Monday, May 30, 2011

Retrospective: Ubisoft Talks About Ashan

I thought I'd share a pretty funny read from one of Heroes V's development diaries circa 2005. Prior to Heroes V's release, the community had high hopes for Ubisoft's new world and storyline. The concept of an emotionally broken but determined young warrior queen trying to hold her kingdom together had promise. At least on paper, the story sounded mature and complex.

The actual story of Heroes V featuring stupid, one-dimensional characters and horrendously inane dialog. The storyline was a failure in every respect and had no redeeming value.

In the diary, Erwan Le Breton, M&M Content Director, and Richard Dansky, M&M World Designer, discussed their intention to create the world of Ashan. Here's an excerpt:
12. To conclude why do you think people will enjoy the universe you helped to create?
I think that the best praise we could get for this new universe is that it “feels strong and it feels real”. 
All of the different factions have very good reasons to justify their existence and their ongoing struggles with the rival nations. 
All of the characters have legitimate motivations and credible mindsets. 
The drama is tight, focused on a long chain of major events that covers millennia of spoken myths and written history.
Everything is related. Every action has its consequences, sometimes hundreds of years later.
Now you see why this is funny. Heroes V's plot ended up being the opposite of Le Breton and Dansky's original vision. One wonders how the developers managed to screw things up so badly. Was Nival that incompetent? Was it the result of too many cooks in the kitchen?

Suffering through the terrible storyline of Heroes V made me appreciate the well though-out world of Heroes III and the textured motivations of its inhabitants. There's currently a lot of talk about Heroes VI's storyline. It allegedly follows the lives of five siblings from the Falcon Empire and their various political machinations. Once again, the premise sounds good on paper. However, time will tell if Ubisoft can truly resurrect Ashan from the cesspool of bullshit it currently resides.

A Quick Final Fantasy Plug

Hi readers! I just wanted to very quickly plug one of my companion blogs: Final Fantasy Flight. Several years ago, before the economy hit, I flew around the United States for work fairly consistently for my work. During my flights, I played Final Fantasy Origins on Game Boy Advance to pass the time. I kept a journal of those adventures. Go check it out.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Neutral Affairs

Remember those opportunistic bastards from the neutral campaign who stole Erathia's western territories? It's time for them to get their comeuppance, courtesy of Queen Catherine.

Neutral Affairs begins with the wizards of Bracada finally agreeing to give Erathia military aid. What took them so long? One can surmise that King Gavin Magnus, in his infinite wisdom, realized that he had to maintain order in Antagarich by preserving a balance of power. If Queen Catherine were to fall, the Kreegans would certainly invade Bracada next. It's also possible that the map makers noticed a serious lack of tower cities in the campaign thus far and wanted to devote at least one scenario to wizards and alchemists.

In any case, I found the map to be quite challenging. I can only surmise that I somehow played the map incorrectly. The scenario begins with two Erathian towns and a tower. My first order of business was to upgrade both towns into castles by building forts. Then, I aimed to grow my gold supply by advancing toward a capitol. Any of the three cities is eligible for a capitol. It's best to build it in the city that's furthest from the enemy. If the enemy captures a city that has a capitol, they will destroy it. You'll then have to spend 10,000 gold to rebuild it somewhere else.

The starting area is filled with lush green Erathian grass. However, the majority of the map consists of dense swampland. As I've already mentioned in an earlier post, swamp terrain is notoriously difficult to navigate. Your heroes will be bogged down (literally) without Expert Pathfinding. Unfortunately, wizards and knights have rarely learn that skill without a witch hut.

The enemies on this map are the beastmasters of Tatalia and the barbarians of Krewlod. Both factions have high-level heroes with strong creatures. Thankfully, they'll spend more time fighting each other. Try to stay out of trouble and build your army.

There are three garrisons that separate the grassland from the swampland. You'll notice that these garrisons belong to neither Tatalia nor Krewlod. If you only break through one garrison, the other two will remain standing and protect your starting area from enemy heroes.

