed trees sway in the breezy countryside, oceans churn angrily and lava belches forth from magma-filled crags. Each campaign also receives an extremely stirring orchestral soundtrack that sticks in your head much longer than the cheddar-riffic dialogue does (thankfully).
If you discover and capture a city in the Adventure mode, you can build up its castle. As you add towers and structures to the castle, you'll gain access to ever more powerful creatures, and the ability to hire additional Heroes. Every new structure and building morphs onto the castle itself, and eventually transforms it into a majestic and towering monolith. Each faction has a wildly different style, and flying around fully decked-out castles are the coolest, most wallpaper-worthy moments in the game.
Fans of the series will welcome the returning favorite multiplayer modes like the Hotseat and Ghost battles. Hotseat allows two players' armies to duke it out on a single computer by taking turns. Ghost mode keeps players busy even when they are waiting for their opponent to move - by attacking them with "ghosts" and meddling with enemy movement and spells. New players will get sucked into the Heroes world with the easygoing Duel Mode, which hands each side a pre-packaged army and a powered-up Hero for quick one-vs-one online battles.
We had better luck playing multiplayer over a local area network (LAN) than we did online, however. Different versions and a buggy interface plagued multiplayer at launch, but an early patch is planned. This didn't bother us much; we are still trying to claw ourselves out from under the mountain of single-player content.
It's been a long couple of years since the last Heroes installment - and a worrisome transformation into the third dimension. The long wait is now over: our gaping mouths declared it officially worth it after seeing the startlingly gorgeous Heroes world. If you are just looking for a summer fling, be warned: Heroes has enough depth and sheer gameplay hours to wrap you around its finger for years. For fans of the Might and Magic series and turn-based strategy aficionados alike, Heroes V can't be missed.