Allow me to reminisce for a minute…
Defender of the Crown by Cinemaware was easily one of the most memorable and original games released in the halcyon era of the Commodore 64. As an Anglo-Saxon lord, you travel about Britain on horseback gaining control of land and castles and armies in an attempt to unify the isle under one leader. With some of the best 8-bit graphics and sound of that era, this unique game blended strategy and action was deemed, at the time, one of the most beautiful games ever created.
And now, back to the subject at hand…
Having spent most of my free time over the past two weeks with Loki Entertainment’s Linux port of Heroes of Might and Magic III, I can’t help but feel that this series of games is the natural evolution of Defender of the Crown. The basic ideas are all there, along with a giant bag of new tricks, each adding its own flavor to the already rich gameplay. And like Defender of the Crown before it, HOMM3 provides an unforgettable experience, filled with lush graphics and striking music. Further, the Heroes games stand in stark contrast to the seemingly endless flow of high-profile 3D games that grab the headlines in today’s game market. Can a hardcore gamer, one used to the heated, bloody battles of Quake 3 Arena and the heart-pounding car races of Gran Turismo and the button-thrashing brawls of Soul Blade, actually be drawn completely into the world of a game that require neither a Pentium II nor a 3D accelerator? Read on, brave reader!
For those not familiar with the world of Heroes of Might and Magic, let me convey the view I’ve gained in my brief experience. You command a group of “heroes”, each of which controls an army of smaller units. Heroes move about on a world map, from city to city, gathering resources and artifacts along the way. Each city you control garners gold, resources, and troops for you; the gold and resources can, in turn, be turned into city improvements and the ability to produce more and better troops. Conflict occurs between AI controlled heroes and your own, between a hero and a city garrison, or between a hero and groups of creatures scattered about the world map. All movement and combat is turn-based, so you can take as much time as you want planning out your strategy.
Strategy is really the root of this game. Anyone attempting to play this game haphazardly will eventually find their cities overrun and their heroes summarily destroyed by an efficient enemy AI. Success is dependent upon a player’s ability to manage simultaneously multiple cities and varied heroes towards an array of goals. Initially, the game will seem frustrating for the sheer amount of information that must be assimilated; there are enough town types, creature types, heroes, artifacts, and spells, each with a handful of critical statistics, to make a first game (and perhaps even a second and third game) more of a vehicle for reading the manual than a vehicle for entertainment. Fortunately, the game is accessible and appealing enough to motivate you above this initially steep learning curve. Veteran users will no doubt need some time to
acclimate to the changes made since HOMM2, but should find most of the game and the strategies required a comfortable fit right from the start.
Despite a flamboyant, cartoonish appearance, HOMM3 offers gamers plenty of strategy and gameplay to while away the hours. At the highest level, a good player will move heroes around the world map efficiently and choose to fight battles only when they are ready. At a finer level, cities must be managed, balancing money and resource generation with amassing troops for your armies. At a still finer level, decisions about skill specialization must be made for each hero, and artifacts (which bestow special bonuses to abilities) must be distributed to maximize their potency. At what I see as the finest level, battles must be managed to use troops, terrain, and spells to guarantee a victory. So while a single piece of this complex game, like building a powerful army, may be easy to conquer, that one piece alone will likely not be enough to quash your foes’ forces.
Single Player – Scenarios
For a lone player, HOMM3 provides more than enough single player scenarios to take up the a good month for a moderately determined player. To keep the gameplay fresh, each scenario takes place on a different map (of varying sizes) and may provide a single or several computer opponents with which to compete. Since progess can be saved at any point during a turn, a player is free to freeze the gamestate and try different tactics and strategies. For those players enjoying the quest for a “perfect” strategy, these scenarios provide a fertile ground for cultivating ideas and plans.
The computer AI is an able opponent, and I found that watching him closely provided me not only with vital information of his whereabouts and and army strengths, but also with a good example of how to manage several cities and heroes efficiently. While there are times when the AI seems too efficient, riding the fine line between challenging and annoying, in the end I appreciated the level of skill it pushed me to achieve.
Here I’ll lodge my biggest complaint with the game’s structure: The tutorial scenario is a terrible example and, while bolstering a new player’s confidence may seem good in theory, in practice it fails utterly. It serves merely as a tour of the objectives in this game’s world but fails to introduce any of the real relationships between them or explain the work that a real scenario will require to acquire those objectives. The rest of HOMM3 is so polished that playing the tutorial leaves one with the definite feeling that it was tacked on at the last minute.