Something I hated about the map was its lack of gems ponds. There's only one on the entire map, and it's deep in enemy territory. Unfortunately, both titans and archangels require gems to recruit!

I had to rely on windmills and my marketplace to obtain gems. Nevertheless, I could never muster enough resources to recruit every available titan or archangel. It was frustrating to face off against enemy hydras without a large stock of level 7 creatures. They were sitting in town, waiting to be recruited. Suddenly, I was hit by a week of the PLAGUE and half of them disappeared.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Steadwick's Liberation

In Steadwick's Liberation, Queen Catherine's forces must retake the Erathian capitol city of Steadwick from its Kreegan invaders.

I love the fact that the map designers reused the map from Steadwick's Fall to maintain continuity. However, they also added some aesthetic changes to keep the map interesting.

For example, the grasslands surrounding Steadwick have been transformed into barren wastelands. The Kreegans, being the evil bastards that they are, decided to salt the land.

Also, the dirt lands in the southeastern corner of the map have been extended, suggesting a lot of back and forth travel between Steadwick and the invaders' inferno fort.

Finally, the dungeon overlords have burrowed all the way to Steadwick. The subterranean map contains a garrison and three enemy cities.

In Steadwick's Fall, you may remember that the capitol city was protected by garrisons on the overworld map. The Kreegans were smart enough to replace these garrisons with impassible boulders. It means you'll have to take a detour through the Nighon tunnels in order to recapture Steadwick.

However, there's a pair of Angel Wings in the southeastern corner of the subterranean map that can make the trek a lot easier. Assuming the enemy doesn't get the artifact first, you'll be able to fly over the mountains surrounding Steadwick and completely avoid the garrison in the tunnel. However, if your hero gets defeated and the Angel Wings falls into enemy hands, the map suddenly becomes a lot harder.

Also, you may remember Gen. Kendall, the final boss of the Dungeons and Devils campaign. He is trapped in a prison at the northwest corner of the map, guarded by a group of devils. Why didn't the Kreegans kill him?

He starts at level 12 and comes pre-loaded with tons of expert level skills. If you rescue Gen. Kendall, he will join the party. But be warned, if you wait too long to rescue Gen. Kendall, the enemy may actually recruit him to their party. Why would Gen. Kendall ever want to help the Kreegans? Brainwashing, most likely.

In any case, the first priority in this scenario should be to break through the western garrison and reach Gen. Kendall. Once you have him in your party, capture as many overworld cities as you can. You may find that gold is a scarce commodity on this map. One way to conserve your resources is to stop training pikemen and archers. Also, don't bother building up the rampart in the northeast corner. There's only one rampart on the map, so you'll never be able to amass a large army of forest creatures. Also, the rampart tends to be captured a lot. So any investment you put into the city will likely fuel the enemy's army. If you must build something, aim for a treasury.

Like many other scenarios before this one, speed is the key to success. The enemy will expand very quickly. Unless you've captured two additional towns by the end of the first month, the enemy will have wear down your forces and resources with its momentum.

It's important to start the map strong. In the beginning, you're given a choice between three starting bonuses:

1. 10,000 gold
2. 2 archangels
3. 2 titans

I know that I mentioned that gold is scarce in this scenario. However, 10,000 gold isn't going to make a big impact. Speed is the key to the map, so having two level 7 creatures at the beginning of the map is a far better choice. But which to choose?

A lot of people prefer the archangels over the titans for their speed and resurrection ability. On paper, it looks like a good decision. However, I actually prefer the titans. Here's why.

Armies travel at the speed of their slowest unit. That means even though archangels are fast, they must still travel at the speed of an archer or pikeman. To counter this, you must leave the slow units in the city and travel with only the archangels. However, if you don't want to bring along any slow units, who will the archangels resurrect? If you aren't going to use resurrection, why choose the archangels at all?

Additionally, archangels are melee attackers. Unlike archdevils, the archangels' attack will provoke retaliation from enemy units. This means the archangels must expose themselves to danger in every battle. It's actually fairly easy for enemies to surround the archangels and kill them. You can certainly keep the archangels out of danger and shoot enemies with spells, but this causes short battles to drag on. It also defeats the purpose of having archangels at all.

