First Look: Might & Magic Heroes Online
If the MMO theme for most of this year's events season was MMOFPSs, gamescom's theme was browser-based MMORPGs of a quality that we've never seen before, and we've seen plenty of good attempts over the years. Ubisoft alone is featuring three high quality browser-based MMOs featuring major IPs that require no downloads or plugins and, according to the developers from Dusseldorf's Blue Byte studio, push Flash like it's never been pushed before. We took a look at Anno Online yesterday and praised the developers for achieving no-compromises, true-to-brand gameplay in a browser. And we could say the same for Might & Magic Heroes Online, Ubisoft's upcoming attempt at taking their flagship medieval fantasy IP online.
Using at least four of the iconic factions of the series (Haven, Stronghold, Necropolis, and Inferno... I didn't spot any Sanctuary units) and the same world, Ashan, players will have the ability to play as co-op and join combat together. Blue Byte promised many of the community characteristics of MMOs: join guilds, interact in towns, and fight together in dungeons and raids. But online community centers on combat, and MMHO has quite a legacy to live up to.
Traditionally, Heroes of Might and Magic are known for the iconic use of tabletop grid-style turn-based battles that the player is dropped into (Final Fantasy style, but with more units and tactical options), from the exploration- and quest-driven campaign map (which is not turn-based, as in previous iterations of the series). MMHO stays true to these battles, albeit without the square grid of MM Heroes VI in favor of the hex grid used earlier in the series. As importantly, battle maps respect the geometry and features of the campaign map, which leads to some interesting tactical options. One battle saw our hero battle a giant demonic boss mob, and his minions on a bridge. Realizing the danger in attacking a choke point, the Blue Byte presenter spawned a skeleton across the chasm (a classic Necropolis maneuver) to deal with ranged units while his foot soldiers dealt with boss. He noted that players can mix and match faction units, so your Haven hero can in fact parachute a skeleton in behind enemy lines.
Had his forces been defeated, the hero (who stands outside the grid, just like in classic MM play) would have had to beat a hasty retreat. The presenter explained that this was exactly the case with his first attempt at this boss, but he'd spent literally hours gathering gold in the north to hire more and better minions and equipping them to aid in the fight. As it was, he lost one minor minion, which was easily revived with a little gold. Speaking of which, gold, items, and artifacts come as battle and quest rewards, of course, but may also be found lying out in the open, which really can make exploration and working through side quests worthwhile.
A second battle featured an even bigger boss mob, Urtakh, one of the scripted encounters in MMHO. The presenter noted that battles can have their own special win and lose conditions - not all are a battle to the death. Urtakh, for example, slowly approaches the player and, unless the player deals with all of his minions before he arrives, he'll take and deal extra damage.
Graphically, Blue Byte touts the game as Triple A, and it was hard to fault that description. In addition to flicker-free framerates - a true rarity Blue Byte had to expose the browser title bar for us to believe that we were in fact playing in a browser, and that's no small praise. The presenter's Haven character traveled to Blackened Falls on the edge of Inferno territory just for a change of scenery, and the palette was indeed much brighter than the Necropolis lands we'd been adventuring through and exhibited just as much fine detail and vertical depth.
Blue Byte wasn't ready to talk about the potential complexities of creating an online TBS; things like what happens in co-op combat when your friend steps away from the computer or even the existence of PvP in the game, but there's little doubt that Might & Magic TBS fans perhaps a little disenchanted with MM Heroes VI's rough edges won't have too long to wait for an online and brand-authentic iteration of their beloved series, with a tentative launch set for Q4 2012.