Strategy and FPS games seem to almost define PC gaming sometimes. They are both in abundance, and it's a rare month when something from each genre doesn't find its way on the shelves. The sheer number of titles available within the strategy market, never mind the sub-genres, makes it supremely difficult for any company to make a name for itself. With that in mind, it makes sense for developers and publishers to release games that have proven themselves in the past, or better yet, have a dedicated fan base. The Heroes of Might and Magic series has both.
The fourth sequel to a game first released in 1990, Heroes IV is a turn based strategy game that takes place in a familiar fantasy setting. A bit too familiar perhaps, but it still ticks all the boxes of a believable universe, and one that certainly has its own history. Though lets face it, everybody just rips off Tolkien anyway, but what are you going to do? The game starts off requiring you to create your own character with the choice to focus on strength or mystical powers. Might or Magic then, very clever. From the first town you recruit an army and venture out in order to collect items, fight monsters and capture new resources.
Resource gathering involves locating the riches that are scattered about the landscape and securing gold mines and the like in order to secure a constant cash flow. This enables you to build up your town and recruit more creatures. Town building is the weakest area in the game, especially in this day and age. Rather than the free form control that can be found in most other games, where town building is entirely up to yourself, Heroes IV limits you to various strict paths. The town itself is represented by an image that changes as you add buildings, each placed in a pre-determined spot on the image. Buying one type of building means you can't get another, which means you have to decide what form you want your army to take. This is a good idea, but it's offset by the lack of control you have over your town. A lot of the fun that comes from various other strategy games is in how you lay out and manage your town and it is conspicuous by its absence here. It really betrays Heroes IV's age.
Combat is also turn based, but converts to a Diablo-esque look were you command groups of your men or other creatures against your foes. Combat is split into three distinct types: ranged, magic and close combat. Obviously, certain creatures are more powerful in certain areas, and it's useful to have a good balance of troops. Although it is initially quite limiting, individual creatures have a range of abilities that allow you to customize an army in more ways than it would initially appear. Though, in practice, it's hard to find any real difference between one ranged monster and another. The fights themselves are very slow and there doesn't seem to be enough variation to really make battles truly interesting in the long run. It's hard to find anything particularly exciting or new at all and to be honest, although there is a certain amount customization, there is not enough to meet the challenge of extended playtime.
Graphics though, are the biggest problem. Even in the year of release I can't see how this would have looked anything less than dated. The main map screen harks back to the days of Amiga or the Atari ST and the less said about the combat sections, the better. The animation for many of the troops is laughable and the awkward movements of your golems as they rattle towards the enemy make it very difficult to take seriously.
And yet, and yet.... there is some fun to be had. Time has certainly not been kind, but it's still a competent game that people could get some enjoyment out of. It's also relatively intuitive and easy enough to get into. Obviously a system that has been refined over the course of 4 games is doing something right. Building up an Empire of towns and other operations can also be compelling with lots of little situations cropping up. A particular favourite, is when you capture a civilian operation, like a mill, and the owner offers you money for your 'patronage' and 'protection'. It makes you feel like you're in the Mafia. Excellent.
As I stated earlier, this type of game has an awful lot of competition out there, especially with more recent games. However, it's worth a stab, especially for fans of the genre and at this cheap price, but overall it feels too dated and isn't compelling enough to recommend it to a wider audience.