On the other hand, titans are slow and lack the ability to resurrect fallen troops. However, they are sturdy and have a ranged attack. They can sit back and comfortably shoot enemies while they slowly make their way across the battlefield. The titans will simply survive more battles, giving you the ability to destroy more enemy stacks and flag more mines at the onset. Your hero may travel a little slower on the overworld map, but not by much.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


They say it's always darkest before the dawn. Now that we've gotten the evil campaigns out of the way, it's time to move on to the part of the story where the good guys triumph over their enemies!

Liberation is the story of how Catherine Ironfist rescued Erathia from its greedy neighbors and finaly restored order to the continent of Antagarich. Let's recap the story so far:
  • Catherine left Antagarich to marry Roland Ironfist, the protagonist from Heroes II and king of Enroth.
  • King Nicolas Gryphonheart died of mysterious causes, leaving a power vacuum in Erathia
  • Hearing that her homeland was in danger, Catherine hurried back to Antagarich with a fleet of Enrothian warships
  • Kreegans landed in Eeofol from space, drove out the peaceful halflings who resided there, and then terraformed the land into a volcanic wasteland
  • The Kreegans of Eeofol and dungeon overlords of Nighon conspired to conquer Erathia and dug tunnels to reach its capitol
  • The barbarians of Krewlod and beastmasters of Tatalia also grabbed land from Erathia's western territories and then turned on one another
  • Meanwhile, Catherine landed in the southern coast and marched to Erathia's capitol, making alliances along the way with angels, griffins, elves, and the wizards of Bracada.
  • To the north, the necromancers of Deyja stole Nicolas Gryphonheart's body and resurrected him as Lich King Gryphonheart
  • Lich King Gryphonheart kills the king of Deyja and seizes the throne
  • Lich King Gryphonheart immediately set his eyes on conquering Erathia (because that's what liches do) and successfully captures Erathia's northern territories
Is there any part of Erathia that's free from occupation? Imagine what the poor Erathians must be going through as they adjust to their new lifestyles.

In the west, the Erathians under Krewlod's rule probably ended up being used as arena fodder. Human punching bags, if you will. The Erathians under Tatalia's rule probably had to learn the language of the lizardmen and gnolls.

In the north, most were probably converted to skeletons by Deyja. In a later expansion, the sorceress Gem explains that necromancers herd people into slaughter pens and then raise them from the dead en masse.

In the capitol and eastern lands, the Erathians had to endure slavery at the hands of the Kreegans and dungeon overlords. I imagine the overlords just made the humans clean a lot of feces. You know... manticore feces, minotaur feces, dragon feces, etc. As for the Kreegans, they probably incinerated or whipped the humans for fun.

Needless to say, Queen Catherine has a long way to go before she can truly bring sanity to her realm. Psychological scars run deep.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

From Day To Night

The final scenario in the necromancer campaign introduces Hard difficulty, symbolized by the rook.

In Hard difficulty, you'll not only deal with reduced starting resources, but also face a merciless computer AI that will make you tear your hair out.

The computer AI on Hard difficulty understands that the best defense is a good offense. It will consolidate its armies in a single uber-hero and strike your castles to destroy any offensive momentum you try to muster. It will also use hit and run tactics to put pressure on your weakest heroes. All in all, the computer AI plays like someone you'd want to punch in the mouth.

The scenario begins with a false sense of security. You start with three heroes and three cities along the map's northern edge. Three cities? I've hit the jackpot. Or so I thought.

Don't be fooled into thinking you have superior numbers. The enemy actually starts with five castles, each connected by roads and protected by cavaliers and angels.

Your starting necropoleis are situated next to red garrisons that separate the dead lands of Deyja from the lush green fields of Erathia. The difference between the two lands is striking.

I knew that it would be futile to make an early strike on an enemy castle. My forces were weak from breaking through the garrisons and the enemy heroes were far too strong. Instead, I focused on grabbing resources.

