Contemporary Graphics Accelerators in Might and Magic Heroes VI

This legendary sequel has undergone a number of modifications and reincarnations, but one thing remains the same: everyone is impatiently looking forward to the new round of this strategy game. This year we will be enjoying Might & Magic Heroes VI and, trust me, you will need a good graphics card for that.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
10/31/2011 | 09:10 AM

Every book has an introduction and every story a beginning. The legendary Heroes of Might and Magic series traces its origin back to 1986 when a previously unknown company New World Computing developed its Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum. The game offered what seemed like unlimited opportunities by the standards of that time: as many as six hero classes, five races and three alignments. The economic model included multiple resources like gems, gold and food. All of this laid the foundation for the subsequent games Jon Van Caneghem contributed to. The first game wasn’t a Heroes adventure, though.

 

 

 

Caneghem’s King’s Bounty, released in 1990, became the very first turn-based strategy. It told the story of King Maximus on his quest for a legendary artifact. The problem was that the location of the artifact was marked on an ancient map, parts of which were in the possession of evil guys. The game offered two play modes: a strategic map for travelling and a tactical map for resolving conflicts in a battle.

 

 

The two mentioned projects were finally merged into a single whole in 1995 in the turn-based strategy Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest. Its plot links the various parts of the original Might and Magic series into a single story about the aristocratic family of Ironfist who was to found the new kingdom of Enroth. The Heroes was only meant to be a complementary game for the main series but gamers demanded a sequel. The release of HoMM II: The Succession Wars marked the origin of a new series.

 

  

The peak of its popularity fell on the third part called Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia. Released 12 years ago, the game still makes an entertaining pastime for loyal fans of the series. Its beautiful visuals, engaging plot, optimized balance and excellent multiplayer mechanics remain unsurpassed even now. Intended as the next hit, Heroes of Might and Magic IV was too buggy, lacked balance and had too high system requirements for the general public to appreciate its plot and 3D visuals. That was a failure. The rights to the series were sold to the publisher Ubisoft a few years later.

 

 

One of the world’s major publishers and developers of video games contracted Nival Interactive to create a completely new project. HoMM V ushered in a new game universe and received a rather ambiguous welcome. On one hand, its music and 3D visuals were splendid and contributed to a picturesque fantasy world but the multiplayer, enemy AI and simplified battle mechanics were far from perfect. Some of the shortcomings were eliminated with two add-ons, yet it is the next title in the series that is expected to contend for the title of the best turn-based strategy ever.

Closer Look at Might & Magic Heroes VI

Ubisoft, the rights holder and publisher of the Might & Magic series, preferred the Hungary-based Black Hole Entertainment to Nival Interactive as the developer. The result turns out to be a milestone in the series, if not a completely original game.

 

 

You can note that even the game’s official name has changed somewhat. Although the developers claim to have followed the traditions of the series, this is not easy to see. The selection of resources has been shrunk to only four basic ones (gold, wood, ore and crystals) but this is not going to make the game easier to play. You still need many heroes to gather required resources as soon as possible and you’re always going to be short of something.

 

 

City development has changed significantly, too. You won’t find a magic guild among the buildings of Might & Magic Heroes VI. Magic talents can only be acquired in the hero development menu. Heroes belong to two classes: mage and warrior, but you won’t feel the difference between them until they are level 15. In fact, they only differ in the skills they gain when leveling up and in the availability of super spells or melee tricks in the third-level abilities.

 

 

The plot of the 6th installment is about such basic things as honor, duty, betrayal, love and fate. Fate is a key concept of the Might and Magic universe which is in the state of precarious balance, living through repetitive cycles. Once each four centuries demons can invade the world of the living and get rid of the curse of their dungeon. The game unfolds during the second demon invasion and 400 years prior to the third one, described in Heroes of Might & Magic V.

 

 

It is the ducal family of Griffin that play the key parts in the story. The heirs of Duke Slava of Griffin find themselves in different parts of the Ashan world. His five children control the five castles available in the game: Anton is responsible for his father’s heritage and the castle of Haven; Anastasya, supposedly the killer of her own father, heads the necromancer stronghold of Necropolis, Kiril betrayed his family while trying to help an angel and get rid of the voices in his head and was lured into Inferno, Sandor, keeps friends with the orcs of Stronghold and Irina is responsible for Sanctuary.

