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16 June 2014 @ 06:22 pm
(Modded) Game Review: Civilization IV, Fall from Heaven mod  
I've racked up over 500 hours of Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword at this point, so I figured I should review it. But really...I can't, actually. Of those 500 hours, maybe ~7-8 hours of that is vanilla Civ IV, ~30 hours is the Caveman2Cosmos mod (which is itself really great for a certain type of person)...and all the rest of those 500 hours were playing Fall from Heaven or modded versions of same.

So, what is Fall from Heaven, then? Well, if you didn't click the above link and want me to tell you, I'll sum it up--it had its genesis in the lack of differentiation in religions in the game (eloquently summed up in What If Civilization Had Lyrics? as "Spread your equally-valid religion!"), and then later expanded to included fantasy races, magic, an overhaul of the promotions system that makes unit promotions much more important than in vanilla, a huge expansion of barbarians, including wild animals and monsters, dungeons and ruins to explore, and an Armageddon Counter that ticks up as the game progresses and makes the AI more aggressive, summons the four horsemen, and warps the landscape as Hell starts leaking into the material world.

Also, it looks a bit different:

Look at the villages, or explore the ruined tower?

The early game is almost entirely your civilization vs. the environment, and it's entirely possible that some of the civilizations will be wiped out by wild animals or barbarians (comprised of orcs, goblins, lizardmen, and the walking dead). Researching hunting and making hunters to fight off early animal attacks is actually a pretty good idea, but my strategy is typically to rush a religion as soon as I can so I can get the benefits of having the holy city.

The religions are one of the defining characteristics of the game, and the particular mix of religion and civilization you choose will define how you play. For example, my favorite civilization is the Ljosalfar, and the religion that naturally goes with them is the Fellowship of Leaves. That leads to a more defensive, turtling strategy, where you use the Ljosalfar's ability to build improvements without clearing forests and combine it with the Fellowship's turning forests into ancient forests that provide more resources along with the Guardian of Nature civic that adds even further bonuses and end up with a magical forest paradise defended by archers, treants, and fauns in the shadows of the trees. Most of that comes from Fellowship of Leaves, since every religion has its own line of priests with their own powers, special units, and two heroes that the civ that takes them can build.

On the other end of the spectrum, play the Calabim and research The Order as soon as you can. That will change your ruler's alignment to Good, but the real benefit is gifting Vampirism to your powerful Order units. Vampire paladins killing unbelievers, expressed as consuming 1 population from a city to gain extra experience, and then going forth in Junil's name and killing demons? That sounds fantastic to me.

There are tons of other combinations beyond that. Play the Khazad and research Octopus Overlords for Cthulhu-worshipping dwarves, with the ability to ceremonially drown units and turn them into powerful undead servants or summon krakens to defend the sea lanes. Play the Sheaim and research the Ashen Veil and send the world to hell while building Planar Gates in your cities to fuel your demonic armies! Play anyone and research the Council of Esus, and harass your enemies with deniable units that obviously aren't in the direct employ of your civilization, of course not!

Much more interesting than the few trait differences and one unique unit that vanilla Civ provides for its civilizations.

Though since every civ in Fall from Heaven has at least two leaders to pick from, it's possible to use the traits to shape the civ as well. The builder-style Ljosalfar I mentioned above are best if you choose Arendel Phaedra, for example, whereas picking Thessa is best for hunting for mana nodes and using mages as the foundation of your wars, and Amelanchier supports an arrows from the shadows of the trees, strategy.

Ah yes, magic. I've mentioned it a couple times, but finding mana nodes, building over them to tap the mana, and then upgrading mages to use the new spells (mechanically expressed as unit promotions) they get is a foundation of most of my game strategies. Here's an example of magic being used:


There's an Amurite army in the center there attacking a Clan of Embers city with magic, using the Maelstrom spell to damage the city's defenders. There are literally dozens of spells that the mages and priests can cast, ranging from unit buffs to increases in movement to summoning additional units--one of my wins as the Sheaim just involved a couple dozen mages summoning wraiths, and any AI following the Fellowship of Leaves will often have an army of Priests of Leaves summoning tigers--to city improvements to taking over enemy units. Part of my builder strategy often involves stationing a mage in each of my cities and casting Hope and Inspiration to further promote the Glorious Forest Paradise.