I sent heroes with small (but fast) armies deep into enemy territory to flag mines and grab chests. Every time the enemy caught up to my hero, I'd unload offensive spells and retreat. This way, I kept all of my experience and artifacts.

I repeated this until my starting heroes reached level 10. By this time, I had fully upgraded my necropoleis and had a surplus of gold. It was time to spill some blood.

Unfortunately, I had great difficulty cornering the enemy. Whenever I gained the upper hand in battle, the enemy would retreat to protect its artifacts.

My solution was to lure the enemy's strongest hero past the garrisons into my starting territory. I watched the enemy take over my city, waited for him to settle in, and then invaded with a strong hero. As Admiral Ackbar would say, "It's a trap!"

I had taken out the enemy's strongest hero. Would the others fall for the same trick? Unfortunately, I was unable to repeat this strategy. The enemy simply refused to cross the garrison.

Plan B
While building up my heroes' levels, I made sure to learn Expert Earth Magic. This allowed them to take full advantage of the Town Portal spell. Normally, the spell transports a hero to the nearest friendly town and can only be used once per day. With Expert Earth Magic, a hero can choose the specific town that he or she would like to visit.

I gave all of my troops to a single hero and invaded one of the Erathian castles. Then, I intentionally left the city unguarded. Sure enough, the enemy heroes took the bait. As soon as one came close, I used Town Portal to intercept him with an army of ghost dragons and dread knights.

Ghost dragons have the ability to inflict 'old age' on an enemy stack, cutting their max HP to 50%. However, ghost dragons also have notoriously low defense. I simply used my dragons to tie up enemy shooters and repeatedly resurrect them with Animate Dead.

The entire scenario took nearly 5 months to complete, which speaks volumes about the increased competence of the computer AI on Hard difficulty. I wonder how much more difficult the scenario would have been without Expert Town Portal.

All in all, I loved the concept of this scenario. The contrast between the withered lands of Deyja and the lush green forests of Erathia are phenomenal. Additionally, the scattered sphinx statues (called Cover of Darkness) regenerates the shroud and gives you the feeling that you're literally spreading the darkness as you travel.

Additionally, the layout of the map (north to south) further gives the impression that evil forces are descending upon the land like a curtain of death.

Lastly, I love the use of standalone creature generators like the Archer's Tower and Barracks on the overworld map to make the Erathian castles look bigger than they really are. You definitely get the feeling that these are key strategic 'military towns' that you're capturing.

Well, that's pretty much it for the necromancer campaign. Erathia is basically screwed at this point. The necromancers have taken the north. The dungeon overlords and Kreegans have taken the capital and the west. The barbarians and beastmasters have taken the east.

Next, we'll switch gears and return to Catherine's POV as her army marches to Steadwick to recapture her father's lands.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Corporeal Punishment

In Corporeal Punishment, you're tasked with destroying the rogue death knight Mot. You start the map with two forts, separated by a lightly guarded enemy garrison. The top fort will rarely see any action. So you should concentrate your energies acquiring a Capitol.

The lower fort is surrounded by cursed ground, so you don't have to worry about learning a lot of spells. Thankfully, the enemy usually won't cross the garrisons to attack you until week 4 or so.

My starting hero was Tamika the death knight. Tamika's innate hero ability grants bonus strength to any black knights or dread knights that she commands.

I immediately hired a second hero to guard my lower fort. Surprise, surprise. Vokial was sitting around in the tavern, enjoying a breather after having recruited 2,500 skeletons in the previous scenario. I knew that his ability to strengthen vampires would come in handy.

There's a sea area in the upper right corner of the map where you can get a lot of extra gold from sea chests. The whirlpool takes heroes underground with some flaggable creature dwellings.

One of the nice things about controlling a necropolis army is that you never have to worry about bad morale. Undead units are always morale-neutral. So I had no problem robbing the Warrior Tomb west of my lower fort. Lo and behold, Vokial procured a set of Angel Wings!