 

 

As promised by the authors, the game features a lot of innovations. We liked the boss battle mode, for example. The previous parts of the series used to throw a huge army of foes at you at the end of each campaign or quest, but now you can face a single fallen angle. The problem is that he’s got about two thousand hit points, so the battle isn’t going to be easy anyway. The opportunity to convert conquered enemy cities to your race, a hero reputation system and dynastic weapons can also be mentioned.

 

 

It would take very long to describe each innovation. The game is complex, so you can spend months just reading the stories and dialogues in it. Some missions may turn out to be too difficult even at low difficulty settings, especially as wrong actions during the first weeks into a scenario will eventually show up and make you replay it. Well, it’s just like the good old Heroes but somewhat different. The game is worth playing, but let’s see if you can enjoy it comfortably on your current hardware.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to test the graphics cards performance in Might & Magic Heroes VI using the following universal testbed:

We used the following ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers:

The ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

The image quality in the game was set to the maximum.

The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We ran our tests in the following multimedia resolutions: 1600x900, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600.

Here are the cards that participated in our today’s test session.

Premium Category

Performance Category

Mainstream Category

We measured the average and minimum performance using Fraps utility version 3.4.6. Each test scenario was repeated three times and the average value of the three runs was taken for the analysis, as always.

The test run included all major components of the Might & Magic Heroes VI gaming process: small scripted scene using the gaming engine, panoramic view of a partially built castle, main character’s run across the scene and traditional combat scene in battle mode.

Performance

Premium Category

The multi-GPU solutions from AMD and Nvidia cannot yet benefit from their architecture here. Notwithstanding the latest drivers, they only use one GPU to run the game. This concerns the Radeon HD 6990, GeForce GTX 590 as well as any CrossFireX or SLI configuration. Hopefully, the GPU developers won’t forget about Heroes and will optimize their solutions for it just as they do for Battlefield 3 and Rage.

The single-chip AMD Radeon HD 6970 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 have very close results. Either of them allows using the highest graphics quality settings you can choose, including a resolution up to 2560x1600 pixels.

Performance Category

AMD's performance-class solutions seem to cope with Might & Magic Heroes VI better than their Nvidia counterparts. Considering the price difference, the Radeon HD 6950 comes out the winner of the race, closely followed by the more expensive GeForce GTX 570. Both cards are a good choice for playing the game irrespective of your monitor’s capabilities.

As for the next pair of fighters – Radeon HD 6870 vs. GeForce GTX 560 Ti – the former is cheaper whereas the latter features a newer GPU architecture. Despite these differences, the results are very close. The most affordable product in this category, Radeon HD 6850, isn't far behind, either. Although it can't challenge the faster solutions, it delivers a playable frame rate at any resolution up to 2560x1600.

Mainstream Category

AMD’s mainstream products have improved after the rebranding. We’ve got a clear winner here, which is the more surprising as the Radeon HD 6770 is based on a GPU architecture developed back in 2009. It is in fact the single graphics card in this category which copes with the game at 2560x1600. The Radeon HD 6750 and the GeForce GTX 550 Ti share second place.

The most affordable solutions in this review, Radeon HD 6670 and GeForce GT 545 DDR3, can notch 30 fps in Might & Magic Heroes IV but do not deliver a playable frame rate at the highest resolutions. And if you’ve got a GeForce GT 530-like graphics card, you will have to compromise in terms of graphics quality. This card can only give you 20 fps even at the lowest of the tested resolutions. By the way, the game would quit to the desktop when we tried to benchmark the GeForce GT 530 at 2560x1600, but such an entry-level card cannot be really rebuked for that.

Image Quality Tests

Although the turn-based strategy genre has never been very hard on graphics hardware, there have been certain exceptions recently. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Civilization V turned out to be very heavy for affordable graphics cards. Might & Magic Heroes IV is yet another proof that strategies can be visually advanced.

