It took seven weeks, three separate trips to Europe by friends who found time on their business trips to search computer stores in London, Amsterdam, and Berne -- and finally backordering it from Amazon-UK for delivery to the European office of one of my clients. But three days ago, I finally received a copy of Heroes Chronicles - The final Chapter. All in all, if I had actually had to pay for the trips, plus added up all the rest of the costs and the transatlantic calls, it would have been my first $3000 computer game! The question -- even for a die-hard 3D0 fan who gladly gives up what he laughingly calls "a life" whenever a new M&M product is shipped -- is "was it worth it?"
HC-FC was originally scheduled for release in early September 2001 in the states. Like so many who hang on every 3DO M&M offering, I was at my local EB that morning to get a copy. It didn't matter that the first four chapters had been a step below the high standard set by 3D0 in their mainstream releases –Erathia, Armageddon’s Blade, and Shadow of Death. The fact is that even a mediocre offering from 3D0 always had a level of map design and play balancing that made them enjoyable and a challenge. Sure, the first four HC chapters were C+/B- stuff. But surely HC-FC would be worth the wait, and would benefit from the critique of dedicated HOMM sites like this one.
But when I searched the EB shelves, no HC-FC! It hadn't been delivered to EB. Horrors! Worse, it had been pulled and was no longer scheduled for USA shipments. Even the EB manager was perplexed. It was being sold in Europe, but was strictly embargoed for sales in the USA. When I finally got through to 3D0 customer service, they formally confirmed that there were no plans for USA sales.
That's when the 3D0 chromosome in my blood took over. I wanted that game! I wanted to know why it had been pulled. I wanted to play The Final Chapter. (Darn … that sounds like I'm auditioning for Regis Philbin.)
Revolt of the Beastmasters
After his adventures as a barbarian, a knight and a wizard, Tarnum has to wear the Beastmasters robe.
Now, after playing hooky for a couple days (my employees think I was at an “important offsite strategy meeting”) I think I know the answer. It was a pure marketing and economic decision. The pure economics of a $20 “expansion” CD can not make sense unless there are very significant sales. And HCFC was not likely to sell well other than to the extreme 3D0 fringe, people like me. Of the two campaigns, one is the best HC yet (I’d give it a solid “B”) while the other is far and away the worst yet – almost comical with all it’s major flaws. I suspect that HC-FC will be relegated to being the “bonus” in some up-coming collection of H3 games.
First, some basic stats about HC-FC. It contains two campaigns of eight scenarios each. The single CD contains roughly twice the content of any of the first four CDs. Of course Tarnum is the center of both – leading Fortress creatures in the “The Revolt of the Beastmasters” and Dungeon creatures in “The Sword of Frost.” As with all of the six prior chronicles (including the two freebies you can qualify for by clicking the “special offer” icon on the 3D0 web page) it uses persistent characters who carry skills, spells, and experience forward. It was a bit disappointing that it did not incorporate even limited use of the persistent item idea introduced in the give-away “Firey Moon.”
Also – for reference – the review is based upon playing all scenarios at the “Knight” setting, plus Beastmasters a second time at “Rook.”
Now – the good news. The first campaign – Revolt of the Beastmasters” – is actually very good. Had this been the level of the original four releases, HC would have been much better received and sold a lot more units. Yes, the play is less challenging than SOD and others, but it is still a compelling game. Beastmasters reflected 3D0’s usual well-constructed maps and play balancing. But, more than any other Chronicle, Beastmasters had a compelling story that was totally consistent with the scenarios. Someone in Redwood City deserves a real kudo here. Past Chronicles stories were interesting, but really didn’t really tie directly to the scenarios. Here, the story was directly reflected in armies, challenges, maps, puzzles, etc.
The basic Beastmaster premise is that Tarnum made slaves of the “Mudlanders” (Gnolls, etc.) in a prior incarnation. Now he must make amends by freeing them . However, the Mudlanders are weak and timid, and will not be a lot of help. Whoever designed this campaign did a superb job of making this happen. After a while, if you immerse yourself in the Tarnum role, you really do feel as though you have to do it all alone. It it hard to get a secondary hero anywhere close to your level. Battles are the primary way to gain skill points (there seem to be far less shrines/towers/etc., intentionally, for this reason) so Tarnum must soak up most of the available skill points at the expense of your other heroes. Often heroes are planted in indefensible positions with Tarnum unable to save them. One of the best scenarios had Tarnum up in the NW of a large map, and his two weak generals far away in the SW. At then end of the first (yup, 1st!) week, when your wussy generals have a mighty army of maybe 2 or 3 paraplegic gnolls and a blind serpent fly, suddenly Valeska shows up through the fog next to them with 50 each of Royal Griffiths, Crusaders, Marksmen, etc. She’s 8-9 levels above them, has a dozen or so attack and defense points advantage, and must have expert logistics because your heroes don’t have a chance of outrunning her. A picture of the Little Big Horn should come to mind. Two desperate moves later one army is mincemeat after trying to draw Valeska away to the south east and Gird is caught from behind while running north as fast as she can with a mighty escort of six goblins and a half dozen wolf riders. Now – in the context of the storyline, this actually works! It makes sense. Time for Tarnum to shake his head, hunker down, and try again to build some heroes out of the cannon fodder he has to work with!