On this map, there are some quest guards that can only be opened if a hero holds a specific artifact. Unfortunately, the artifact was already used in the previous scenario to free Sandro from his prison. Luckily, Vokial was able to use Angel Wings to fly over the quest guard and grab the bonus treasure.

My ultimate destination was Death's Gate, a high-level necropolis in the lower-right corner of the map guarded by Mot. Although the town is surrounded by cursed ground, you'll still be able to cast spells in the battle itself.

The fight against Mot is incredibly tough because he has a high number of black knights and liches. Thankfully, Vokial doesn't seem to have very many spells and will usually just cast Slow. However, Vokial could not overcome Mot's superior numbers and was forced to retreat.

The first battle didn't go too well. But I knew that my 4 necropoleis gave me an advantage in numbers. I waited a few weeks, recruited a formidable fighting force, and invaded Death's Gate again.

This time, I led with my ghost dragons to cut off the liches' ranged attack. Also, Mot was stupid enough to leave the safety of his castle walls to engage my skeletons and zombies. I used Animate Dead to keep my undead army in top shape and tore Mot's units to shreds.

It turns out Mot is just Clavius with a different name. I guess the creators didn't bother giving him a unique portrait.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Season Of Harvest

Oh look! It's Emperor Palpatine.

Is it just me or are these cutscene animations utterly ridiculous. As the mysterious narrator explains why we need to raise an army of skeletons, we see a random necromancer repeatedly electrocuting a fallen knight. Is he slowly killing the knight or merely trying to raise him from the dead?

Since the goal of the scenario is to raise 2,500 skeletons within 3 months, it's fitting that all three starting bonuses further that objective. The choices are Vampire's Cowl, Necromancy Amplifier, and Unearthed Graves.

The Unearthed Graves will increase the number of skeletons available to recruit in your town per week. However, there's no need to start with this building because you can construct it yourself for a mere 1,000 gold.

The Necromancy Amplifier gives all of your heroes a 10% boost to their Necromancy skill, allowing them to raise more skeletons after battle. Like the Unearthed Graves, you can build this structure in town for a mere 1,000 gold.

That leaves the Vampire Cowl, an artifact that increases a single hero's Necromancy skill by 10%. On paper, this may seem like the worst choice of the three. But in reality, it's the best choice.

For starters, the Vampire Cowl is worth 4,000 gold. It's also the hardest of the three to obtain in the scenario if you don't choose it from the onset. You can always build the other two structures by saving up gold. But it's much harder to find and buy the Vampire Cowl. Although the number of skeletons resurrected at the start of the scenario will be low, the Vampire Cowl's bonus will stack on top of the Necromancy Amplifier. In other words, the Vampire Cowl will enable you to obtain more resurrected skeletons in the long term.

The scenario begins with two pre-set heroes: Vidomina the necromancer and Vokial the death knight. Both start with Expert Necromancy, which enables them to raise 30% of fallen troops as skeletons.

Vidomina's innate hero skill is Necromancy which grants a 5% bonus to her Expert Necromancy efficiency per hero level. So if Vidomina becomes a level 10 necromancer, her total Necromacy skill will be:

Expert Necromancy: 30%
Innate Necromancy: 15%
Necromancy Amplifier: 10%
Vampire's Cowl: 10%

Total: 65% of fallen enemies raised as skeletons

You may be wondering why her innate Necromancy skill only grants a 15% bonus. If Vidomina is Level 10, shouldn't the skill be 50%? Actually, the innate Necromancy skill only affects the efficiency of Expert Necromancy, not the percentage of fallen enemy troops raised. Since Expert Necromancy raises 30% of fallen enemies, then 50% of 30% is 15%.

Think about how broken the skill would be without this limitation. After gaining a few levels, Vidomina would be able to raise 100% of fallen enemies!

This scenario also marks the return of Sandro the lich. The cause of his imprisonment will be made clear in the second Heroes III expansion The Shadow of Death. Sandro can be found along with a number of high level necropolis troops in a rocky canyon along the western edge of the map.

Yes, I know that Sandro previously helped Team Catherine free the griffins. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, that was clearly Sandro's doppelganger from Earth-2 named Sandra.

