There probably aren't too many publishers capable of treating the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise with an appropriate level of dignity, and that includes current license owners Ubisoft.

Over the years, the series has progressed with a steady hand, as each release and subsequent expansion pack built upon the foundation of the original, eventually topping out with Heroes of Might & Magic III: Shadow of Death. Ever since then, it's suffered from an inexorable decline into mediocrity as the original development team at New World Computing first got the chop, followed by the demise of parent company 3DO, who then passed the ball to Ubisoft.

Traditionalists will insist the series has largely worsened with each byte since about 2000, although Heroes of Might & Magic V at least made an effort to remain relevant with a complete reboot. It didn't really work, but it showed someone was thinking.

From the outset then, it would appear Might & Magic Heroes VI will likely suffer from a largely fractured and disinterested turn-based strategy community quite used to overwhelming disappointment in the face of rich subject matter. Couple this with the decision to entrust developmental duties to Black Hole Entertainment, formerly responsible for such yawn-inducing twaddle as Armies of Exigo, and latterly, the unforgivable Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, and it's likely most armchair kings-of-the-hill won't even bother with it.

That may be a mistake, however. The beta reveals, from a functional perspective at least, a solid desire to return to the core gameplay that made Heroes such an intriguing game all those years ago.

A prequel to the events of Heroes of Might & Magic V, the campaign moves around a fractured Griffin dynasty, formerly led by Duke Slava, whose five children have now inherited five different castle variants that form the basis of the interconnecting campaign arcs. These five variants will appear familiar to previous subscribers; Haven, Necropolis, Inferno, Stronghold and Sanctuary have all featured in some form or another throughout the history of the game, and at least half of the upgradable buildings and general content found within their walls will likewise bring back memories.

As for the other half, opinion may be divided. The entire magic system has seen a comprehensive overhaul, with the removal of Mage Towers and assorted city buildings that previously dealt in the expansion of a heroes magical abilities. Spells can only be found adrift in the terrain, or by allocating skill points after levelling, requiring heroes to augment their collection by exploration and combat. This further acts to balance magical abilities around the same level as physical ones. It's clearly unlikely to mitigate the disparity found when desperately recruiting a new, low-level hero to form the last line of defence in a barricaded castle, but at least magical development can progress beyond certain tiers without a tiresome trip back to town.

As each town now features a zone of influence, mines and creature dwellings within this area cannot be permanently captured unless the town is likewise occupied by an invading army. It's no longer necessary to play a tedious game of "flag the dwelling" when roaming armies skirt around borders snatching them back; merely increase defensive forces in the keep and the steady supply of resources is practically guaranteed.

In addition, and somewhat controversially, the resource system has been whittled down without mercy from a bountiful seven to a decidedly slimline four. Gold, wood, ore and crystals are now deemed sufficient to grow, organise and rule a kingdom of any size, the procurement of which is still dependent on combat victory, management of finite mines and processing facilities, as well as careful trade in market buildings. Resource acquisition seems less weighted as a consequence, and it's rare to be entirely stalled without the ability to purchase anything, as was frequently the case in the past.

Towns can also be converted to different factions too, removing the requirement to stock armies with potentially moral-reducing off-faction creatures.

This concept of simplicity extends to the core of the game. Some of the most satisfying moments in previous Heroes titles involved the procedural city development, this time around the interface merely features an upgrade tab, with no associated building animation. Creating Dragon Cliffs or a Citadel used to have real visual impact, this is no longer so. Far from the easy-to-navigate-if-somewhat-cluttered Heroes III user interface, Heroes VI seems determined to reduce most activities to tabular browsing and an excel-like approach to creature management.

It's change for the sake of it, rather than a real adaptation of what clearly worked in the past. Those with a Luddite bent will insist that resurrecting the Heroes III UI, tarting it up for a higher resolution and adding a "buy all creatures" option would be sufficient to keep the series ticking over for another ten years.

Combat perhaps harks back to the simplicity of previous titles better than any individual aspect of the game. Once again it's almost always an affair of attrition, with two opposing forces facing down across whatever highly detailed landscape happens to divide them. The quantity, quality and risk danger of the opposing force is always revealed prior to combat, allowing an educated guess as to whether or not a swift retreat may be conducive to continued gameplay. This is a shame for those who enjoyed the tickle of supremacy the word "zounds" provided when describing a victory to fellow players.

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