Civilization IV: Fall from Heaven 2 – Ashes of Erebus

Civilization IV keeps me coming back more than a decade after its release, despite having two successors at the time of writing, because of the many hugely-enjoyable mods available for it. I broached this subject in Civilization IV: Caveman 2 Cosmos, my first post on the world of Civ modding; check the intro out there if you’re interested.

Fall from Heaven II (FfH2) is a dark fantasy Civ IV mod created by good guy and all-round gentleman Kael. Kael is known as Derek Paxton offline and was a producer for Stardock’s 2010 flop Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, a post following his outstanding success with FfH2. If you’re going to judge the ability of Kael, judge him on the mod. It’s brilliant.

fall-from-heaven-2.jpg

FfH2 is the most popular mod for Civ IV, topping both the CivFanatics and ModDB download tables (more than 620,000 and 340,000 downloads, respectively).

Reviews of FfH2 have been done to death and coverage is extensive. See eXplorminate’s interview with Kael or the rave reviews on ModDB.

The primary intention of this article is as a primer to jumping into the complex community surround FfH2 and maybe pointing out a few of the things that draw me back to this mod time-and-again.

This is a very long post, so for your convenience, these are the headings and content summaries:

What’s the Fuss About?

FfH2 converts Civ IV into a medieval grimdark world and adds RPG elements and two major new mechanics: magic and the Armageddon counter.

The magic system introduces mana into the game world (as a strategic resource to be acquired) which affects your ability to construct some units and cast certain spells, and adds passive empire-wide bonuses. Spells are learned using the core promotion mechanism.

The Armageddon counter is a mechanism to encourage conflict, particularly in the late game. Some actions take the world closer to Armageddon and others pull it away. Religions play a particularly central role in this, with your adopted religion often strongly influencing your gameplay.

As the Armageddon counter ticks up, bad things start to happen, like the arrival of the Four Horsemen, the spread of Hell on Earth, and the literal summoning of Satan (called Hyborem in the game). Shit like that. You don’t like it, then you gotta fight it; this means there are big clashes between good and evil in the late game.

On top of all this is a rich lore and civilisations that play very differently from one another; their differences don’t just boil down to leader traits and unique units (although those still exist, of course). The Kuriotates have an increased city radius, for example, meaning they end up with “super cities” that are more spread out in the game world. The Khazad (dwarves to you and me) are happier if your gold reserves are high, encouraging you to have a big pot of money on hand at all times. All civilisations in FfH2 also have an alignment on the good-evil axis.

There’s much more I haven’t mentioned (explored in the FfH2 manual), and this is all just in the base mod

Modn – Fall from Heaven II Genealogy

As massively popular as FfH2 was (and is), Kael ceased development in December 2008. Since then, the modmodders have reigned. A “modmod” is a modification to the base mod. FfH2 has practically become a game in its own right, with Civ IV + FfH2 considered “vanilla”.

The world of modding surrounding FfH2 can be a little difficult to penetrate because of the sheer number of modmods, modmodmods, …, modns. For no other mod have I seen this sort of recursive modification by the community. Given all of this variety, it can be daunting for someone to come in and decide which iteration of FfH2 is “the best” to play.

To keep things simple, you could just jump right on the base mod. Easy. However, it’s generally regarded that the final version of FfH2 (0.41 Patch O) is not finished; perhaps most damning for its longevity is that the AI doesn’t know how to play and the balance is bad. (Although I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to balance in mods.)

It took me a few evenings of reading, but I think I’ve teased apart the genealogy of FfH2 modmods. There are, in my opinion, three major “end-point” modmods you should consider:

  • Master of Mana Xtended (MoM) – Expands FfH2 in two directions: the magic system and the RPG elements. If you liked Age of Wonders III, this might appeal to you. I personally prefer some of the more “civ-like” elements that some of the other modmods explore.
  • Extramodmod (EMM) – Doesn’t expand FfH2, exactly, but hugely improves the AI and balance (specifically to address multiplayer gameplay).
  • Ashes of Erebus (AoE) – More civs, more units, more magic – just more! AoE subscribes to the same “more is more” design philosophy as Caveman 2 Cosmos and, for that reason, is my modmod of choice and the focus of this article.

At the time of writing, all three of these modmods are still being updated regularly.

There are, of course, many more modmods that could be mentioned, but a lot of them have some relationship to the above in some way. These relationships are shown (approximately) in the diagram below (with no promises as to its completeness or accuracy).

genealogy.PNG

Ashes of Erebus Features

It’s hard to know for an outsider where the AoE content begins and where the content from the various modmods ends, so I’m not going to try to make the distinction. On top of the base FfH2 features, explored above, you get the following:

  • Broader alignments so that alignment isn’t tied solely to religion; there are a number of ways to influence your civ’s alignment (building things, razing cities, creating units…).
  • An additional alignment axis for every leader. In addition to the Good – Evil axis, there’s also the Chaotic – Lawful axis. This stems from the popular alignment system of D&D, giving nine possible alignment designations
Image result for game of thrones alignment

Various iterations of the grid exist, but you’re reading about a grimdark mod for Civ IV – I’m guessing a good number of you are into Game of Thrones, too!