The more I play these campaigns, the more I'm shocked by the stupidity of the necromancers' master plan. Perhaps King Gryphonheart retained a sliver of humanity and actively worked to sabotage Deyja from the inside. Yeah... that's probably it.

We are told that 2,500 skeletons will give Deyja an unstoppable army to conquer Erathia. Really? Why not 2,500 bone dragons?

In the process of obtaining 2,500 skeletons, I've had to transform strong pikemen, archers, centaurs, and elves into puny skeletons with the Skeleton Transformer. Even worse, in order to meet my quota on time, I had to transform vampires, wights, and liches as well! Don't you think those creatures would have been more effective on the battlefield than skeletons?

It's counterproductive to instruct a general to raise an army comprised of only the weakest possible units. All Erathia would have to do is cast the Implosion spell a few times and the skeletons are gone.

As we'll see in the next scenario, the necromancers aren't just incompetent when it comes to war strategy. They also take criticism very personally. When one of their own decides to pull out of the war, they waste precious troops killing their fellow undead.

The Death Of Finneas Vilmar

Finneas Vilmar decides to resurrect King Gryphonheart all by himself. Bad move.

Brimming with unholy strength, the undead King Gryphonheart seizes Finneas Vilmar by the neck and destroys him.

Well, on to the scenarios!

Upon completion of A Gryphon's Heart, the campaign offers two scenarios for you to choose. In Season of Harvest, your goal is to raise an army for the invasion of Erathia. You must obtain 2,500 skeletons within 3 months.

The other scenario is Corporeal Punishment. There is a death knight named Mot who believes it's a bad idea to invade Erathia and has been quite vocal about it. In other words, Mot is the only person in Deyja with common sense. King Gryphonheart orders you to destroy him.

Once again, the heroes from these scenarios don't carry over to the finale. So there's really no reason to waste time building up their stats and skills. Just complete the scenario objective and move on.

I'm going to start with Season of Harvest because it's the easier of the two scenarios. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Gryphon's Heart

Since the heroes don't carry over from scenario to scenario in this campaign, there's no need to spend extra effort improving your hero's stats. Speed is the key to the mission.

In A Gryphon's Heart, the necromancers decide to retrieve the body of King Gryphonheart and raise him from the dead. To do so, they must bring an artifact called the Spirit of Oppression to the Erathian castle in the center of the map within three months.

Three months may sound like a lot of time for such a small map. But in reality, the timing can be tricky if you're not sure what you're doing.

The scenario begins with three starting bonuses: a Skeleton Transformer, a Death Ripple scroll, and a Death Knight. The best choice here is to select the Death Ripple scroll. Having a Death Ripple spell in hand will allow you to quickly destroy enemies (without harming your undead troops). You can then harvest their bodies with your Necromancy skill.

Finding the Spirit of Oppression requires three fetch quests. First, you have to find the Pendant of Total Recall in the southwest corner of the underground map. The area is guarded by zealots, which are high level shooters.

Once you have the Pendant of Total Recall, trade it for the Hourglass of the Evil Hour at the tree-shaped seer hut along the route to the underground tunnel. You can then trade the Hourglass for a Pendant of Dispassion at the mushroom-shaped seer hut near the Marletto Tower in the northeastern corner of the underground map. Finally, trade the Pendant of Dispassion for the Spirit of Oppression at the thatched seer hut on the cursed ground near the garrison.

The final battle against the Castle hero will be easy if you've built up a strong army at your necropolis. In my game, I fought against Loynis the cleric. I'm not sure if Loynis is always the defender of Stonecastle or if the game selects a knight/cleric at random. In any case, Loynis' constantly used the Prayer spell on his marksmen.

My skeletons and zombies were too slow to effectively fight against Loynis' troops. In the end, I split my vampire lords into multiple stacks and used them to surround the marksmen. Vampire lords have the annoying ability to steal HP and rise from the dead whenever they attack a weak enemy. By preventing the marksmen from shooting, I bought the skeletons extra time to reach Loynis' ground troops and cut them to pieces.