Tuesday, May 05, 2009


It's been a while since I've chatted about Fall from Heaven 2. With good reason: it's been nearly a year since the last time I played it. I've been meaning to get back into it for months, though. Kael and the rest of the team released the final version of FFH2 back in December. It's hard to describe what an enormous achievement this is. So many big-money professional companies spend years on their games, only to end up releasing a rushed, sloppy product with many of the originally trumpeted features left on the cutting room floor. In contrast, Kael et al had a vision when they started this project, a very public release cycle with huge numbers of passionate beta testers, and shepherded through an incredible product that, I've decided, is even better than the original Civilization IV. In its final version, FFH2 not only has a breathtaking array of gameplay choices and many exciting new systems, but it also has a great deal of polish that elevates it to feel like a truly professional product.

I spent about 10 minutes just deciding which civ I would play as. This is always a big choice in Civ, but even more so in FFH2. Civ leaders confer some essentially tactical advantages - perhaps better defenders, a unique building, some extra commerce. In FFH2, you really are choosing an entirely different game each time. Thinking of the Lanun? Then you'll be playing "Kael's Pirates!", a swashbuckling escapade that will see you sailing up and down the coast, visiting pirate coves, battling it out on the high seas as you navigate a middle path between the forces of good and evil. How about the Kuriorates? You'll be playing a huge variation on Sim City, with a handful of sprawling metropolises (metropili?) that give you opportunities for building that no Civ player has had before. Or maybe you'll try the Balseraphs? Think of a nation full of variations on Heath Ledger's Joker and you have some idea of the combination of madness, glee, and evil that permeates that strange culture.

Feeling a little overwhelmed, I eventually settled on what seemed like a fairly conservative choice, the Khazad. They're one of the Dwarfish choices, and feature Neutral leaders, who I tend to prefer since they give more flexibility in your alliances. Between the two leaders, I chose the less military one, and ended up with the traits Industrious (much like its Civ IV counterpart, this boosts production speed for forges and wonders) and Organized (cheaper lighthouses and courthouses). I renamed the leader Kirion. Among many other features, FFH2 includes racial units, so I would be building Dwarvish warriors, Dwarvish scouts, and so on. These units would get access to certain Dwarf-specific advantages; for example, highly promoted units could eventually learn Repair, which can fix things like artillery units in the field. I also had to accept some limitations in return; the dwarves aren't great horseback riders, for example, and aren't terribly fond of magic, so I would be limited in how far I could advance along the arcane path. That was totally fine with me, though. I knew from earlier encounters with FFH2 that if I wanted to win I would need to decide pretty early on which path to victory I wanted to follow, then doggedly pursue it by neglecting the other cool systems. Magic is one of FFH2's most impressive systems, but it's also complicated and time-consuming, so I was content to take a break from it.

The Khazad also start with 50 gold, and I eventually learned why. Yet another unique feature of the Khazad is that each city comes with a Dwarven hoard. At first I thought this was primarily cosmetic, but it proves to have enormous tactical implications. See, as any fantasy reader will tell you, dwarves love gold. Love it! Can't get enough of it. Well, in the world of FFH2, your dwarven subjects will judge your aptitude as a leader by how much gold you are able to amass. This is done by taking the total amount of your treasury and dividing it by the number of cities you have. So, if you have 100 gold and a single city, then your city may have a "Stocked Dwarven Vault"; found a couple more cities, say you have 3 cities and a total of 150 gold, now each city only has 50 gold, which translates into a "Bare Dwarven Vault". Having too little gold makes your citizens unhappy and unproductive. In contrast, boosting your vault contents to "Abundant", "Full", "Overflowing" will provide a happiness boost, and at the highest levels with thousands of gold pieces, you'll have some production bonuses too, as your subjects whistle while they work.

Once again, FFH2 has taken a Civ IV concept and transformed it. We've had gold ever since the original Civ, and in all that time, my strategy has almost always been to run my treasury as close to 0 as possible. Less money in taxation means more to spend on research, almost always the crucial edge. When I do keep money in my treasury, it's as an insurance policy to rush production - to scramble some defenders against an unexpected assault, say, or to hurry up and finish a particular building or wonder. Here too, though, the idea of having gold is to spend gold. You don't get any extra points by having more money, it's only good for what it buys.

Well, that's generally the case in FFH2 as well - I've maintained my "minimum gold" strategy in earlier games to good effect - but now I was being pleasantly forced to revisit the situation with fresh eyes. When I paid to upgrade a warrior to an axeman, two of my cities fell into disorder. It was clear that money was now valued for its own sake, and I would need to start thinking like a dwarf.

