by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Heroes of Might and Magic V; Rated Teen; PC & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or a long, breathless moment, the meadow is still and green. Then blue fire pours from the sky in a long, straight torrent onto the pointed steel helmets of my archers. They die instantly, victims of the priests who are congregated and chanting behind a pile of stones. As swift as arrows, my Cerberus packs -- the three-headed hounds of hell -- race across the field. They grab the priests and rip them into a trinity of pieces. Only a few remain alive, praying on the reddening grass. But then my foe's paladins gallop up with a reply of their own, running their lances through my dogs. My army is wasted; the battle is lost. I knew I should have brought along an extra squad of zombies.

In Heroes of Might and Magic V, I am an empire. In a land of dragons, pixies and insanely dancing leprechauns, I build my armies and annihilate my foes. In stately turns, I send my champions into the fiery underworld to draft imps for cannon fodder. At the dizzying tops of tree-towers, they hire slender elven archers for my back lines. They run busily from town to town, training troops while mottled patches of sunlight drift over the landscape at the speed of lazy clouds. Every detail is rendered in the saccharine, glossy colors of an exploded bag of Skittles candy. It's a treat to simply rotate the game's large, detailed 3D map so that I can see into forest groves and peer behind mountains while my heroes search for forces willing to die for me.

But the battles are the knife-edges of the game. Whether I'm fighting a pack of roving archangels or tackling my opponent's greatest army, all of the strategy and planning of my kingdom come down to a few swift turns. Some of the game's nuances are lost at this point. For example, 600 pitchfork-wielding peasants occupy the same space, and move with the same agility as six. But this simplification also hones the battles, making them feel like desperate matches of turbo chess. Their brutal simplicity reflects the fact that in war, each battle plays a formative role in determining the big picture. Heroes of Might and Magic V is that rare strategy game in which every activity -- from city-building to reconnaissance to the final sword-thrust of battle -- puts me in command of an epic war on all fronts.

THE GOOD: Turn-based games can be boring, so I'm happy the designers created cool-looking creatures, not just statistically detailed bad-asses. A lengthy and surprising single-player campaign also keeps things engaging, with each episode complex enough to sustain several play-throughs. The multiplayer options, both online and on the same computer, are almost limitless.

THE BAD: The designers created dozens of beautiful, distinct-looking creatures, but failed to honor all of those peculiarities. A teleporting demon should be able to warp out of a tangle of thorns, after all. The amount of geeky detail built into Heroes V calls for a little more intricacy in the battle engine.

THE BOTTOM LINE: More than any other current strategy game, Heroes of Might and Magic V makes each moment of gameplay part of a single, grand conflict.

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