Additions and improvements to the Heroes formula are almost non-existent.
The Might and Magic series has had its ups and downs over the years, with the series embodying such a mixed range of quality that you could spend hours on forums trying to work out which ones are worth playing. It’s ironic there is such a diversity amongst the franchise, especially when you consider that the role-playing/turn-based strategy hybrid gameplay hasn’t changed drastically over the past eighteen years. Shades of Darkness is the first stand alone expansion for 2011’s Heroes VI and, though it adds some cool new abilities and units, it’s unlikely to be a Heroes title that is remembered fondly.
The two new campaigns are the biggest addition in Shades of Darkness, comprising a second campaign for the Necropolis faction and a Dark Elf campaign. The addition of Dark Elf units adds the bulk of new tactical options to Shades of Darkness, especially when you take the assassin units’ stealth abilities into consideration. Much like the dungeon armies of old, the Dark Elf faction needs to use its quick attacks and cloaking to deal blitz damage early on, otherwise their weak defence can see them undone in longer skirmishes. Stealth is a surprisingly effective tool in the right hands, one that opens up more tactics than the usual “rush the enemy” strategy that bad players like me use so often.
Speaking of longer skirmishes. Both campaigns feature much bigger story maps than in vanilla Heroes VI. This becomes a problem though on account of Shades of Darkness’ habit of spawning infinite enemy armies your way. As individual levels clock up hours upon hours, you eventually get your army completely worn down by the cheating AI. This prompts a painful restart while you look for the quickest route through a level, often costing you hours of play time.
This kind of continuous AI cheating makes the free scenario mode a more appealing prospect than the campaign, doubly so when you consider how weak the writing is in Shades of Darkness. The original Heroes VI campaigns weren’t exactly a paradigm of scripting excellence, but the good guys were very good and the bad guys very heinous. Original it was not, but it at least knew what it was going for. In an attempt to make the evil factions of Heroes likeable, Shades of Darkness just comes off as confused, spouting weak character after weak character. As fun as the Dark Elves are to control, I never once enjoyed listening to what they had to say.
Even when you can get a good free scenario loaded up, the many glitches that plagued the original Heroes VI still remain in Shades of Darkness. Texture glitches abound regardless of your choice in GPU and, particularly for those who buy the expansion on Steam, there are a variety of known bugs that force a crash to desktop. Even if you buy the game direct from Uplay, there are many issues related to Conflux; Heroes VI’s online service you must sign in to. Granted, being logged on enables you to level up and gain legacy items across all game modes, but it also means a momentary drop in your internet will shoot you back out to the title screen without saving. Considering my internet has been a bit flaky lately, it made Shades of Darkness an absolute chore. No amount of cloud saves can make up for this kind of “always online” policy applying to the offline campaign modes.
On the off-chance a game plays out without any hiccups, Shades of Darkness can have its moments. Tense battles and big comebacks always put a smile on your face, especially when a lone stack of assassins takes down an enemy hero with clever uses of stealth. In spite of these moments, you never shake the feeling that very little effort has gone into this expansion. Unit and spell additions outside of the Dark Elf faction are minimal at best, and the production values have gotten worse since Heroes VI released in 2011. The bright colours of the Haven faction’s maps are replaced by dull greys and browns. Certainly this is in keeping with the darker tone of the campaigns but, when combined with the laughable voice acting, it just reeks of artistic laziness. Still, the game remains technically impressive, especially in regards to lighting.
Many out there lament the modern wave of DLC as little more than an exercise in money grabbing. Seeing Shades of Darkness described as an expansion reminded me of youthful days when buying expansion packs for classic PC games truly got you your moneys worth. Shades of Darkness is definitely in the camp of modern DLC, a minimal addition to an already mediocre game for a steep price. I loved playing as the Dark Elves and the Heroes formula remains enjoyable, but frustrating difficulty spikes and a severe lack of improvement elsewhere make this hard to recommend at the £20 RRP. If you really love Heroes of Might and Magic, just go back to Heroes 3 again.
This game was reviewed on the PC.