Over the past couple of decades, most of us have had the unenviable experience of playing some truly atrocious games. These generally fall into the following categories.
There's the game that's recommended to you by a fellow gamer who (for the most part) shares your eclectic tastes, however may not have had the good fortune to play anything better that the title on offer. This therefore means they have no point of reference, and can't understand why you'd rather shave an unsedated cat than invest any time in Fiesta Online. Your first warning in this scenario is the utterance of any sentence that roughly sounds like "World of Warcraft? Can't afford it. But check out this awesome free MMO!".
Then, invariably, there's the title that just leaps off the page at you - something with a clever name, a bit of marketing spin, and some good developer references based on previous projects. It may even tick a few boxes - "An action RPG with fully, randomly generated environments? This Hellgate London is going to kick ass!" By the time the bullshots are published, community chatter is inflated and early teaser videos released, you've already pre-ordered and aren't even worried that there's no demo or hands-on articles anywhere. The sudden realisation that the studio has folded mere hours after the game ships deflates further your opinion of the industry in general, and drives you one step closer to buying a Macintosh.
Finally, and perhaps most cruelly, there's the franchise continuum. The title you play for no other reason than it's continuing the saga of a series you've invested countless hours in, perhaps even over multiple platforms, on the understanding that the developers will in no way sell you out and convert your beloved memories into a Chinese-exclusive web browser game with all the wit and sophistication of a hen's night in Hamilton. Heroes of Might and Magic Online falls under this category.
Originally released in May 2008 to a Chinese audience who'd been expecting it three years earlier, Heroes of Might and Magic Online has now been pushed into the Western market (who weren't expecting it at all) by publisher Ubisoft, thereby cunningly attempting to lever the popularity of this franchise by creating an English beta that features a well-established name, and very little else.
Pitched as mixing "classic gameplay elements from Heroes of Might and Magic III with the stunning updated graphics of Heroes of Might and Magic V", the reality is somewhat different. For starters, it's a 2.5D title that seems to place more emphasis on MMO gameplay attributes than anything from Heroes III. The opening character selection screen, whilst referencing different castle types such as the Rampart, Necropolis, Stronghold etc, quickly pushes you into a persistent world that doubles as a lobby and general town centre. This hub allows you to converse with different townsfolk, players, and quest initiators, and generally provides you with the excuse you've always wanted to go on a shooting rampage.
The system requirements for the stand-alone game client wouldn't have raised an eyebrow even in D.E.K.A's gaming section, and the less said about the god-awful courier-inspired font that seems to accompany every single Chinese-to-English text translation throughout history the better. Seriously, what's with this? Are fonts expensive overseas? The initial presentation is indeed so bad, you'll assume someone has played a cruel joke and linked you to Ultima Online instead. Chinese developers TQ have a history of this, so what on earth Ubisoft is doing lending them such a hallowed franchise as Heroes of Might and Magic is anyone's guess.
After this period of uncertainty (and after silently cursing the person you loaned your Heroes III disk to a decade ago for not returning it) it's time to explore the options and see just how gameplay is managed. As you would expect from a title that probably started development around seven years ago, your non-windowed, full-screen graphics settings are limited to a 1024x768 resolution maximum. Although this is probably more a reflection on exactly where all the old CRT monitors in the world have ended up. In an effort to compensate however, there's virtually no clipping whilst moving around the main lobby, which introduces a "cheap-and-shoddy-high-school-programming-class" feel to the whole affair, thus distracting you from other more important things happening in your desktop background.
Being an online-only title, you'd expect a fairly robust quest system, and to be fair there are in excess of a hundred campaigns across varying factions, along with a guild system and a player vs. player combat arena. The confusing aspect is that the world now consists of three levels - the aforementioned real-time level where you can pick up quests, along with managing your troops and castle improvements, and the traditional two levels found in original Heroes titles (move and conquer, along with combat). It's as if the development team have tried to totally reproduce all the interesting elements from the single-player campaigns and custom maps designed for Heroes III, and squeeze them into a 2.5D environment with an overhead management arena added as an afterthought.
If you can tolerate the poor layout, bad animation, bloated and unwelcome online lobby system and atrocious graphical presentation, you'll almost certainly be disappointed by the lack of detail shown in the maps. Most Heroes III maps, and to a lesser extent Heroes V, contained a vast wealth of treasure and resources, scattered with foes designed to whittle away your army base and encourage careful stockpiling and structure building. The same general concepts apply in Heroes Online, however it's done so badly that it makes you wonder what exactly you're fighting for. The immediacy of trading resources for town structures has been managed out of the game, and with it, any real sense of enjoyment.
The hexagonally structured combat area is retained, along with the spell book animations and auto-combat options that were generally turned off in favour of games that didn't take half an hour per turn in Heroes III. The wisdom of creating an MMO that still adheres to king-of-the-hill combat mechanics aside, here was a chance for TQ to show a dynamic, highly-detailed battlefield with unique animations and well designed spell-casting - instead we get some kind of animé version of Battle Chess from 1994.
The sound effects are predictably one-dimensional, and I'll have to refrain from commenting on the music as it still hasn't been translated yet, but my hopes aren't high.
Admittedly, the game is still in beta, which is a concept designed to facilitate the flow of constructive criticism from gamers to developers in the hope that they can iron out whatever bugs exist prior to launch. I'd like to suggest that it's not too late for this title.
All that they really need to do to avoid a major flop is to scrap it.