This just meant a few adjustments. I made sure to always keep a positive tax rate, not slowly burn down my reserves like normal. And when I needed a boost in my treasury, I would take the opposite approach as what I do in every other Civ game: adjust the research rate down to 0% to grow gold. After just a few turns of this (once my economy was established), I was dancing in gold, and could switch back to a normal rate. In addition, I was being encouraged to keep the number of cities low, so each vault could hold a good amount. I ultimately founded four:
  • Khazad-Dum, my capital. It was a port city that included a resource of gold (gold! gold! gold!) and cows.
  • Khazak, my largest city, located inland. It had copper resources and was built on a very fertile river.
  • A port city to the west of Khazak. Its only resource was some wheat, but it had extremely productive land to work.
  • Another port city on a deserted island to my immediate west.
One other change was that I played on the Erebus map, which was created since my last FFH2 game. Erebus is actually a map SCRIPT, not a static map, so a new map will be generated every game. It's awesome, and I'll probably keep it for every FFH2 game except when I play as Lanun. Erebus is designed to give a fantasy flavor, and it looks a bit like what you might expect to find in the front pages of a fantasy novel: lots of mountain ranges, flat planet, well defined regions. In practice, it's a map that isolates players and keeps the world looking mysterious. You'll probably start off on an island or in some valley surrounded by mountains, and early in the game your only contact will be with wild animals and the occasional barbarian. Within the first hundred turns, I received notice of two other civilizations being destroyed - Erebus is a harsh place. Eventually, once you research the right techs, you can start exploring farther out and make contact with other civs... and powerful sea monsters. Your exploration will be limited, though, since you can't sign open borders agreements until later techs, and your craft are forced to stick close to shoreline. It took a long time for me to push out enough to see more of the world, and even by the time I beat the game, I had uncovered less than half of the map. This is in stark contrast to a traditional Civ game, where I usually have a good mental picture of what the world looks like within 50 or so turns after discovering sailing, and have identified all the major land areas well before the endgame.

One kind of nice side-effect of the isolation of Erebus is that barbarians are much less of a problem than they are on other maps. Barbarians and animals only appear on the fringes, in places outside of your line of sight. So, if you can fill in your available valley or whatever with a couple of cities, and maybe post a few military units to keep an eye on the hinterlands, you can avoid the scourge altogether. There are some trade-offs to this - you will be missing out on a good source of experience, for example - but for a builder like me, it was a godsend.

Early on I founded Runes of Kilmorth, a religion that seems custom made for the Dwarves. I've chatted before about FFH2's religion system, which like everything else is all about differentiation: each religion is very different, and encourages different playtypes. I did notice that there have been some changes in this department, mainly around the edges... the Cult of the Dragon is gone, for example, which is fine... it was a cool idea, but never really behaved like a true religion, and in any case it felt really civ-specific. One new religion has been added, the Council of Essus, a late-game religion that is also kind of an oddball and would be interesting to play around with sometime.

All along I was trying to decide what my strategy for the game would be. Did I want to go for a religious victory? Nah - I still didn't really understand the whole Altar thing, and in any case, it didn't seem to match my dwarf temperment. Magic was out - not only could I not build mages, but the magic victory requires controlling a lot of the map, which would be difficult to do with my limited cities. Limited cities actually encouraged me to consider a cultural victory, but I really wanted to do a more FFH2-specific victory. What, then?

A slow, evil grin spread across my face. Why not bring about Armageddon?

This is another game mechanic that has been in the works for a long time but only implemented after my previous game attempts. Any player of Civ will tell you that it's an awesome game, but it has always had a problem with the endgame: the early stages tend to move really fast, the middle stages are where you get the most exciting fights and most dramatic gameplay, but by the time you reach the end, it's usually pretty obvious how the game is going to end, and a few hundred turns to go through the motions and actually finish it. Well, FFH2 is deliberately designed to provide a very dramatic endgame: an epic battle between the forces of Hell and Heaven, carried out on the broken lands of Earth.

If I was going to do this, I would need to become Evil. So I researched the Way of the Wicked and founded the Ashen Veil. Check. My goal was to research the Infernal Pact, which would create a portal and allow the forces of darkness into the world. Along the way, I decided to practice being evil. I built up an army, sailed across to an island, and waged war against the Elohim leader there. My axemen carried iron weapons, my Dwarvish seige engines pummeled her cities, and Bambur, the religious hero for the Runes of Kilmorth, was ready with an axe to chop down her strongest defenders. Whenever I captured a city, I let it burn, baby, burn. Not only was this a good tactical movement to keep my dwarf subjects happy - less places to spread the gold around - but each city destroyed added to the Armageddon Counter.

The Counter is sort of like a fantasy equivalent of the Doomsday Clock. It advances when evil things happened - a city is destroyed, the Ashen Veil spreads, Orthus picks up his ax. It can go back down when good things happen - the Mercurians come, Orthus is killed. The Counter is tied to a lot of things, and in general they help evil players and hurt good ones.

