I’m honestly not sure where to start with Legendary Heroes. It’s no less than the third iteration of a game born in an environment of extreme mediocrity: Stardock Corporation, they of incredibly bland 4X1 ‘em up Galactic Civilizations fame. The original Elemental was savaged on release for being both unfinished and terrible; that Stardock keep trying to make the concept work probably has less to do with their faith in that concept than it does the Elemental series being the CEO’s pet project. Still, Stardock have persevered, and for the second and third games they hired one Derek “Kael” Paxton as their lead designer. Kael is the man responsible for the popular Fall From Heaven mod for Civilization 4 which I played five or six years ago and liked very much, not least because it let me cover an entire continent with monuments to Cthulu. He clearly had some promising ideas and a talent for game design, and I wanted to see if any of this had managed to bleed through into Legendary Heroes.
As it turns out, sadly, what you get when you combine Stardock’s trademark blandness with Kael’s promising ideas is a bland game with some promising ideas. Legendary Heroes is a spectacularly characterless game, utterly devoid of any hint of personality or place, and after six hours spent playing through a single-player game I would genuinely struggle to name a single memorable moment as I slogged to the end. The Elemental series is trying to do the Master of Magic/Age of Wonders thing, where you’ve got your usual 4X cities and armies and tech trees, but also heroes and monsters and magic spells; when your armies encounter an enemy the action shifts to a turn-based tactical battle where you can outmanever the enemy and blast them with spells. I’ve enjoyed just about every single game I’ve played that’s tried to take elements of this formula and run with them, and yet Legendary Heroes leaves me absolutely cold.
I’ve spent some time trying to figure out the reason for this. Why does Legendary Heroes end up being quite as dull as it is? It’s an unexpected outcome, especially since it does one or two things I’ve long thought strategy games should try, and after casting around my previous experience of 4X titles for elements that elicited a similar feeling I alighted on a rather unlikely game in my search for an explanation: Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is one of my favourite games ever, but even I’ll admit it isn’t perfect; the voxel graphics were rather ugly even at the time, while the generic snap-together modules of the unit design system ensured that every single unit looked exactly the same. In Alpha Centauri’s case the absolutely huge effort the game goes to in order to build a sense of place — your interactions with faction leaders, the voiceover snippets every time you research a technology or construct a building, and the tremendous Secret Project videos that have yet to be bettered — allows your imagination to bridge that hefty shortfall between the reality of what’s being displayed on screen and what the game would like you to believe is happening. It’s one of the best attempts at world-building that’s ever been made, and it’s one of the primary reasons Alpha Centauri is remembered as a classic today.
Legendary Heroes shares a few of these shortcomings with Alpha Centauri. It is startlingly ugly, with 2004-era graphics that all the stylised rendering in the world can’t hide. The visual design is shockingly bad, to the point where you can’t tell the difference between a hill and a plain without mousing over it. Even the maps look dated; one of Legendary Heroes’ nice ideas is that when you zoom out the detail disappears and the look of the world segues into a proper parchment map style – except because Elemental uses square tiles instead of hexes all the landmasses look unnatural and wrong. Every single playable race in the game is some variant of human, presumably because non-human races would have required a whole new set of art and animations. Legendary Heroes looks and feels like a game made on a budget (despite retailing for nowhere near budget prices) and it really needed to make the same effort at world-building that Alpha Centauri made in order to paper over the gaps in its shoddy construction. And yet despite the Elemental series apparently having a detailed backstory (c.f. the tie-in novel mentioned above) there is no attempt made to communicate any of this to the player beyond badly written unit blurbs that you’ll never read because they’re so terrible. When you build a wonder there’s no acknowledgement of this beyond a popup message, and nothing telling you why the wonder is so great. When you build a building your city visibly expands on the map, which I liked, but the buildings don’t have recognizable silhouettes or icons which reduces them to just the bonus they confer on the city that built it. The general attitude seems to be one of “Okay, here’s a bunch of stuff, now lets knock off for lunch,” like they thought it would simply be enough to go down the 4X checklist and once they reached the end of it they’d have a game. That’s probably not what actually happened, but that’s what it feels like. For whatever reason Legendary Heroes doesn’t feel like it has a reason for existing – no core idea or vision that the game is based around – beyond somebody at Stardock being convinced that maybe Elemental will work this time if they just take another swing at it.