  • More civs and leaders, including lizardmen and the undead (“fallow”, as they’re called in-game).
  • “Minor” and “Emergent” leaders, which allow leaders to grow as their civilisation does.
  • More terrain and unique features.
  • More explorable lairs, which may provide a reward or awaken some malevolent force.
  • Worker promotions which allows, for example, increasing their work rate.
  • More responsive artwork e.g. due to differences in civ and religion.
  • Ranged warfare.
  • Extra mana types.
  • Improved flavour starts (so your civ ends up near lore-friendly terrain) and map options.
  • Many more units and buildings.
  • Balance and stability improvements.
  • Multiple barbarian factions – barbarians, animals, and demons.
  • Cultural control so that forts generate culture for your civ.
  • Commander/minion mechanics between Great Commanders and chosen units (which gain bonuses from the relationship).

I’m sure there are many more that haven’t been well-documented. It may only be possible to tell by making an exhaustive comparison to the base mod (either by playing or combing through any source code); the best way to tell whether you prefer AoE over the base FfH2 is to play it!

It’s worth noting that this is still a mod in development; there are still game-breaking bugs (albeit rare) and there is still content in-the-works. This practically goes without saying, though; mods are rarely “finished”, per se.

Conquering Erebus

I’ve not played AoE before and I’m not as familiar with FfH2 as I am with other Civ IV mods so my playthrough was a voyage of discovery. I’ve therefore bumped up against all the niggles that a new player might expect to also run into.

In this post, I’ll walk through game setup and some of the new gameplay elements, but it’s worth noting there’s simply too much to pack into a single blog post; this is not intended to be an exhaustive feature list or a play guide, but a taster of what you’re getting if you decide to dive into the world of AoE. Any of of the features mentioned below aren’t necessarily specific to AoE; as stated earlier, the intention of this post is as a primer to the community surrounding FfH2 with AoE as my modmod of choice to demonstrate this.

Scions of Patria

I decide to play as my old favourite civ: the Risen Emperor of the Scions of Patria.

risen-emperor.png

One of the amazing things about FfH2 and its modmods is the huge amount of lore behind the game. Following the lore are civilisations that are very different to play. The Scions are no exception.

Fallow

To begin with, the Scions are fallow, which means they don’t gain population through usual mechanisms. The primary means for raising the population is to acquire “Awakened” units. For flavour as much as instruction, I include the text from the Civilopedia:

Citizens of long-departed Patria, the Age of Magic’s greatest empire, are the the core population of the Scions of Patria. They have been given the Gift, but they still must be brought out of the Bottomless Tomb.

Read more about the Awakened

Awakened may be “built” in the capital. Structures much like bridges are extended into the Tomb and used to find and ferry the honored dead back into the world. But they are very expensive and inevitably temporary. After a short time they become animate and unalive, like everything in the Tomb, and may no longer be used. Awakened gained this way are expensive. But they honored dead are hard to predict – you’ll often be forced to go in after them.

The easiest way for the Scions to get population is for an Awakened just walk out of the capital’s Bottomless Tomb of it’s own free will. But while the Tomb is bottomless an endless army of Awakened won’t be coming: They have their own alien amusements there. The longer they stay the less willing they are to leave.

The frequency with which Awakened emerge is displayed near the mana bar and can be increased by the player’s actions. Building Shrines to Kylorin, Imperial Cenotaphs or Temples of the Gift, Halls of the Covenant, or the Flesh Studio all attract Awakened. Most luxuries will help lure Awakened. Of special note is the “Patrian Artifacts” resource. Only the Scions player can see these resources, and unlike the other luxuries each resource owned increases the odds. The larger, more bustling the Capital the more will Awakened are to emerge. And when society is explicitly run for the benefit of the Awakened, “Aristocracy”, Awakened are more likely to come forth.

Awakened may be used to increase the population of a city by one or to settle a new city. There is an extensive formula for the odds of generating an Awakened unit each turn, available in the Civilopedia in-game.

One may also acquire “Reborn” units:

Reborn are formerly living inhabitants of Erebus granted the Gift and transformed into undead Scions.

Read more about the Reborn

There are four ways to gain Reborn. First, Reborn can be created from combat with a priest of the Gift – A Legate, a Doomsayer, or a Doomgiver. The enemy unit is persuaded that unlife among the Scions is preferable to their present meager existence. Second, Reborn can be “built” in a city containing a Cathedral of Rebirth. Third, Pelemoc Goldtongue may persaude the citizens of other civilzations to join Patria Reborn. Fourth, once the Scions have Sorcery and Priesthood a razed city will yield a few Reborn.

Finally, the Dark Council generates three Reborn the turn it is established.

Already, you can see that the Scions will play much differently to a normal civilisation. One doesn’t have to worry about building growth-based buildings, such as the Granary, or growth-based improvements, such as farms, but you will spend time building some of the unique buildings such as the Shrines to Kylorin.