Despite the great number and variety of these scenarios, this mode is my least favorite. This isn’t to say that single player scenarios aren’t fun and entertaining; they can be great fun. Rather, the campaign and multiplayer modes are, quite simply, even better!
Single Player – Campaign
A step up in complexity from the single scenario mod is the Campaign. Here several scenarios are strung together, with cut scenes and narrative inbetween, to form a more elaborate experience. Beyond the overall story, though, scenarios are linked further: a player’s performance in one scenario affects how he starts the next. Together with the story, this strategy adds a critical edge to the Campaign mode, making it a more compelling game experience.
As an added incentive, not all campaigns included in the game are accessible at the outset. To gain access to these extra campaigns, one must first complete those few campaigns initially offered.
Multiplayer – Internet/LAN/Hotseat
Not to be left out of the multiplayer obsession in today’s game market, HOMM3 provides two modes with which you can challenge your friends to a game of hero-coaching wits. The scenarios are similar to what you’ll encounter in a single player scenario, but you play against human opponents (or a mix of human and computer AI opponents).
The first mode is Hotseat and it allows several users to play a multiplayer scenario from one computer by taking turns. This mode is a bit awkward since a crucial aspect of the multiplayer gameplay stems from not knowing what your opponents are doing. So keeping your friends (i.e. opponents) from looking while you make your moves could be a potential problem. Still, almost all the fun that can be had playing over a LAN or over the Internet is part of the Hotseat mode, and it’s a great option when only one person owns the game.
The other mode is TCP/IP which allows you to play over the Internet or over a LAN. For this review, I was able to try out both methods and can report that they work remarkably well. Over a LAN, as you would expect, there is no lag and arranging a game is relatively easy as players can agree verbally upon a scenario and settings. At our test session, once everyone was connected we experienced no problems for well over two hours of gameplay. The only hitch we encountered
was a hang while trying to connect; subsequently, we weren’t able to reproduce that situation, so it probably was a configuration error on our part. Later, I played a one-on-one game via our dialup Internet accounts; with the use of GAIM to arrange the details, setting up anInternet game was nearly as easy as setting up a LAN game. At the beginning of such a game, a reasonable amount of network traffic takes place and over a slow modem connection this phase may take as long as a minute. But past that initial traffic, only chat messages and turn
updates are swapped, using only a tiny fraction of your bandwidth.
We encountered some very neat features in HOMM3 while playing multiplayer games on our LAN. First, when a user drops from the game a computer-controlled opponent takes its place. This is handy for times when not everyone in your group can stay for the entire game. Second, the multiplayer game can actually be saved, providing some interesting benefits. Notably for us, we had the opportunity to take a break for lunch and return to our machines without worrying about losing our place. Next, for those who like honing your strategy skills, any user can save the position of the game and go back later to replay
that portion of the game (against CPU opponents, of course) to experiment with a different strategy.
Graphics & Sound
At first, I’ll admit, I was a little turned off by the cartoonish graphics of HOMM3. But upon closer inspection, I realize that this is probably just the effect that the designers were shooting for. My only gripe, then, is that the excellent in-game video sequences seems a bit incongruous next to the in-game graphics as the videos depict what can only be called “more realistic” creatures and persons. All of that aside, the artists have done their duty well and created clearly recognizable, colorful, and detailed graphics for all creatures, cities, artifacts, and dozens of other items that populate the world of HOMM3. Perhaps the only point real complaint one could have about the graphics is that the game runs at only one resolution, 800×600. (Check the Linux-specific Issues section for more on this.)
The music in HOMM3 was a pleasant surprise for me. While some game music is the kind that you listen to once and immediately turn down, I find that the music here is quite well-done. The most impressive part, in my mind, is the dynamic way in which the music mirrors the current hero’s surroundings. The varied background sounds are fantastic as well, adding just the right atmosphere without being overly noticeable.
Linux Specific Issues
I’ve tried installing HOMM3 on three separate machines (all running some variant of Red Hat) and it installed easily on all of them. Loki gave the whole Linux gaming community an invaluable gift when they wrote the famous installer that now accompanies all of their games. Even with the minimal install (only 5Mb of HDD space), the game runs well, provided your CD-ROM drive is up to the task.
