Even the most die-hard fans had to admit that part 2 had not been a major upgrade to the original. New World Computing, now fully part of the struggling 3DO Company (no longer affiliated with the hardware of the same name), took three years to come out with part 3. Plenty of time to make something groundbreaking, right?
Well, yes, plenty of time, but nevertheless… it's the same game all over again. Players start with one city. Hire heroes to lead their armies. Have them explore the game world, fighting monsters and finding treasure. Which essentially means: stumble across random event cards. Gain experience in the process to become stronger. Conquer the opponent's cities. What's new? I could just paste the list of changes I wrote for part 2 here, because it is yet again “more of the same”: spells, city types, monster units. And then, it is a shitload of small changes.
The nature of the “ultimate artefact” hidden somewhere on the map has been fundamentally changed, now improving the specs of one city of choice instead of just one hero. Rather cool, but the inherent issue of this artefact almost always being found too late in the game to still make any difference remains. There is an underworld layer and armies can move between it and the outside through specific portals. This effectively doubles the size of the game world, for better or worse, depending on personal preferences.
Graphics received a major overhaul. Instead of the sharp pixel art of the previous installments, players are now greeted by 3D rendered environments. Compared to a lot of stuff made around the same time, it has not aged too horribly, but certainly does not have the immediate appeal of the predecessor. Music, on the other hand, is of very good technical quality and stylistically appropriately pompous.
Four paragraphs of lukewarm description at best, but still, Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is one of the greatest games in existence, isn't it? Yes, it is. It is the culmination of ten years of optimization starting from the baseline of King's Bounty (essentially Heroes of Might and Magic 0). There were never any sweeping changes, never any quality jumps, but always improvements.
Most importantly, what really makes this one my favourites, is that the developers finally got the balance between units right. Whereas low level creatures just had a short span of being useful at the very beginning of a game previously, it is now entirely feasible to still fight successful battles with mainly second or third level creatures until the endgame – provided their numbers are high enough. This changes the course of the game more significantly than initially obvious. Every city can now provide for two or three effective armies instead of just one. Enabling even a minimum of defensive play, although risky adventure obviously remains the main focus.
Being a formative experience for many then young gamers, the game has been subject to a number of mods, including the famous In the Wake of Gods. This pushes the limits of the original so far that applying some settings, it can almost be called a different game by the standards of this series. The VCMI project, on the other hand, aims at recreating a runner engine on today's common operating systems, removing the awkward Windows 98 requirement which previously made the original impossible to play. Unfortunately, VCMI still has some artificial intelligence issues at the time of writing. UBI Soft, now owners of the property, also agree about HOMM3 being the instance to be remembered, having published a HD remake in 2015. Choosing it over no less than three later sequels.
They simply hit a sweet spot here. With the minor issues of the predecessors pretty much weeded out, the feeling of being immersed in an almost endless amount of quests, experiencing dungeon crawling from a different perspective, can finally fully come to fruition. What was previously already a free time graveyard has now officially become addictive as crack. There can be no excuse, no escape.
(Screenshots reflect the VCMI engine, the game originally ran in 800x600.)
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