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direction with the graphic look of the game. The Empire city, even in its undeveloped state, is a beautiful human town dominated by a spectacular fortress situated atop a high butte. As the player enters the city, they're treated to a spectacular tour in which the camera circles the high fortress, takes in the fortifications, the military mustering fields, and a spectacular sunset in the distance. As buildings get added to the town, the 3D models of buildings get upgraded and attached to older buildings. Even better, each of the buildings is fully interactive, meaning that, as in previous iterations, a player need only to click on a building in order to purchase troops, war machines, or utilize their special functions. The only down side is that because the screen is in 3D, rotating it to get access to a particular building can be a bit confusing.

Fortunately, Nival seems to have the player covered here, too. The game's user interface has been completely overhauled -- all to the better as far as I could see. The interface is simpler and built around a spoke-and-wheel design that's easily understandable, but takes up far less real estate on the screen than previous games. Players will be able to use on-screen arrow buttons to move through upgrade options and there's even a "city upgrade map" that players can use to plan out their civic improvements.
Simpler, however, should not mean less powerful. From what I could see, all of the necessary information a player needs to run his or her empire is available in the game, although much of it has been moved to tool tips and easily understood graphical icons. Nival has also removed all of the annoying popup screens that used to slow the game down by requiring the player to click "OK." If, for example, a player's hero picks up a pile of wood, a number and a wood symbol just floats up the screen and fades away. It's a small change, but one that's really noticeable as the time saved adds up in the game.

All that, of course, means nothing without great gameplay -- and this is where I'm most excited. If you asked me what my dream for the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise was, I would answer, "Heroes III, better graphics." While I wasn't able to delve as deeply into the game as I would have liked, my cursory gameplay experience tells me that that's exactly what Nival has delivered. The two tier unit production chart of Heroes IV is gone. Instead the team's gone back to the one unit/one building development chain of Heroes III. The two-tier system was a good idea, but it never seemed to work out in practice. Units will also be generated weekly rather than daily, which cuts down on the level of city micromanagement and provides a better natural flow to the game. The astrological "week of…" dynamic is also back. That means that players will once again see things like "week of the griffin" and try to take advantage of the increase in griffin production or "week of bad luck" and breathe a sigh of relief knowing their opponents won't attack when everybody's Luck has been halved.

Nival, of course, isn't just sitting on their hands and slavishly imitating Heroes III. As good as that game was, even its most die-hard fans admit that there were areas where it could be improved. One of those key areas is multiplayer. One of the biggest issues with turn-based multiplayer has always been that sitting around while the other player is moving is inherently boring. Civilization IV had to deal with this issue, and solved it via a system of simultaneous turns. Heroes V certainly could have taken this route and been a fun game. Nival however, is branching out in a new direction with multiplayer. Multiplayer sports something called "Ghost Mode," and while it's something of a risk, if it plays off it could be spectacular.

"Ghost Mode" kicks in when the other player is taking his or her turn. While in Ghost Mode, players will see a spectral blue version of the game board. The player will be able to move their character around the board, spy on other players, cast curses on enemy troops, mine gold, steal away neutral creatures, and just generally be a pest. The kicker is that all of these actions cost movement points which build up in real time. If your opponent takes a long time, you'll get a lot of movement points to screw with them. Wait too long, though, and your opponent will end his or her turn, causing you to lose your opportunity to take advantage of ghost mode. It gives an interesting sense of time-pressure and a whole new set of strategic considerations to the game. Not coincidentally, it also keeps multiplayer games moving at a brisk pace. Of course, some players will hate ghost mode -- seeing it as "cheating" -- so it'll be interesting to see whether or not the game will include the option to turn it off and how many players will choose to use it if they don't have to.

"Jumping the Shark" describes the moment when you know something awesome has crossed to the line into awfulness, that agonizing descent into suckiness that's claimed far too many TV shows, once-great bands, movie franchises, and of course, video game series. Once in a blue moon, however, something miraculous happens and what had jumped the shark manages to turn around and jump back. It's still too early to tell whether Heroes V will be that moment for the series, but, for the moment at least, all signs are positive. We'll find out when the game releases in March 2006.

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Thanks to ThE_HyDrA for creating and looking after the Heroes 5 section of Age of Heroes!