Those familiar with both Heroes of Might and Magic 2 (HoMM 2) and Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (HoMM 3) are aware of many changes made between the two installments. A lot of the advances concerned gameplay, certainly for the better. It was HoMM 3 that became the canonical one in the series. However, I’d like to argue that the adjustments actually went a lot deeper and touch serious anthropological points. The death of sacrum. Childhood’s end. The reality of myth replaced by the reality of politics and money.
The most obvious shift is in graphics, moving from the bright and fairy-tale tone of HoMM 2 to a more serious and realistic timbre of HoMM 3. Along with a darker and more realistic palette came more serious changes. In HoMM 2, the castles were strikingly imbalanced, with the Knight being the weakest, almost laughably so with his peasants and swordsmen, and the Warlock the strongest, with the Wizard hot on his heels. As in a fable, no one would expect the earthy knight to stand a chance against the supernatural. The forces of Might (Knight and Barbarian) pose little challenge to the forces of Magic (Sorceress, Warlock, Wizard and Necromancer), and the inhabitants of this universe accept this fact. However tragic and unfair, such is the reality of myth. HoMM 3 made everything egalitarian. All castles are roughly of the same power, maybe with Fortress being an underdog. But the cosmic imbalance, with its terror and unspoken promises, is gone. Whether a barbarian or a wizard, the world offers you equal opportunities and success depends only on your effort, not on destiny.
Also, notably, in HoMM 3 all creatures are upgradable, while in HoMM 2 this privilege was given only to select few (e.g. Warlock had only two upgradeable creatures, minotaurs and dragons). Now, what does this tell you?
In HoMM 2, the castles were named after the hero’s class – Knight, Sorceress etc. In HoMM 3, the castles are castle types: Stronghold, Dungeon, Rampart etc. The hero – the individual, the protagonist of myth, the focal point of archetypes – is no longer in the spotlight. His role is replaced by an abstract system – the city, with its social structures and faceless administrators. The charismatic Big Man of hunter-gatherers, the Homeric hero is needed no more. His role is reduced to that of a mercenary hired by whomever runs the castle’s affairs. In fact, each castle now hosts two types of heroes, one devoted to Might and the other to Magic (Knight and Cleric, Ranger and Druid etc.). In this egalitarian setting, different heroes are most likely expected to compete with one another for the statesmen’s favors.
Also, note how the economic and social functions were redistributed among different buildings. In HoMM 2, the castle was the sole axis of power, used for recruting troops, buying new buildings and hiring heroes. In HoMM 3, there is a division of labor. Castle is used only for recruiting creatures, new buildings are built at the town hall and heroes are hired in the tavern. It’s the town hall that’s visited most often by the player, not the castle. Military supremacy and a divine mandate for ruling, as exemplified by the central role of the castle, give way to the mercantile and political ways of the city hall.
A telling case study is what happened to the Warlock. Most of his old creatures were transferred to other castles – griffins domesticated by the Castle, gargoyles loaned to the Tower, centaurs stolen by the Rampart and hydras taken away to the Fortress. His new castle is now the Dungeon, home not to fantastic beasts, but to sneaky subterranean monsters. Where as HoMM 2 Warlock swayed the creatures by sorcery and personal mystique, the new Dungeon overlord is a corrupt administrator of the underground. He gathers his troops by force, coercing the troglodyte lords to send him recruits, and by cunning, greasing the palms of minotaur kings and elite manticore trainers. The black dragons, the most powerful creatures in HoMM 2, have been demoted to simply “another 7th level creatures”, powerful, but on a par with angels, titans or gold dragons of the Rampart.
A small but characteristic difference is the building that gives any passing hero 1000 experience points. In HoMM 2, the building was a gazebo inhabited by an old knight sharing his wisdom. Presumably it was just life experience gathered from his many adventures. Or maybe the old knight had heard it all in some other gazebo, whose inhabitant also had visited yet another gazebo, and so on? Stories within stories. The veracity of this “gazebo knowledge” could be dubious, especially if passed through so many intermediaries; the old knight could be rambling like a senile uncle. But the oral tradition continued, however flawed. HoMM 3 had no gazebo. Instead, there were impersonal “learning stones”, which simply impart 1000 xp to the hero. No need to reflect on that. Just continue to the next learning stone, all identical.
HoMM 2 had a number of cursed artifacts: The Fizbin of Misfortune (decreases your troops’ morale), Hideous Mask (neutral creatures will never join your army) and Tax Lien (lose 250 gold every turn). Once acquired, they were impossible to get rid of without dismissing or losing the hero carrying them (although The Price of Loyalty, the expansion pack, introduced the alchemist’s lab who could remove a cursed artifact for a fee). No explanations were given about the tax lien. Who issued it? Why do you have to pay? The player is put in the shoes of a medieval peaseant, for whom feudal obligations were akin to natural disasters. You don’t understand them and are not expected to, you just have to pay. You accidentaly find a jinxed “fizbin” that makes your soldiers despondent? Live with it, this is your tragic fate. HoMM 3 would have none of this nonsense. There are simply no cursed items. The concept of a cursed medal, the tragedy of having your face covered with a hideous mask, taxes of unknown origin – this is all alien to the world in which Overlords and Barbarians play high-stakes poker games, where Knights bribe Necromancers with sulphur to leave their realm alone, where even the lowliest creatures can be upgraded but somehow get lost in the bureaucratic cobweb and drink themselves to death with the Beastmaster’s booze…
The list could go on. Perhaps nothing illustrates the abandonment of the mythical more strikingly than what happened to the Sphinx. In HoMM 2 the legendary creature would ask the visiting hero a riddle, rewarding a correct answer with gold or artifacts and swallowing the unfortunate adventurer otherwise. There is no trace of the Sphinx in HoMM 3, lost is the sense of whimsy and mystery. In this world, where war is waged with war machines (ballista, first aid tent, anyone?), there is no place for Alice in Wonderland-style riddles. To use Max Weber’s expression, this is indeed die Entzauberung der Welt.
If you wanted to check out the gazebo… It has been dismantled. After the old knight’s death, the local ruler decided he needed some more wood for his personal chapel and ordered that the gazebo be taken apart.