Monday, January 22, 2007

Fall from Heaven 2: Electric Boogaloo

I bet you thought you were done reading posts about Civilization IV, weren't you? Dream on!

I can confidently say that Civ IV has been my favorite PC game for a while. The replayability, the polish, the sterling design all combine to make an addictive package. I think one of the things I like best about the game is that it is so big that you can only focus on a handful of aspects in any given game. The first several times I played, religion was sort of an afterthought; I would try to found one if I could, but never found much use for it. Then I had a game where I deliberately set out to found as many religions as I could, and spread my state religion throughout the world, and found that I was suddenly playing what felt like a very different game. Not only was the way religion worked itself interesting, it also impacted other aspects of the game in unexpected ways - for the first time, I was able to have good relations with a majority of my opponents before Free Religion, and could keep an eye on what was happening across the world without needing to maintain an expeditionary force or expensive colonies.

While all this has been entertaining, Civ IV has gone the cycle of other games with longer and longer intervals between plays. Warlords was a great expansion and brought me back into the fold for a while, but it just wasn't grabbing me as much as it it did a year and a half ago.

That has changed.

I have rekindled my love of Civ IV, and my destruction will be the result.

It all started innocently enough, when I decided to finally try one of the user-created mods. I downloaded and installed a mod called "Fall from Heaven 2", which is regularly mentioned on Civ Fanatics. I started playing and, well, let's just say that I didn't really have a weekend.

I really want to geek out on this, but part of the joy I've had with this mod has been exploring it and figuring stuff out. So, weird though it is, I'm going to be using the "spoilers" tag in this post... first some general talk about what I think of the mod, then specific information about what playing it has been like.

So, first, for the general: the highest praise that I can give for this mod is that it feels professionally done. The quality is so high that I can imagine it being sold for $30 and people snapping it up. Not only is the game itself amazingly fun (more on that later), but it has the same level of polish that you would expect from Firaxis: gorgeous custom art, custom music, a revamped UI, all the bells and whistles you could hope for. I loved playing user scenarios in Civ II, but could never forget that I was playing a user mod because of all the artifacts from the "real" game that would keep cropping up. I don't get that in Fall from Heaven, and can easily lose myself in the world they've created.

This isn't a scenario, but a mod. What's the difference? A scenario is more focused, usually dropping you in the middle of the action with cities and units on a specialized map, and featuring a constrained set of goals. A mod is a conversion of the whole game, and is played out in a more open-ended fashion. In a scenario, there are only a few viable paths for any given civ to pursue, and your success depends on how well you execute your pursuit; in a mod, all doors are open to you, and your success depends on the path you choose.

The mod contains some of the things you would expect to find in any user-created mod. They've modified the tech tree, added new units, added new civics, and in other ways tinkered with the contents of "vanilla" civ. Fall from Heaven sets itself apart from the pack in the way they execute on these things. The units are gorgeous, wholly original, fitting perfectly into the terrain, and are animated! It's pretty amazing to see a giant spider scuttling through a forest. Everything is very well thought through as well. There are new promotions and new units and new unit classes, and everything fits together well... units have the sorts of promotions you expect they ought to have, and their new special abilities are offset with new promotions designed to counter them.

If all that Fall from Heaven offered was these enhancements, it would still be a darn entertaining diversion. What puts it on another level, though are the ways they've modified the game itself. I'm sticking this below the "mini spoilers" section below. If what you've read so far has gotten you to the point where you're ready to play, here are the links for you.
First of all, download the mod. This is the latest patched version. Note that you only need Civilization IV to play, not Warlords.
You can also check out the forums. This mod doesn't really have its own website, but the forum has a great collection of FAQs, design information, and other useful information. You don't need to start reading before you play, but it's a great resource if you run into questions.
Finally, there's also a wiki. The information in it isn't complete, but what is there is generally easier to find than searching through the forums.

Two final tips before I go spoilery. First of all, while the Civilopedia has been updated for FfH, there are still some gaps. If you can't find the information you need in the civilopedia entry, try hovering over the option and reading "Sid's Tips", which will sometimes include what you need. If that fails, try the wiki or the forum, or just research/build/promote it and find out! Secondly, realize before you start that playing this will be like your first game of Civ IV, when you didn't understand how everything worked. Expect some confusion, surprises, and occasional frustration, followed by moments of pure bliss and excitement. Your first game probably won't be very successful, but try to learn as much as you can, and your next try will be that much better.

