The 90s were the golden years for video games. This was the time when hardware wasn’t strong enough to display graphics that can completely overshadow everything else. In other words, back then video games had to actually have considerable substance rather than just look pretty. In those circumstances, fantasy and RPG genres thrived the most because of their inherent advantages.
Pen&paper and tabletop RPGs were at that point around for decades and provided a ready-made, rich foundation of lore, mechanics and characters, which cut down greatly on development costs. Since players of pen&paper RPGs were accustomed to using their imaginations, bad graphics weren’t that big of a distraction. And finally, constant dice rolling could be done behind the scenes by a superior dice-rolling machine. It’s no wonder that everyone and their mother tried to develop a video game RPG in the 90s.
King of turn-based RPGs
But only a few of them stand head and shoulders above the rest as Heroes of Might and Magic 3 does. Everything happens in three separate screens that signify three parts of the game: exploration, building, and combat.
You will struggle to hoard seven resources, three basic (gold, wood and ore) and four exotic (mercury, crystal, gems and sulfur). While it’s possible to pretty much clear the entire map with only the basic resources and given infinite time, every fun unit and spell requires that you take risks and attack stronger opponents that guard exotic mines. These mines will then generate fixed amounts of resources every day that will slip through your fingers at an alarming rate.
While it is possible to create a marketplace, which allows for buying and selling of resources, the rates are murderous. Even dropping several hundred ore or wood will hardly make a difference in your gold total, until you make several marketplaces in your kingdom and the rates improve. Whenever you find a gold chest, opt to keep the gold for yourself, as you will be starved for gold coins pretty much constantly. On the other hand, this makes you more connected to your troops and you will probably end up jealously guarding each stack.
There are seven factions in the game, each represented with its own town and home terrain type. Every faction offers a variety of heroes, roughly divided into those who prefer physical damage (might) and casting spells (magic). Purchasing buildings in a town allows you to create creature dwellings that repopulate every week, along with supporting structures, such as magic guilds and blacksmiths.
Try to focus on getting flying units as soon as possible instead of massing feeble low-tier melee cannon fodder. Flyers have a distinct advantage over every other unit, because they can outmaneuver enemy ranged troops and fly over obstacles, such as castle walls and moats.
Combat happens in turns, with each unit’s initiative determined according to its movement speed. This makes dragons and archangels particularly useful, since they almost always guarantee you will go first. Having fast units with your hero also gives him a scouting advantage, as the overworld movement speed is penalized for those heroes who lead shamblers, such as zombies and skeletons.
Magic Arrow, Magic Arrow…
Going first in combat is also important because you can cast only one spell per turn. If you buff your units with Haste, which increases movement speed, you’ve already got a great advantage and can move half way across the battlefield before the enemy can react. The AI is quite brutal and will hit you with its ranged units where it hurts the most: archers and low-level units. Don’t engage in prolonged ranged combat unless you have no other option. Simply rush him and hope for the best.
HoMM 3 presents a fully fleshed, immersive world that is filled to the brim with details. For example, backgrounds in creature portraits indicate their alignment, which tells you how well they will get along in battle. Traveling on roads reduces your hero’s movement penalty, while going through difficult terrain with units that are not native to it will cause massive penalties. There are many other such nuances that you are unlikely to figure out, even on your 100th playthrough of the campaign.
HoMM 3 has aged gracefully thanks to its hand drawn graphics and is still a magical, enchanting game that will bring you boatloads of fun if you try it just once. It has its flaws, though. Spells that don’t cause damage or a status effect are effectively useless, which makes low-level magic heroes a lot weaker than might heroes. Attack also gives much more benefits than defense, shafting all Fortress units, since they focus on defense.
However, late game wizards have access to almost infinite mana points and spells that wipe out armies. This forces might heroes to focus on attack and rush to end the game, while magic heroes have to hold out until the late game. Dimension Door and Town Portal are also truly gamebreaking in multiplayer, meaning that you will greatly enjoy abusing them versus the AI. Some skills, such as Diplomacy or Eagle Eye, are a waste of skill slot and seafaring is quite fiddly.
Just one more turn
HoMM 3 is a fruit of immense love and care, made by gamers for gamers and it shows at every step. You should definitely try it out, even if you’re not a fan of the genre, simply for its artistic beauty and complexity of the world. While there were several sequels to HoMM 3, none of them managed to do anything except unnecessarily experiment with the core gameplay experience and then slide into obscurity shortly after release.
As a final surprise, Ubisoft, which holds the rights to the HoMM franchise, has announced that there is a HD remake in the works, scheduled for release on 29 January 2015. Unfortunately, the source code of HoMM 3 expansions was not retrieved and they will likely not be re-released in HD.