The K6-2/300 and Celeron 300A (at 450MHz) machines ran HOMM3 beautifully, and are well within the recommended system requirements. I had hoped that, given that the simple demands of the interface, this game would run well off of a laptop and so one of the test systems was a Pentium 166MHz laptop with 32Mb of RAM. As the system requirements implied that a “Pentium class processor” and 32Mb of RAM would be enough to run the game, this seemed a reasonable proposition, esp. since the 800×600 fixed resolution within the game would fit well on a laptop screen. However, even with a full install, the animations and music were choppy and degraded the gameplay and enjoyment significantly. My suspicion is that the limitation was really in the low RAM and laptop video card, but I’m not confident of that.
While it is easy enough for those running at higher resolutions to Ctrl-Alt-(-) and Ctrl-Alt-(+) to adjust for this, it does get a bit tiresome to do that on a regular basis. Users choosing to run HOMM3 as root on their machine will have access to a more convenient fullscreen mode. Fortunately, Loki has promised that the first patch will introduce a fullscreen mode for all users (not just the superuser) much like the one in the latest patches to Railroad Tycoon II Gold and Civilization: Call to Power.
For those that find multiplayer as compelling as I, be warned that all versions of HOMM3 will network only within a particular platform. That is to say, the game has been released for Win32, MacOS, and Linux but each version can only talk to clients on its respective platform. The Windows version makes use of DirectPlay, a part of Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX. The MacOS version makes use of OpenPlay, an open alternative to DirectPlay. Loki has said that they may incorporate OpenPlay functionality into a future patch to enable interoperability between MacOS and Linux users. I hope that this actually does comes to pass.
Also, those players familiar with the Windows version will tell you that a map editor came as part of the package. While no map editor shipped with HOMM3 for Linux, it is apparently in development and will be released eventually. Incidentally, maps created with the Windows map editor apparently work well with the Linux client.
Finally, there are rumors that the expansion pack that was released for the Windows version will eventually be available for Linux users as well. Nothing official, yet, but there is at least a chance that Loki will release the expansion as well.
Loki seems capable of doing no wrong at this point in its life, and its port of Heroes of Might and Magic III furthers my belief in its ability to deliver great games into the hands of Linux gamers. HOMM3 seems well-chosen to round out Loki’s growing
catalog of games, and it will no doubt lure more casual gamers to Linux as time goes by. Personally, I tend to prefer action games to strategy games, but HOMM3 has been surprisingly enjoyable over the past two weeks. While it certainly won’t replace Quake 3 Arena or Unreal Tournament (especially for gamers like me), it will continue to hold an icon on my desktop because, in the end, I’m hooked on the deep, engrossing strategy and the wildy fun multiplayer component …oh, and that rush you get when you carry a huge army of Arch Angels into battle and decimate your opponent!
Review Update (31 January 2000)
After posting my HOMM3 review, Stephane Peter and Scott Draeker from Loki Entertainment contacted me with some additional information and a correction.
First, I was incorrect in stating that the Apple Macintosh version of HOMM3 used OpenPlay. According to Peter, the programmer that did most of the porting work on HOMM3, the Mac and Linux ports share some common code and thus have “the same network backend.” However, the two can’t talk to each other because of the endian difference between the PC and Mac architectures. There are no plans at this time to implement OpenPlay in any version of HOMM3 on any platform.
On the topic of the map/scenario editor, Scott Draeker notified me that it is “well into development” and should be released when finished. This is good news for current HOMM3 owners and all the more reason for other Linux gamers to give HOMM3 a good long look. Grab the newly released demo and try it out; if it’s your cup of tea, then get out and buy it.
More sales of HOMM3, and other Loki games, will certainly increase the likelihood that more games will get ported. Draeker made it clear that they are talking with 3D0 about bringing the HOMM3 expansion packs to Linux. Also, if their relationship remains strong and the games are in demand, Loki would “like to continue bringing [the Heroes series] to Linux.” If the quality of HOMM3 is any indication, this is great news for Linux gamers.
So there you have it: The editor is definitely on the way and expansion packs are being considered. Given that HOMM3 is a great game already, these just add to its attractiveness. And while I find myself wishing that I could play against my Windows-using, HOMM3-playing friends, that is but a small part of this fine game.
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