Beastmaster was a good campaign to play. Sure, as with all of the HC campaigns, they are easier than SOD/Blade/Erathis, and experienced H3 players will find them pretty straightforward. Yes, the characteristic Chronicles design of “The first three scenarios are on tiny maps and are soooooooooo easy” is used. But the last five scenarios are good challenges, and fun. They aren’t worth $3000! But they are worth $20, and I wish 3D0 could do more like this and then could sell enough to make money on them.
Sword of Frost
I wish this review ended right here, on a positive note. I wish I could say anything good about the other campaign in Final Chapter – The Sword of Frost. But I am hard-pressed to do so. If the 3D0 icon were not printed right on the CD, you would have a hard time convincing me these were from the same team who brought you Shadows of Death. It was flat-out bad – poorly balanced, major strategy flaws, a weak story that should have been the best of all the Chronicles, and the ability to win all scenarios without any real challenge or work . I’ve already gone back and replayed Beastmasters at the “Rook” setting, and enjoyed it again. This weekend I’ll try it on “Queen.” (A life? What’s that?) I won’t bother replaying Frost.
"The fate of the world depends on Tarnum's ability to rekindle his darkest talents and lead the devious creatures of Nighon against his former friend."
Frost is based upon Tarnum’s need to prevent Gelu from taking action Gelu believes will “save the world.” Gelu is rushing to destroy the Sword of Frost – a very dangerous artifact. The problem is that Gelu is also carrying Armageddon’s Blade – and if the two touch, it’s “lights out in Peoria, and most of Nighon and Tatalia, as well.” Tarnum commands the Dungeon characters. In scenarios one to seven, Tarnum has to fight through various forces and enemies blocking him from catching Gelu. Finally, in the eighth scenario, Tarnum must race Gelu to the Sword of Frost.
The problem is that unlike all of the other 3D0 scenarios I’ve played so many times, this one appears to have been slapped together and not significantly play tested. In one critical scenario, for example, the land is divided by a mountain range with two small passes guarded by Crystal dragons. You have two-thirds, and the AI enemy one. He can’t get through the mountains, and your huge town and resource advantage, plus his inability to challenge you at all, let you easily build up and overwhelm him. Put it on autopilot, Scotty, and let’s coast to the final over-matched slaughter.
Approaching the final battle. Total domination of the map – Gelu in in my army now. And I command an army that easily crushes anything in my path
Another example, of many, is the final scenario,. In the middle of week two Gelu shows up with a single Crystal dragon and Armageddon’s blade to attack one of your heroes (not Tarnum). Problem is, I had given that hero a Azure dragon. Gelu never even tries to use the Blade to wipe out my hero’s minor troops, and ends up losing just nine days into the scenario. Now, the following week, I can equip Tarnum with two Azure dragons and Armageddon’s Blade. Does the term “unstoppable” ring a bell? Tarnum, from then on can go wherever he wants, and wipe out anything he faces. To make it even funnier. Gelu shows up as a recruit in my tavern and fights for me the rest of the scenario! As you can imagine, with Gelu in my army, the rest of the storyline was rather comical as it evolved. The following weeks were played on autopilot just to get it over and see how it ended. It was so easy it became unnecessary to even click on your opponent to check his stats before attacking. Bletch.
There are many more such examples with Frost. The bottom line is that when you learn how to use the combination of stat grubbing (at the end of each scenario delay the final kill – block the last enemy in his/her castle while your troops scour the map visiting all shrines, towers, etc.) and even a single Azure dragon, you can EASILY win any scenario. It’s just not fun. And a storyline (Tarnum versus Gelu) that had so many outstanding possibilities was wasted.
What’s the bottom line? Unless you’re one of “us” (one of the seven North American die-hard, no-life, 3D0 is more important than life, M&M is life) players, you can pass on this one. It will probably show up in the next H3 collection series. Save your dollars for Disciples 2 and Heroes 4.
And, hope that the Heroes Chronicles series is not the start of a meaningful trend. If H4 is the successor to the proud reputation of H3 and the M&M series, then all is still good in the universe. However, if H4 follows the path of the HC series, and pays too little attention to the scenario design and balancing expertise that has always been 3D0’s real strength, then the seven of us will have to take the scariest step we ever imagined possible when 3D0 ships a new product.
We’ll have to get a life.