The game offers some setup flexibility to help you enjoy a comfortable playing experience on your particular system. What about CPUs? When beta-testing the game, the developers warned us that a really fast CPU would be necessary for smooth gameplay. Let’s check this out.

 

As you can see, the average frame rate varies depending on what's going on in the game. Even fast cards like Radeon HD 6950 or GeForce GTX 560 Ti cannot keep it above 60 fps when there are full armies on both sides of the battlefield. Fortunately, the actions of the units look smooth enough even at 35-40 fps and the game doesn't look jerky. This is a turn-based strategy rather than a 3D shooter, after all, so any speed above 30 fps is acceptable.

The game’s engine cannot run on multiple CPU cores in parallel, so the number of CPU cores has no effect on performance. It is the CPU clock rate that’s the more important factor even at the highest graphics quality settings, which may be an unpleasant surprise for notebook users.

 

Switching to the average graphics settings boosts the frame rate by 30-35%. Unfortunately, the extra speed comes at the expense of quality. The quality of shadows, in particular, differs greatly from the High profile. Textures become blurred, too. The difference between the two modes is especially conspicuous when you zoom in and cast magical spells with all of their special effects. So, such settings can make a good alternative for owners of rather slow graphics cards, but you shouldn’t switch to it if your card is fast. The game's visuals are beautiful and should be enjoyed at the High settings.

Having a faster CPU is even more beneficial here. The extra 700 MHz of clock rate adds a substantial 10% to the frame rate at the Medium settings. If you feel your system lacks just a few frames per second, you may want to overclock your CPU and only then think about upgrading your graphics card.

 

We don’t think there will be many users who will dare pass Might & Magic Heroes VI at the Low settings. The game looks downright shabby with most of its special effects and image enhancements turned off. The square blurry shadows and faded textures cannot be made up for by the 10-12% increase in frame rate from switching to the Low settings.

The faster CPU ensures a 20% performance boost to the game at the Low settings.

Conclusion

Most of the tested graphics cards have performed very well in Might & Magic Heroes VI.

However, you should keep it in mind that the game doesn’t support full-screen antialiasing, which helped some of the cards avoid a fiasco. Of course, you can try forcing MLAA for AMD cards or FXAA for Nvidia ones, but that wouldn’t be out-of-box experience. That’s not the only problem, though.

AMD and Nvidia will surely update their drivers soon but right now their multi-GPU solutions are not compatible with that game. On the other hand, the Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590 do not have any problems in terms of performance or visual quality, even though they cannot use more than one GPU to run the game.

As a matter of fact, there is no reason to spend more money than the cost of a Radeon HD 6950 to enjoy Might & Magic Heroes VI fully even if you’ve got a 2560x1600 monitor. Nvidia's GeForce GTX 570 and GeForce GTX 560 Ti can make worthy alternatives depending on your budget.

The Radeon HD 6770 can be recommended as an even cheaper alternative. It lacks any opponents in the mainstream category notwithstanding its outdated architecture.

The image quality and your playing experience may only suffer if you use something worse than a Radeon HD 6750 or GeForce GTX 550 Ti to play the game.

As for the CPU requirements, the game developers seem to have never heard about multithreaded computing. Might & Magic Heroes VI cannot use multiple CPU cores, so you need to have a CPU with a high clock rate. If you need improve the game’s frame rate a little, you may want to overclock your CPU.

When it comes to the gameplay, the plot and the campaigns can be praised for keeping in touch with the earlier games of the series, yet you may find them somewhat monotonous. The process of developing your hero doesn’t vary much from castle to castle. Gamers would often argue whose hero or castle looked better in the times of Heroes of Might & Magic III, but we don’t think such an argument can take place with respect to HoMM VI. Of course, it’s hard to be fresh, new and revolutionary while staying within the limits of tradition and catering to hardcore fans who know every little detail about their favorite game series, but we’ve got a feeling that the developers haven’t carried through quite a lot of their ideas.

Well, Heroes of Might & Magic V also looked too innovative in its own time, but gamers came to love it eventually. The new installment can already give you a nice déjà vu feeling and may even get better with upcoming add-ons.