Now, on with the

One way to think of Civ IV is as a game of systems. There's a combat system, a religious system, a trade system, a diplomacy system. One of the most impressive parts of Fall from Heaven 2 is actually introducing a new system: the magic system.

Magic is one of the most confusing aspects of the mod, but once you start to get your head around it, it opens up an entire new game. It is an independent system that also impacts other areas, like resource management, trade, and combat. First of all, you gain access to magical sources, including Fire, Light, Chaos, Nature, and other good stuff. Then you can create special magical units (like Adepts) who tap those sources to learn spells. For example, if you have access to Fire, they can cast a Fireball; if you have Spirit, they can cast Courage.

It's the spells themselves that are the main point of the magic system, and they break apart from the normal civ game. Examples might be better than trying to explain it. If you have an adept with Nature, he can cast Treetop Defense. This gives all units in the same square the Treetop Defense promotion. As long as they stay within forests, they gain an extra 2 first strikes. If they ever leave the forests, they lose the promotion. On the other hand, the Fireball spell will spawn a Fireball unit, which strikes enemies and causes collateral damage.

So, how do Adepts learn spells? There are two ways that I know of. First of all, if you have access to 2 or more sources of a particular type of magic, they get those spells for free. If you have access to just 1 source of that magic, they can use a promotion to learn it.

Those of you who have played D&D are probably asking by now, "But how can Adepts gain enough levels to get the powerful spells? A Level 1 mage is incredibly weak." Yes, it is. But one of the brilliant parts of the mod is that Adepts will gradually gain XP without doing anything! This means that, for example, a healer will eventually be able to get the most powerful healing spells even without entering into combat.

Magic has been one of the most striking things I've run across so far in the game. The awesome thing is, I've barely scratched the surface. You can't train adepts until you're a decent portion into the game, and it takes time to level them up. From what I've seen, there are even more options available for magic. Adepts are generalists who can gradually learn and cast any type of magic. By contrast, there are cleric-type units who have access to fairly powerful spells associated with their religion. A player could eschew the time-consuming and complex process of training Adepts and instead field an army of mid-power magic wielders right off the bat, trading in long-term potential for immediate effect.

No only that, down the line, I'll be trading up my Adepts at some point. One option available to me will be creating Summoners, who can create summoned creatures who will fight for me for a time before disappearing. Best of all, some of those creatures (like Ifrit) can cast spells of their own! The possibilities are almost endless.

OK, I shouldn't let this post only be about magic. Let's move on and discuss some of the other cool things in the game.

One of the first things you'll notice when you start the game is that this game has now developed morality. Your very first choice will be whether to choose a leader who is Good, Neutral, or Evil. This has a big effect on diplomacy - two Good leaders are much more likely to develop close ties, while a Good and Evil player will edge towards conflict. Additionally, there are some options later in the game, like Civics, which can only be chosen by players of the appropriate alignment.

Fall from Heaven modifies some existing leader traits, and creates new ones. Some of these specifically fit new elements of the game; some leaders are Magic Resistant, and have a better chance of standing against magical enemies. Some are really interesting ideas that could fit into the main game as well. One of these is "Flexible", and allows you to actually modify your other traits every 100 years. (Think of how useful this could be. Early in the game you could be Creative and start building your borders immediately; later on you might switch to Philosophical while you try to get your Great Prophet and Academy, and in the end game you could switch to Financial and have an amazing economy.)

As a gamer, I really enjoy playing this mod because it's so much fun. As a programmer, I am repeatedly impressed at the skill of the modders in crafting this. One of the coolest things is the Sprawling trait. The big thing that this trait does is allow your cities to work the third ring of their cities. That means that, instead of 20 potentially workable city tiles, each city can work up to 36. To balance this, you can only build three cities. Any time you found a city, you have a choice: make it a "real" city, or make a "settlement". Settlements produce culture and can allow you to access special resources, but they can't build anything.

