It’s difficult listing all the notable parts of HoMM II as it’s a game that hearkens back to a design philosophy that’s rarely found these days: depth through complexity. It’s also not considered the best entry in the series — that vote usually goes to HoMM III — but that’s partly why I wanted to give the second game a quick overview.
- HoMM II is a turn-based strategy game with 6 distinct factions. Each faction has its own town/castle type with a unique set of structures. Most of these serve the same purpose, namely purchasing creatures, but some buildings are unique to each faction.
- Gold and 6 different resources (wood, ore, mercury, sulfur, gems and crystals) are necessary to purchase and upgrade the various buildings and creatures.
- Heroes are recruited in towns/castles and are required to explore the overworld map and lead creatures into battle. Each hero starts off with a handful of creatures and the specializations of his faction, e.g., barbarians begin with a high attack rating and the pathfinding skill.
- Heroes can gain levels increasing their 4 basic stats, equip artifacts, learn magic spells, gain temporary bonuses and learn and master passive skills. Some of these can carry over through the game’s campaign(s), but even on small maps all these elements provide a steady stream of upgrades.
- Overworld maps contain a fog-of-war mechanic, come in a variety of sizes, and include an absolute plethora of objects. Some of these are purely aesthetic or used as collidable scenery, but others are integral to the gameplay.There are collectible goods (artifacts and resources), single-use locations (witch’s huts that teach passive skills and tombs that can be plundered), mines (gold/mineral dispensers that provide a set amount of goods in each turn), multi-use locations (teleporters and marketplaces where minerals can be traded), reusable locations (wells that refill magic points and special hotspots that grant a boost to luck/morale for the next battle), and re-fillable locations (creature recruitment centers and mills that can provide random resources every 7 turns).On top of these, terrain types also affect hero movement, and special-purpose locations such as password-protected gateways serve additional gameplay functions. All these objects provide an incentive for the player to explore as much land as possible, but — and maybe more importantly — also give him something to do in the areas he has already conquered.
- Obelisks that are scattered around the maps reveal a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Once fully exposed, this image shows the location of a secret and powerful artifact that can be dug out from the ground.
- Every 7 turns, towns/castles and creature dispensers get new recruits. However, once in a while a plague will strike and no new recruits will become available (worse yet, creatures that were previously available but were not purchased will shrink in numbers). Conversely, specific creatures can randomly experience a growth spurt. Whenever this happens, their base recruitment numbers will double, and stacks of these creatures will randomly appear on the overworld map.
- As a CD-based game, HoMM II includes a CD-Audio soundtrack, with an option to use a midi one. A third alternative also exists which uses the CD-Audio with operatic vocals layered on top, giving the game a very distinct score.
- The actual combat of HoMM II is also turn based, with each creature taking its turn based on its speed statistic. The heroes don’t attack directly (aside from casting spells), but their statistics are also appended to those of the creatures, effectively boosting their performance. A lot of the creatures also have unique abilities such as infinite counterattacks, recharging hit points, a chance to cancel magical attacks, etc. Unlike the sequels, HoMM II doesn’t clearly inform the player of these abilities and it takes a lot of practice to get familiar with them.
- Magic plays a crucial part in the overall gameplay, both in combat and on the overworld map. Being able to scout ahead and teleport around the playing field, or boosting your strongest units while damaging entrenched archers, is vital to the player’s success.
HoMM II has a very steep learning curve that’s practically unimaginable these days, but in many ways it’s this barrier and that makes it such an entertaining title. It might not be impeccably balanced for competitive play, but the sheer amount of variables that must be juggled at any given moment create an experience where the player is constantly adapting and strategizing.
With each move, an overabundance of options need to be weighed; immediate tactics have to be balanced with long term plans. The economy, map control, build orders, hero progression, proper use of units, etc., are all vital to coming out on the winning side, and each turn is different from the last.
The micromanagement of HoMM II gives Civilization a run for its money, but the upside to all these elements is that the game is practically filled with “emergent” gameplay. Creating map chokepoints, playing keepaway with AI heroes, slowly wearing down the opposition through superior use of resources, etc., all fall into a metagame that’s not immediately obvious — or even consciously designed — but one that’s created simply as a result of having so many ingredients in the pot.
It’s a methodology that’s largely avoided these days, but its end results are unique and very addictive.