By the time I had finished off the Elohim, I had spread the Ashen Veil to all my cities and was sending it abroad as well. I had held off on actually switching religions because Bambur was too valuable to lose, but after that war was done, it was time for a change. I showed my true colors, then declared war on Hippus, who lived across a mountain range to the north of my homeland. Darkness was spreading.

Finally, I researched Infernal Pact. Whee! Now came the big step: the game announced that Hyborem of the Infernals had come into the world, and asked if I wanted to abandon the Khazad to play as them. Why, yes, I would!

The game changed dramatically - again. The Infernals are not mortal, and do not play like any of the mortal races. For starters, each city has "demonic citizens", who are never unhappy and don't consume any food. Which is a good thing, too, because food is in short supply. The Infernals usher in what's known as "Hell Terrain", which can take many forms: burning sands, raging fires. Hell also transforms resources, so instead of horses, wine, and corn you might see nightmares and frogs. None of this produces much food. As the fires rage, Hell terrain spreads further out, drastically changing the look of Erebus.

Without food, your cities can't grow the normal way. Instead, whenever an evil unit dies - either one of yours or of an enemy - it has a chance of being reborn as a Mane, the lowest level demon. Manes can be upgraded to military units, but most often, you will choose to add them to cities as new citizens. So, you can only grow through death. Got it?

The Infernals start in a weak position, with a single size-three city, a single spellcasting Imp, two 2-movement Champions, a Longbowman, and some weak Manes. (I'm not sure if this is always the same, or if your starting units will change based on when the Infernals arrive.) However, all this weakness is more than compensated with your most powerful unit, Hyborem. Yes, your leader is also a unit - keen, huh? In a world where the most powerful unit is the 6-strength Champion (8 if you count the iron weaponry), Hyborem has a strength of 17. He is amazing and powerful and huge and menacing. Oh, and immortal, too. If he dies, he comes back to life in your capital. (Only once, though.) He's the sort of thing that makes mortals quail.

That said, the early stages as the Infernals demand a lot of care. If a single unit dies, that's a good 20% of your military. I was pretty cautious at first, and trying to figure out how to play as this weird civ. I had spawned to the east of Hippus, on the opposite front as the Khazad, and started attacking mercilessly. As far as I can tell, the Infernals start with whatever tech the previous civ had, but they do not inherit any of their map view, so even though I had a vague idea of where I was, it took a while to even find everyone else. I was curious for a long time whether the Khazad still existed on the far side of Hippus, or whether they had been incinerated by the entrance of the Infernals.

The first few battles against Hippus were pretty nail-biting, an exciting return to the questions one faces in the early stage of Civ: Do I keep a defender in my capital? How many? Do I explore or attack? As their cities began falling to me, though, I started loosening up and enjoying myself more. Without needing to worry about food or happiness, enemy cities can become productive pretty early on, and for the same reasons they can focus on military production. My Hyborem quickly gained dozens, then scores, of experience points, most of which I gave to Combat promotions, and before long he transformed from unstoppable to, like, SERIOUSLY unstoppable. Once he got March, I never even needed to stop and heal him.

Hippus was fairly scattered, as one might imagine, but eventually I finished driving them out of the southern plains and the western mountains. When I reached the far front and destroyed their civ, I was reunited with Kirion of the Khazad. At this point, I had a tough choice to make: where to take Armageddon next? Kirion lay to my west, and an Elvish leader to the north. I knew that Kirion would be by far the stronger opponent - I had left him a powerful economy, even stronger army, and the most advanced tech on the planet. The question was, do I hit the elves first to build up my manufacturing base and gain sufficient experience to hit Kirion with a sufficiently strong wave? Or do I hit Kirion immediately, before he has time to build up his army any bigger than it already is? I agonized a bit, then decided to hit the elves, partly because I had realized that I would need much larger numbers, and even more because it would be more dramatic to win the game by slaying my alter ego.

The fight against the Elves was great. Yet another awesome feature of the Infernals is that every city (built or captured) starts with an Obsidian Gate. Usually only available to high-level Arcane civs, this is the FFH2 equivalent of an Airport. Since EVERY city has one, that opens tons of tactical options. In my case, I threw together an elite strike force on two Galleons, consisting of Hyborem, two level-6 Champions, several Catapults, a Longbowman, and an Imp. I declared war, then immediately landed next to a promising coastal city. The ships bombarded, the catapults did collateral damage, and my melee units struck. It took a couple of turns, but I was able to take the city. Then came the beautiful part - each of the 15 or so cities on the mainland activated their Obsidian Gates to teleport a fresh unit into the captured city. Overnight, my invasion force quadrupled, and would grow larger every turn. I had sufficient numbers now to split my forces, sending some to wear down the capital (a tough nut to crack, as it was built on a hill with about a dozen elven archers inside) while the others marched overland toward softer targets. Hyborem actually died assaulting the capital, but was reborn in Dis to carry on the fight.