Anyways. My civ (the Kuriorates) are Sprawling, and it has been an amazing experience. Again, the coolest thing about Fall from Heaven is the ways in which it feels totally different from normal Civ. I'm finding that a bunch of my existing strategies just can't work with this trait, while at the same time it generates more possibilities than I ever had before. Best of all, the particular problems I need to resolve are unique to civs with this trait; my next game will probably be with someone else, and I'll be figuring things out again (though I'll have better insight in how to deal with the Kuriorates should I happen to run into them).

Another thing the Kuriorates have is access to a unique religion. Well, almost unique, but I'm one of only two civs who can found it. It's called Cult of the Dragon. Unlike a normal religion, there are no temples or priests. Instead, it spreads through cities like a disease. New units who are built in Cult-aligned cities have a slight chance of defecting to join my empire if they ever enter my cultural borders. And very late in the game, I'll be able to build a unique Dragon hero which looks like one of the most powerful units in the game.

Oh, I haven't talked about heroes yet? Let us rectify that.

You know how in Civ IV, you have buildings, and then you have wonders? You can build any building provided you have the prerequisites, but only one World Wonder can exist, and each country can only have one National Wonder. Well, Fall from Heaven extends the same idea to units. These special units are called Heroes, they are unique, and they are extremely powerful. Some of them are simply unique by technology... my favorite example so far is Typhoid Mary, who is buildable after you discover Alchemy. Others are unique by religion; only someone who follows Fellowship of Leaves can build Yvain the Wood Elf. Still others are unique by civilization; as the Kuriorates, I am the only civilization who can build Eurabatres the Gold Dragon.

So that describes the uniqueness. Where does the power come in? First of all, many of these units have special abilities that are rare or unavailable in other places. Typhoid Mary is a great example here - she can spread the Plague, a devastating negative effect that can kill a unit many turns after she attacked. Even the units without really cool abilities are still awesome, though. That's because, much like Adepts, Heroes automatically gain XP. Unlike Adepts, they gain it much more quickly - 1 point for every turn! If you've played vanilla Civ IV, you're probably salivating by now. These units will have the chance to become extraordinarily powerful and give you the chance to play with all the fun, interesting promotions that are extremely hard to come by. Best of all, your units can get those fun, interesting promotions BEFORE they need to be risked in battle.

(Side note: This fixes something I considered to be broken in vanilla Civ IV. I generally loved the siege warfare system, but units didn't gain XP from bombarding cities. As a result they couldn't level up and get the more powerful bombardment promotions unless they attacked units outright, which they were poorly suited for and almost always died. Doesn't it seems little bizarre that an army could shell city walls for thousands of years and never get any better at it?)

Despite all that gushing, the fact is I only have one Hero so far and haven't done much with it yet... I'm currently leveling it up to challenge a red dragon. Still, I love the idea. In some ways, I think that the Hero feature inverts the combat system of Civ IV. As I commented in an earlier blog post, to succeed at war in Civ IV, you need to build large armies and lose a lot of units in order to get the promotions for more powerful fighters. (This is in contrast to Civ II, etc., where you could be a generation ahead of your opponents, build one or two powerful units, and use them to conquer a continent.) Fall from Heaven moves the pendulum back towards focusing on a few powerful units. I think that in any war, your heroes will be the ones leading attacks against enemy cities, and only another hero or an awful lot of defenders will have a shot at slowing them down. The catch, of course, is that your opponents will have heroes of their own. I get the feeling that wars will be a lot more about supporting your most powerful units (with the help of sorcery, healers, etc.).

There's one more major thing I want to talk about before going into the specifics of my current game. That is the revamp of religion. I already briefly talked about Cult of the Dragon above, which is an interesting religion. There are also some other religions which operate more closely to the Civ IV model, but with special aspects of their own. Like Civ IV, they are founded by researching a particular technology. However, Civ IV went out of its way to avoid any religious controversy by making all the religions identical. Other than the name and music, there was absolutely no difference between Christianity, Taoism, and Hinduism; each was a means towards more gold and happiness. In Fall from Heaven, though, the religions are radically different from one another, and the choice you make will affect your entire strategy.

