No recent game has enraged me more than Clash of Heroes. This is unfortunate because the core of it is actually very good; it’s just mired in one of the single worst metagames I can remember.
Clash of Heroes is a Puzzle Quest-alike (hey, remember that game? I do my best not to) whose unique selling point is that it doesn’t use a variation of Bejeweled’s match-three mechanic for its puzzle element. Instead it has something new – something original – which… okay, it involves matching three colours, but that particular paradigm has undergone such rampant mutation in CoH that it’s not at all recognisable as a Bejeweled descendent. The premise of it is that you’ve got two opposing armies made up of a grid of differently coloured unit types facing each other on a battlefield. You are the hero commanding one of these two armies. There are two move types you can make, and two only: you can either move the unit at the bottom of one column to the bottom of another column, or else you can remove a unit from anywhere in a grid. Using only these two action types (of which you get a base three per turn) your job is to match up either a column or a row of three units of the same type and colour.
Still sounds like Bejeweled, right? Well, that’s where the similarity ends, because Clash has far more in common with Magic: The Gathering than it does Bejeweled. When you match a column of three units the column doesn’t disappear or score points or anything like that. Instead the column will become “locked” – completely immovable – and a timer will appear next to it that counts down every turn. Once the timer reaches zero (and if the column is still alive) it will unleash an attack which batters through the opposing army’s ranks. If the attack gets to the back row of the enemy army then it will do the remainder of its damage directly to the enemy hero. You win by killing the enemy hero.
It’s fairly cut and dried stuff, but fortunately for CoH there’s a very deep system of mechanical finesse involved in how you construct your attacks. Matching a row of three merges units into a protective wall, which immediately moves the wall to the front rank of the army. This shunts other units backwards, and this movement can match other sets of three; matching two or more sets of three in a single move will get you bonus moves. Having a group of attacks of the same colour trigger on the same turn will “link” those attacks, giving them a boost to their attack power. Similarly managing to match a column of six units of the same type (and given that there is only room for six units in any given column this is quite difficult) will result in a single massively boosted attack that will inflict horrific damage on your opponent.
The variety and complexity of the moves you can make is therefore vastly increased, and the gameplay is expanded further by the different types of units available. The basic units are all much the same, with some attacking quicker but doing less damage and some vice versa, but they’re mainly for boosting other attacks and wearing down your opponent’s defences. The real hurt is dished out by your Elite and Champion units; these are units which take up two or four spaces on the grid (making it harder to construct an attacking combination around them) and which take anywhere from four to six turns to charge up their attack, but which hit like trucks when they finally do strike and which can often one-shot the opposing hero. Of course they get their own Elite and Champion units, and when they set up an attack with one your priority switches to building a giant wall in front of this super-unit and inflicting as much damage on it as possible (inflicted damage is deducted from the attack power of a charging unit) before it takes you out.
Everything in the puzzle part of Clash of Heroes is admirably well-thought out; the units, colours and moves all mesh together to produce something that is very tactically slick. If the puzzle was all Clash was I would probably like it a lot more than I actually do; if it were just a series of increasingly difficult challenges with multiplayer and time trials and so on it would have been a far easier game to swallow. Sadly these parts of the game are vestigial at best and the real meat of Clash is to be found in its campaign mode, which is utterly rancid.
The campaign storyline is predictably awful so I won’t go into that, but mechanically speaking they couldn’t have made something better calculated to irritate the crap out of me if they’d tried. In the campaign you progress along a series of nodes which form a path. Every so often there is a baddie on one of the nodes on this path, and you fight. There are chests full of money scattered around; these are essentially worthless because money can only be used to restock your supply of Elite and Champion units, which hardly ever die unless you’re being spectacularly careless. The path occasionally branches and you get to fight an optional baddie, but even this shallow attempt at non-linearity is utterly sabotaged by the levelling mechanic.
You see, your ability to win the battles – and thus your ability to progress – in Clash’s campaign has absolutely bugger all to do with how good you are at shifting units around. Instead it’s entirely dependent on how high a level you and your units have. A higher level means more HP and more damage, and the baddies are tuned so that you have to be at level X to have a real chance of beating them. If you’re underleveled then your attacks will be completely blunted on the tough enemy units, any damage that does make it through to the back row will take off a laughably low sliver of health, and once your opponent manages to make an attack it’ll probably take off half (or more) of your health since your hero’s max HP is tiny. This makes the campaign completely devoid of any kind of interesting challenge; either you are a high enough level to beat the enemy, in which case it will be almost embarrassingly easy, or else you are underlevelled and will be crushed repeatedly until you’ve ground out some more XP.
With this one stroke the levelling mechanic completely undoes the good work that went into the design of the puzzle game. I’d go so far as to say Clash of Heroes doesn’t just have a difficulty curve that’s badly-tuned; it rather has no difficulty curve, instead preferring to turn battles into a binary outcome that has nothing to do with how good you are at the game. There is a definite order to the battles, and if you do them in the correct order you will win them all. Attempt to deviate from this ordered progression and you’ll end up screaming at your computer monitor in short order because the game doesn’t give a fuck that what you are trying to do is pretty much impossible; it has no compunction about using its superior units to crush you mercilessly. It’s a “difficulty” mechanic which is often used in strategy games, but Clash isn’t a strategy game. It’s a puzzle game, and no matter the mechanical complexity the fact is that the basic scope of puzzle games is far, far too limited for Clash to get away with taking the same approach.
Playing the campaign is thus just a matter of going through the prescribed motions and there’s nothing else there to make me want to play it. Maybe this sort of thing appeals to some people. I don’t know. I play WoW on and off so I can’t really point fingers at people who enjoy what I perceive to be pointless, grindy activities. All I know is that once my enchantment with how well-designed the puzzle part was wore off (which was about halfway through the second chapter) I hated every second I spent in the campaign. It was just a series of repetitive battles that were either far too easy or far too hard. So be warned; there’s the seed of a good game in here, but the campaign smothers it in the choking effluent of lazy design and aside from a quick battle mode there’s no other single-player options. If you want your money’s worth from Clash of Heroes you’d better know someone else who owns it as well and who wants to play multiplayer. Otherwise you’re in for a dreadful time. A real shame.