A Game: Fall from Heaven 2Thursday, May 14, 2009 19:56
One of the most important lessons any aspiring designer can learn is to heed Sid Meier’s dictum that a good game is a series of interesting decisions. This is precisely what the dark fantasy-themed Fall from Heaven 2 is all about. There is no point in the game where a particular path of action becomes so overbearingly obvious as to make the choice a non-decision. While the ultimate objective remains, as in any 4X game, to achieve complete dominance over the other factions, there are many different paths to this end and countless means within each path to advance along it.
Fall from Heaven 2 of course benefits from being a mod of Civilization 4 which provides it with a sound base to work on, but the new mechanics, factions, units, religions and events it adds makes it a worthy game more than capable of standing on its own. The cornucopia of choices begins with choosing one of a total of 21 available factions. Each faction generally has two different leaders available. Then there’s a total of 7 religions to pick from, each of which offers synergies different enough to drastically alter your playstyle. Next, you’ll want to think about which victory condition to shoot for. In addition to the ones already in Civilization 4, the Alpha Centauri victory is replaced by the Tower of Mastery victory inspired by the venerable Master of Magic game and there’s a religious Altar of Luonnatar victory condition.
All of this might sound overwhelming but it’s really just the bare tip of the iceberg. Each individual faction in Fall from Heaven 2 is differentiated from the rest by much more than just the usual Civilization 4 leader traits and unique units and buildings. All of the units of the Ljosalfar and Svartalfar factions, for example, are elves, which means they receive combat bonuses and have double movement in all types of forests but are vulnerable to cold damage. Even better, elves can build improvements in forests without having too chop them down.
For another example, the Kuriotates faction can only build three true cities on normal-sized maps, but each of their cities can work an extra tier of tiles around them, giving them the potential to grow into super-cities. They can build settlements to help expand their territory and claim resources but virtually all of their money, research and production come only from their super-cities. This makes it easy for the Kuriotates to concentrate their defense but also means that losing even one of their cities is so devastating that it could lose them the entire game.
Remember some of those synergies from choosing the appropriate religion that I mentioned? Religions in unmodded Civilization 4 are functionally identical, but in Fall from Heaven 2, each of them are as diverse as the factions, unlocking different heroes, units, spells, buildings and even civic options. The aforementioned elven factions for example have a natural synergy with the Fellowship of the Leaves religion. Their priests can cast the “Bloom” spell which causes a new forest to grow in a tile and choosing it as a faction’s state religion makes it possible to run the Guardian of Nature civic which creates extra happiness in cities for each forest within their working radius.
That’s a powerful combo but as I’ve noted, Fall from Heaven 2 is all about meaningful decisions. The Svartalfar could just as easily run the Council of Esus religion instead, especially once their home region is already covered with forests, to go on the offensive. Adopting this religion allows their recon units to hide their nationality, allowing them to attack enemies without having to declare war. Svartalfar recon units happen to have the “Kidnap” ability which gives them a chance to steal specialists from the cities of other factions. The possibilities are endless.
Then of course, there’s the fully developed magic system which is powerful enough to deform terrain, the new wonders and rituals, the unique terrain features that are reminiscent of the ones from Alpha Centauri, the events system which give you different choices according to your situation and outcomes based on your choices and the completely revamped research tree. The last in particular presents another great example of the interesting decision-making that this game offers. Instead of allowing different paths to reach the same goal as in Civilization 4, the tech tree in Fall from Heaven 2 is linnear, forcing the player to specialize heavily in one research line to reap the powerful dividends at the end.
Fortunately the wonderful modding community around the game have worked hard to create a manual that’s equal to the task of properly documenting this amazing game. Weighing in at over 200 pages and beautifully illustrated, it’s enough to put to shame many of the sparse and uninformative manuals produced for professionally published games. (I’m looking at you Empire: Total War.) At the same time, the in-game Civilopedia has been completely revamped and rewritten to include not only all of the statistics and game mechanics you need to know, but plenty of snippets of lore as well.
A turn-based strategy game with all the options and cool toys in the world wouldn’t amount to anything without a decent AI and I’m happy to say that Fall from Heaven 2 offers plenty of challenge and can be absolutely punishing if you’re willing to turn the difficulty level all the way up. Each faction leader essentially has a different AI and knows how to capitalize on its strengths. In one game, the AI-controlled Belseraphs were smart enough to make a beeline for their unique Harlequin units and employ them to carve out a huge swath of the world for themselves. They’re certainly not shy about building up huge stacks of powerful units and making good use of them.
They’re also smart enough to change their state religion according to the needs of the moment. In another game in which I was handily dominating, the factions closest to me promptly switched to my religion in an apparent effort to make it harder for me to attack them and also forged mutual defense pacts among themselves. If I’d attacked any one of them, my people would be unhappy for being at war with their brothers of the faith and it would also cause all of my neighbours to declare war on me simultaneously. The AI is still far from perfect of course. It clearly has a hard time taking full advantage of the magic at its disposal and some factions do better than others. The vampiric Calabim for example usually have no problems thriving under computer control while the religious Malakim always seem to build tons of Lightbearers and not know what to do with them.
Another crucial mechanic that helps keep things challenging and interesting even in the endgame when many strategy games bog down is the unique Armageddon Counter. As the factions become more powerful and more cities get razed to the ground, the counter increases, signalling the onset of Armageddon. Bad things happen when the counter reaches certain milestones. Blight appears in big cities, killing population and causing units to become diseased. Powerful demons controlled by none of the factions appear to lay waste to the world. Even the land itself eventually becomes warped and hellish. Obviously the bigger and more populous your faction is when these effects happen, the harder you’ll get hit, making it an effective mechanic to help counter late-game steamrollering.
All of this means that the main game has nigh infinite replayability, especially once you take in the various map types and special rules options. If that’s still not enough, Fall from Heaven 2 also comes with crafted scenarios and even a campaign of sorts, which allows you to play through a series of connected scenarios that tell a story. Many of these scenarios have special rules and victory conditions and feature leaders and heroes not found in the main game. To put it simply, I cannot praise this game highly enough. If you call yourself a PC gamer and have an interest in strategy games, you owe it to yourself to experience this game, even if you need to buy a copy of Civilization 4 and the Beyond the Sword expansion just to play this. It’s just that good.