Once again, it's probably more helpful if I describe an example than if I try to talk about this generally. I founded the religion Octopus Overlords, which is awesome... it deliberately evokes the Cthulhu mythos. Right off the bat, switching to the religion turned my alignment from Good to Neutral; apparently it isn't very Good to send your citizens nightmare visions of Ancient Old Ones who rend their flesh in their sleep. The dominant themes of the Octopus Overlords are surrender of the will and oppression. I can sacrifice my warriors and turn them into The Drown, who are undead units that can walk on the water(!). Only those who follow Octopus Overlords can build Asylums, which in turn allow you to train Lunatics and boost your science. Similarly, only those who follow the Octopus can research Mind Stapling (hooray for the reference to Alpha Centauri!), which lets you adopt the Slavery civic. But wait! It's not quite the same as the Civ IV. Sure, you can still whip your population to finish production, but you can also capture actual slaves in your battles, and put them to work furthering your empire.

Hopefully that gives you the idea. The point is, Octopus Overlords has its own traits that makes it very different from other religions, and will have a decided impact on how you can pursue your goals. If you were interested in building up a powerful economy, you might choose Runes of Kilmorth instead. If you were interested in a religion that greatly helped your defense and would help you play a more isolationist game, Fellowship of Leaves would be the logical choice. I'm not too familiar with the later religions of The Order and The Ashen Veil, but I feel confident they provide similar choices and offsets.

Before jumping into actual spoilers, here's a quick rundown of complaints I have so far with the mod:
1. As mentioned above, it's sometimes hard to find help text, which is scattered between the Civilopedia, the item description, and Sid's Tips.
2. More of a wish-list thing, but I'd love it if they could do animated leaderheads and wonder videos. (It's pretty impressive that they've modified the religion videos.) The downside, of course, as that these would further increase an already-large 250-MB-ish download.
3. Better spawning of starting civs would be nice. I've figured out that in my current game of 6 civs, 4 were Good and another 2 were Neutral. I don't know if the mod authors can affect this, but it would be interesting to have more balance.

Those are really more quibbles than complaints. As it stands, the mod already feels more complete and polished than, say, Desert War did. Count me impressed. This mod will be giving me several more months of enjoyment out of Civ. I get the feeling it's probably even more impressive in multiplayer; I'm curious how well the AI knows to deal with the new features that have been added in the game.

Okay, now for a brief talk through some

I've already talked about a lot of specific things up above; hopefully they didn't spoil anything too severely. The balance I'm trying to strike in this post is between stuff they've done in the game system, versus specific cool things. That said, let's go on, and examine some of the things I love about this mod.

Ancient Temples are awesome. I couldn't figure out what they did, but went ahead and founded a city near one anyways. Now I know: after you discover Sanitation, you can have a Hunter explore the temple, which then generates an extra 7 gold per turn. Score!

Watchtowers. When I first stepped onto one, I just sort of stopped and went, "Wow". That's an amazingly cool feature. (It's a terrain feature which gives any unit that steps on it an amazing view radius of, like, six squares.)

The coming of the Red Dragon was really cool. At first I freaked out, because that city was really close by one of mine, and I was worried that it would destroy my empire. Fortunately it stayed put. I've had units fortified near it for, like, forever. Right now Saverous is levelling up to attack it. I can't wait to find out what the treasure trove is.

There's a surprising amount of humor, considering the subject matter of the mod. Some of it is pretty scattershot, but that adds to the charm... I appreciate the non-sequitor appeal of Guybrush Threepwood and Sir Not Appearing In This Game. And in a sick way, I love the screaming noises you keep hearing when the Octopus Overlords do something.

I'm curious how many more special events there will be, like the coming of the Red Dragon or the Axe. Too many could make it too scenario-ish, but at the same time, I love the special aspect of them. Yet another thing that pulls the game out of Civ IV-dom and into its own thing. Either way, the desire to find out is yet one more thing that'll keep me glued to the keyboard for hours more.

1 comment:

  1. Yea, I love it too.
    Actually I was really impressed by the remake of the version 1 they have included in the latest official expansion, just to find out there is already an even more sophisticated version out there. Hooray!
    Playing as Calabim (vampires) right now, the game is really different than with the elves I played before.
    One downside of the mod:
    AI doesn't seem to realize power of level-uped units and can't use them properly - so I can see this Hunter, level 6 just lurking around even when he should be killing my three warriors level 1 defending my city.