I've played as the Elves before, but haven't fought them. They weren't too bad, thanks to Hyborem and my killer Champions. But I did get to run into a few Treants who arose to defend their Ancient Forests. Really cool gameplay there - I've read about it in the Civilopedia, but it was fun to see them actually become a part of the game.

Anyways. The Elves just had about five cities, but they were large ones, so after they were conquered, they instantly became the most productive members of my damned empire. I had swung my Galleons around toward the western border during this war - again, thanks to the Obsidian Gates, the ships were not necessary after the first city was captured. Thanks to the unique Erebus terrain, I would need to repeat the aquatic assault against Kirion, even though we technically shared a continent. I began teleporting my Elven Wars veterans back to the homeland, and cranked up the pace even higher on my military invasion.

I basically followed the same strategy for the war against the Khazad, at least at first. I wouldn't be able to reach a city on the same turn I declared war, and I could see that Kirion had built up a huge navy of deadly frigates, so instead I just scooted around the mountains and dumped my units on an available beach, before commencing a march towards the port. I did some battles in the field and took a lot of damage, but got people into positions. I had been hoping to send reinforcements by sea, but the navy was too strong for me. I switched many of my coastal cities to start cranking out frigates of their own.

The port fell, and dozens of Infernals appeared within the gate. We marched east. We broke our back against Khazak. Kirion had built the Khazak national hero - I had foolishly given him the gift of Iron Working right around the time I switched to Infernals, Anyways, the hero is an insanely strong defensive unit, and his Heroism made him stronger yet. Even a fully healed Hyborem with every combat promotion had less than a 40% chance against him. And, thanks to the 4 first strikes, my catapults couldn't touch him. I spent several turns assaulting the city to no avail, worked the defense all the way down to 0%, and gave up - it just wasn't happening.

By this point Hyborem had somewhere around 150 XP, and aside from this particular battle, nothing could stop him. So I left behind a small defensive force to pin down the Khazad-Dum defenders, and sent Hyborem (who by now had Commando in addition to his Heroic Strengths and other promotions) towards Khazad-Dum. Curiously, it was very weakly defended, with just about three real defenders and some minor units within. By the time the rest of the army reached the city, Hyborem had all but annihilated the defenders, and they quickly took the city. I noticed that there was a culture bubble to the southwest, and went investigating. Yep - Kirion had planted another city south of Khazak. This was even more weakly defended than the capital, and before long it was burning.

These last few battles had pushed up Hyborem's XP enough to gain another level, and I was happy to notice that I hadn't yet taken Shock. As the Hero thorn in my side was a melee unit, this was a no-brainer. The extra 40% pushed me above even odds, and after saving my game and taking a deep breath, I gave out a whoop as the Dwarven hero fell. It was just like the balrog slaying Durin.

There were many defenders left, but even more attackers, and that very turn Khazak fell. The last obstacle was my island city to the west - my Valinor, if we can maintain the metaphor. By this time I had built up a decent navy, and thanks to some tactical smarts on my part (mainly around choosing the right rigging for each ship) and some blunders on Kirion's part (leaving non-stacked frigates outside my cities), I gradually wore down and then broke his navy. I now owned the seas, and just in time!

The last march was the easiest and the longest. My units landed on the farthest east part of the island, and fought their way towards the city. My frigates fought a couple of battles in the bay to the north, then settled down outside the city to prepare the way for the invaders. Around this same time the Barbarian State declared war on me - apparently this happens once your score gets too high. I wasn't at all worried about them attacking me, but I did panic a bit when I wondered what that meant for the endgame. I don't think I've ever done a conquest victory in Civ IV of FFH2 before - did barbarian cities count as something you needed to take? I knew of at least two, and had no idea where the one holding the Red Dragon's Horde might be located.

I took the last city, burned it in celebration, and happily learned that after pressing spacebar a whole bunch of times, I won the game. Hooray! As a reward, you see a cool little video at the end. Not as cool or as long as the intro video, but satisfying nonetheless. It's the touches like that which allow you to convince yourself that the hours it took to play the game were well spent.

Here's my victory screen.

I have surpassed Cthulhu! The Dark Lord!

In conclusion: Fall from Heaven 2 is AWESOME. Time consuming and complicated, but I actually really dig complicated things. The best part is, after having this really fun experience, I don't even feel tempted to repeat it. Right now I'm leaning towards finally learning the clerical magic system (not to be confused with arcane magic) and trying for a religious victory. Or maybe I'll go back to trying a piratical Lanun game again. Or going as the dwarves again, but this time the golem-loving Luchichirp. Or for old time's sake repeating my first ever FFH2 game as the Kuriorates. With Civ IV, the possibilities are endless. With FFH2, there are several orders of magnitude more. Excelsior!

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