I had a classic game on my shelf for literal years, unplayed. It’s not the only one – although it’s one of the more prominent ones. It’s simultaneously a symbol of the dying physical game release and the lost excess free time of my youth. It’s the Heroes of Might & Magic III collection – the base game, plus two expansions, on one DVD. I bought it at a used book store for $10.
Might & Magic started as a first-person RPG series. King’s Bounty was a spin-off of that series, where you play a hero leading an army on a quest for magical artifacts. Heroes of Might & Magic then took the strategic combat of King’s Bounty and made it into a turn-based strategy game – you take command of a nation, with heroes serving as your generals. As part of a standard campaign, you send heroes out to explore and gather resources as you develop your cities enough to send armies along with those heroes. As heroes find items they grow more powerful, and as they find gold and other resources your cities can develop to their fullest potential.
HOMM3 is supposed to be the best in the series – it’s at least considered most HOMM fans’ classic entry, although I’m not sure what makes the later games less beloved.
My personal history with Heroes of Might & Magic is short – some might say nonexistent. I played the original King’s Bounty on Genesis quite a bit, but only played HOMM5 years later. I enjoyed it, but not enough to continue after a couple of hours. I’ve played many games that could be considered its cousins. Master of Magic, a Civ-like fantasy game, is probably the best known, but I’ve played a few Age of Wonders games, Endless Legend, and even Fallen Enchantress for a bit (I’ve also got several lesser, but similar-seeming games like Eador sitting on a virtual shelf, unplayed).
When I actually decided to play it, I had to consider some potential extra work when opening it – I don’t have a DVD drive on my desktop, and didn’t want to go through the legwork of either ripping the DVD with an 8-year-old laptop and creating an ISO (like I did with Battle for Middle-Earth a year or so ago) or harvesting the DVD drive from my old desktop and putting it in the new case. Luckily, when I checked GOG it was on sale, and the time it would take to rip, copy and potentially mod the game was well worth the $2.50 price tag to me, so my DVD copy remains unopened. I’m not sure if that says something about the commodification of games, but I am truly grateful that many classics are available at relatively low prices (I could write a recommendation list for GOG games under $10, and it would probably be longer than this post).
As is natural for PC games, there is an HD mod. HOMM3’s was unusually inaccessible (I think I ended up finding it on a Google drive share from someone on the GOG forums). I think the de-diversification of the internet, combined with relatively static hosting costs, has had a toll on a lot of fan sites (other than big ones that specialize in mods, like Nexus Mods – but those are typically for big, still-popular games). I could certainly play HOMM3 without an HD mod – and often do play games that don’t have one at all – so it wouldn’t have been awful if I didn’t have one.
Actually, if I didn’t have an HD mod, I might have been slightly less overwhelmed at the start. HOMM3 is similar to MOM or more recent Total War games, in that there is a tile-based map with various caves, nodes, castles, etc. and when you are confronted with an enormous, zoomed-out screen it can be tricky to figure out exactly what you should be doing. I spent much of the early game figuring out what I could interact with, and what those things did, because of course reading manuals is for chumps. I did end up cracking open the (digital) manual to look up information on spell points, but early on I was doing trial-and-error (and yes… it did take me 2 hours to figure out you could hire additional heroes, for that time I was playing “Hero of Might & Magic 3”). HOMM3 is full of systems that are hidden or at least obscured, and even in the campaign mode there is a substantial amount of randomized content (e.g. item locations are the same between plays, but the actual items present are randomized).
Although I enjoyed my time trying out a lauded classic, I felt like I’m no longer at a point in my life where I could really enjoy HOMM3 as much as I would have when it came out.
A younger Chris would have figured out which heroes were the most useful, did research on factions to figure out ideal (or at least useful) strategies, read all the various hero biographies, and played randomized maps or fan-made scenarios to death.
The older Chris enjoys the fact that you can save anywhere, but thought movement speed was too slow, and most of the campaign was difficult at the start but incredibly easy once you reach a certain point. While there are subtle differences in the factions, most of the units are analogues of each other so the core playstyle is similar. Having to wait for units to be available is an interesting wrinkle, and much of the early-game is figuring out where you can and can’t explore without risking your heroes. This was occasionally interesting, but frequently tedious in the campaign. The randomness inherent in so much of the map exploration (particularly items) is fun, but so many of the items are incremental improvements that it loses a bit of appeal.
I think if I had played this without having played Master of Magic I would have absolutely loved it. Even though MoM is about 5 years older and significantly more randomized (having no campaign whatsoever – only generated maps), it is also a shorter and more streamlined experience. MoM hits many of the same highs (hero training, city building, various factions, and spells that affect strategy) with fewer of the lows I saw in HOMM3 (slow campaign, hands-off recruitment). I can appreciate HOMM3 for what it does differently from (and even better than) Master of Magic – hero leveling feels more meaningful because you have choices, and items are more interesting even as they’re less predictable. Although your heroes are important, they are useless without troops to command – making it necessary to balance your attention between your heroes and your cities.
It’s not often that I’m able to visit a game with an “easy come, easy go” mindset. It felt freeing and I could enjoy the exploration and discovery of game systems without the overhead of “finishing the game” (in truth – I did complete the first campaign, which was only three scenarios). I honestly expected HOMM3 to have a substantial storyline to go with the “Heroes” theme, but it turns out the initial hero is disposable and the plot of the campaign is shorter than this article. I appreciated that, because once the campaign wrapped up I was able to let the game go and move on to something else.