The mod also does a lot with events, to the extent that turning them off (standard Civ IV advice) will probably cripple your experience. From an Azer appearing wild and destroying the surrounding land to a Fire Mana node flaring up and starting fires to a hunter bringing catches to a city and letting you buy one to the appearance of Acheron in a barbarian city, there's a huge variety of interesting things that happen, and I almost always play with the setting that doubles the number of events just so I can see more of them.

There's even more content than this--unique terrain features, legendary monsters, starting the game in an Ice Age that thaws--but I've talked enough about the features, I think. And normally I would talk about the game's themes, or how it makes me feel, but in a sandbox 4x game, it's a bit more difficult to discuss that than in a game like Limbo.

I think the most interesting thematic element is the Armageddon Counter. As the game goes on, more wars start, cities get taken or razed, the Ashen Veil spreads, and so on, the counter goes up, and at certain points it triggers more events. The four horsemen appear as barbarian units in the world and attack the civilizations. Sickness strikes the various cities, killing off huge parts of the populace. Hell Terrain spreads across the world, and while it's possible for wizards and priests to use the Sanctify spell to, the terrain keeps spreading and needs constant maintenance to stop. And unless you're one of a very few number of civilizations who can live with it, or who revel in it, you don't want Hell Terrain to spread.

Welp. Good look with that, stonewarden!

A lot of the other themes depend on the civ/religion combination you pick. A lot of my games are Ljosalfar/Fellowship of Leaves, so I'm playing the elves in their forests defending themselves against a hostile world. Playing the Sheaim with Ashen Veil means the Armageddon Counter becomes a benefit instead of a ticking clock, since as it goes up, so does your power. Playing the Doviello is an even tighter race against time, since their power is almost all in the early game and once other civilizations get up the tech tree it's incredibly difficult to win. Playing the Amurites makes the game a more exploration-based experience, because they benefit from having a lot of mana nodes to power their arcane units and so Govannan can teach spells to others. Playing the Svartalfar involves exploiting their Sinister trait and the affinity with the Council of Esus to make repeated hit-and-run attacks with recon units who have Hidden Nationality or using their Kidnap ability to steal other civilization's Great People, leading to an experience like playing some kind of elven criminal organization.

Actually, one of my favorite moments in the mod happened when playing the Svartalfar. Early in the game, when I mostly had hunters and a few warriors defending my city, another civ declared war on me and invaded. Their army was three times the size of mine, but I managed to win through superior mobility. When they entered the thick forests surrounding my two cities, I used elves superior forest mobility and the Svartalfar's recon units to make hit and run attacks, repeatedly striking and moving out of range. By the time they were close to my city they had lost half their army, and the AI turned around, went home, and sued for peace soon after. It was exactly the kind of hit-and-run, arrows from behind trees, you're always being watched by unseen eyes feel I love for fictional elves in their home forests.

Finally, if you're like me and love world building, Fall from Heaven has it in spades. If you've clicked on a lot of those links, you'll notice stories written about the various characters. Most of the technologies in-game have bits of fiction about them too, as do the spells, the wonders, a lot of the units, and nearly everything else. The benefit of Fall from Heaven being based on a long-running D&D game--as a lot of the big fantasy series are nowadays--is that there's plenty of background to pick from.

I'm not sure I there's a textual endorsement I can give it that speaks louder than what I've already written and the fact that I've played it for nearly 500 hours over five years now. The primary reason I never got into Civ V is actually because it's just not Fall from Heaven, honestly. If any of this sounds interesting, give it a try. You can get it here.
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