The final title in Ubisoft’s upcoming trilogy of free-to-play titles designed to be played directly in your PC browser, Might & Magic Heroes Online is once again an adaptation of an existing franchise to the newest of all gaming platforms. And just as with ANNO Online and Silent Hunter Online, Might & Magic Heroes Online is a remarkably accurate representation of its host series despite the lack of entry barriers.
The team at Blue Byte are well aware of the reputation free-to-play videogames currently have despite their previous efforts to amend public opinion. This perception isn’t seen as a stumbling block as such, but rather a challenge that comes not just with the development of Might & Magic Heroes Online, but with the decision to pursue free-to-play as a platform for all of the studio’s future projects. Thankfully, once players get the chance to play Might & Magic Heroes Online for themselves, the effort of convincing audiences that the shift is with making will surely be far easier than adding a new increment to the end of a boxed title.
Might & Magic Heroes Online is designed to feel like ‘a proper Heroes experience,’ a goal which even in Electronic Theatre’s brief time with the videogame seems to have been well and truly accomplished. This isn’t a spin-off title, Blue Byte assure, with the storyline of Might & Magic Heroes Online taking place between the events if Might & Magic Heroes V and Might & Magic Heroes VI. However, the details of the plot eluded Electronic Theatreduring this short hands-on, preferring to concentrate on the gameplay.
Perfectly in-keeping with Might & Magic Heroes tradition, Might & Magic Heroes Online presents gameplay on two fronts. The first is the world map upon which the player progresses their adventure through meeting with non-player characters (NPCs) and exploration. All players on the current server are visible on the world map, at all times via their customisable avatar (though in the build Electronic Theatre experience there were no customisation options present). On the world map players can find treasure, allies and enemies. Upon moving to an enemy the camera will change to a centre-focussed grid layout, which is Might & Magic Heroes Online’s second front: the battle mode.
Already very close to replicating that Might & Magic Heroes experience, the turn-based battles see the player taking direct control over a group of units. Playing to their strengths and weaknesses, including speed, attack ability and special attributes, players must manoeuvre their units and execute a plan of attack that will see them suffering minimal casualties as they take out the enemy units. This is never more evident than in the Staged Battles; feats of endurance that will see the player fighting numerous selections of enemy units directly after one another without respite, outing extra strain on the player’s resources.
Referred to as Hex Combat, these stages are lorded over by the player’s own visualisation, dealing damage to any enemy on the grid regardless of positioning. These heavy attacks can turn the tide of the battle, but relying on them is foolhardy; the player needs to establish a force and series of tactical advances capable of taking down the enemy alone, as enforcing justice through the use of your general alone will soon see your numbers dwindle.
Electronic Theatre’s experience of Might & Magic Heroes Online was limited to one of the initial provinces featured in the Haven campaign and with only the Cavalier class available. However, at launch Blue Byte intend on also making the Necropolis campaign available. Work has already begun on this second campaign and so a brief hands-off view was given, showing that this second adventure is certainly looking a bit rougher around the edges. That said, it’s quite remarkable just how well the localisation has been implemented at this early stage, with the character discussions and menu options already proving decipherable by native English speakers, if not quite perfect. The same can also be said of the visual design; looking fantastic even at this stage, there’s an inspired amount of detail and incidental animation in the environments and the character models look on par to the boxed retail titles.
There were a number of features promised for the final build that Electronic Theatre was not able to experience, such as co-operative multiplayer or the currency system (which is still undergoing significant experimentation), calling into question the only missing aspect of the Might & Magic Heroes series: base building. Blue Byte confirmed that this aspect will not be available in Might & Magic Heroes Online at launch, though when pressed it was agreed that – should there be sufficient demand – it could be added at a later date. Aside from this absent component, Might & Magic Heroes Online is the exact same videogame experience that until only a few months ago players would have paid £30+ for, exactly how Ubisoft intend to make that some kind of money out of the free-to-play model remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Blue Byte aren’t prepared to let the quality of their gifted franchises come into question in the shift from retail to browser.