I think this is why Legendary Heroes feels like 4X by the numbers despite doing several interesting things in terms of mechanics. I appreciated the ability to flatten mountains with spells so that my armies could reach their targets, and I really think the unit design system could go somewhere if whoever was in charge of implementing it gave the tiniest iota of a shit about its final outcome in the tactical battles. The way it works is that you start with a bunch of unarmed chumps, hand them a sword, stick some plate armour on them and maybe give them a horse and boom, you’ve got some cavalry. Or if you want an archer, give them leather armour and a bow. Heavily armoured foot troops? Leave the horse, give them a shield and a warhammer. You can’t equip your soldiers with better items until you’ve completed the relevant research and have an appropriate quantity of raw resources to hand – horses are artificially scarce in the world of Elemental to stop you from making everything into cavalry – which I thought was a nice spin on technological advances: better tech does not immediately translate to better units, just the potential for better equipment. Tech also unlocks new items for your heroes and increased army sizes, and I really like that it expands your options rather than completely changing the status quo.
Or at least it would if anyone had thought through the tactical combat, like, at all. The question I immediately asked upon seeing what they’d done with the unit design was “Okay, so what’s to stop me from putting my archers in plate armour?” In theory, two things. First is that plate armour requires metal which must be harvested from the relevant resource nodes – however, metal mines unlock early and plate armour unlocks late. By the time this becomes an option you have so much stockpiled metal that you can build several armies’ worth of plate-clad troops before running out, and as such it’s a complete non-factor. Second, and more importantly, heavier armour and hittier weapons lower a units initiative value. Everyone in the tactical combat gets assigned a particular slot in the turn order based on their initiative value, and if you’re clad in full plate and lugging a massive warhammer everywhere you go you’re pretty much guaranteed to go last. This equates to troops wearing lighter armour getting what amounts to a free strike against troops wearing heavier stuff.
Now, the catch here, and what ultimately sabotages the entire thing, is that getting that free hit in doesn’t mean much when the whole reason you walk around wearing fifty pounds of metal strapped to your body is so that you can take a punch. The defense value of having plate armour more than cancels out the advantage of getting the first strike, and the nice thing about warhammers is that their Crushing Blow ability will likely one-shot any opponent. What would have been interesting is if a higher initiative meant a unit could take its turn more often than a unit with a lower one2, but as far as I can tell this is not the case. Higher initiative means you just go first, and that’s an advantage that’s all but worthless.
This is why most tactical battles consisted of me walking my plate troops up to a lightly armoured enemy while their attacks plinked off the armour and then burying a variety of brutal mauls in their skulls. The computer doesn’t seem to care about armour that much, and so unless they had a champion who could spice things up with magic spells every single battle was a braindead walkover. There was the odd pack of mighty beasts lurking on the map who managed to inflict some damage, but Crushing Blow is such a ludicrously overpowered ability that all they got was their one attack before being bludgeoned to death. Even the end boss (and yes, there is an end boss in Legendary Heroes, weird as it sounds) didn’t finish channelling whatever spell he was casting on turn one before my wolf cavalry beat his brains in. Admittedly I was only playing on a medium difficulty setting but the fact that bigger does automatically equal better in this game rather undoes the promising work done with the tech tree and unit design; the structure is there, but there’s no payoff. As a result tactical battles are dull, unit design ends up being dull, and Legendary Heroes as a whole is dull, dull, dull.
I don’t know how many more chances I want to give Stardock. There are a staggering number of missed opportunities in Legendary Heroes, from quests to heroes to the tactical battles, and where I feel another developer might have taken the time and effort to tinker with the game until everything worked together quite nicely Stardock don’t really seem to have that drive. Even for them, this is surprising. The original Elemental must have been astoundingly bad in order for this bland mess of amorphous mediocrity to be an improvement; the point of iterating over a series like Elemental is that you can gradually improve and polish a flawed but promising product until it shines, yet for the third title in a franchise Legendary Heroes feels half-baked at best
- The term “4X” comes from “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”, which was no doubt dreamed up by some bored marketing drone to save them the trouble of having to write “It’s like Civilization” in all the promo material. ↩
- This would probably tip the scales too far in the other direction and allow fast units to do hit and run attacks while staying out of melee range, but I have faith that it could be balanced with a bit a thought. ↩