Religion

But there’s more! (I told you civs were very different!) If you’re playing as the Risen Emperor himself, you’re not able to convert to a religion. The in-universe explanation for this is that there is a personality cult surrounding the Emperor, so worshipping some deity or another is forbidden.

Haunted Lands

The Scions are also able to “terraform” the world to more closely match the ideal for their citizens. They do so by producing “Haunted Lands”.

haunted-lands.png

It is the nature of the world that everything is itself. This may seem a truism, but it does not hold in the Haunted Lands. The Haunted Lands join everything together, in the Haunted Lands things *blur*. Notably the line between death and life. There life, of a sort, is found in death and death, of a sort, is found in life.

Read more about the Haunted Lands

Eating anything grown within the Haunted Lands is very difficult. The grain may scream when harvested and make bread that crumbles into something like bone meal when baked. Its beer could taste and smell of nightmares. Cattle tend to be stillborn, which makes it all the more disturbing as the herds continue to grow.

Nevertheless there is much wealth to be found in the Haunted Lands for the brave of heart and strong of stomach. Examples: A tree with branches that when aged and dried taste of nectar and honey, after being killed and cooked, of course. A stream lined with trainable, watchful stones. A pit full of knowledgeable darkness.

Use Haunted Lands to defend Patria Reborn or spoil the territories of your enemies. The Haunted Lands are not well suited to the living. The eldritch powers of the Haunted Lands often frighten, attack, or drive the living to various forms of insanity.

The Undead have a natural affinity to the Haunted Lands. Their senses are sharpened, their arms strong. The Haunted Lands are also a source of many wonders… often grotesque or terrible. The useful ones can be kept or traded so others may appreciate the Gift. The useless ones – and there are many – can be a burden to any nearby living land. The Haunted Lands will foster Unhealth in nearby cities.

Perhaps most disturbing, at least to those who haven’t accepted the Emperor’s Gift, is that those bearing wounds in the Haunted Lands do not always heal true. The substance of the Haunted Lands, or the lack thereof, enters their flesh. They become undead. Some carry on afterward, cleaving to their old gods and loyalties. Some go strange, eventually raising their hand – or whatever’s left – against all others.

Ghostwalkers can undergo a different transformation with the Haunted Lands. They share out part of their own substance and humanity to the surrounding terrain, drinking from even more of the territory’s inhuman nature. They become Haunts. Insubstantial, but hardly less terrible for that. Whip-fast, hard to see until it’s right on top of you, a Haunt’s airy frame can’t take your head off, but this is hardly a comfort when it roars through your army and sinks it’s claws into your skull.

Alignment

The Scions come with a few leaders, but if you’re playing as the central figure, the Risen Emperor, you have a starting alignment of “Lawful Neutral”.

Lawful neutral characters act according to some law, tradition, or personal code. It means you’re reliable, honourable, but not a zealot. Examples include Boba Fett from Star Wars, T-800 from Terminator, and The Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout.

Setup

After installing AoE, you can launch it via the launcher, an executable located in the mod directory, which gives you some options to enable or disable additional modules before launching. It also allows you to launch into a specific save game rather than having to load one once you’re in-game.

I left all of the modules in their default configuration; my understanding is that the disabled modules include civilisations the modders deemed to be overpowered.

Once at the game menu, I setup a custom game. There are many options here, so it might be worth walking through a few of my choices. (I explore some of these in my C2C post, too; I imagine there are some parallels.)

  • Challenge: Frozen World (Off): This sounds really interesting; the world starts frozen and slowly warms up throughout the game. I chose to keep it off because I had concerns it would interfere with some of the map settings I choose later.
  • Require Complete Kills (On): I enjoy the idea of a particularly stubborn civ sending a Settler off into the far-flung expanse to eke out a meagre existence in defiance of their inevitable fall.
  • Flexible Difficulty (Off): I initially liked the sound of this; it might stop the game getting too easy. I interpreted it, however, as having the difficulty change by one level either side of the chosen level, rather than continuing to increase as you remain in the top third of civs. The latter behaviour is the actual behaviour, however, so I soon ended up in a Deity level game with little hope of catching up with the various civs peeling ahead of me. The issue with this is that a civ, having spent some number of turns at Deity level, might have a significant enough lead on me that it would be impossible to catch-up.
  • Religion Based Interfaces (On): A nice bit of flavour, although I’m unlikely to use it playing as the Risen Emperor.
  • Broader Alignments (On): The flexible alignments mechanic is a big draw to AoE.
  • Flavour Start (On): This makes sure civs start in lore-friendly locations. I find this helps immerse me in the fantasy world.
  • All Unique Features (On): If you play on a large world, I imagine it’s safe to keep this on. The unique features have some bonuses, but they tend to be spaced out enough that you don’t gather too many of them in a moderately-sized civ.

There are many new maps and map scripts available in AoE. I chose the ErebusWorld mapscript, which has many parameters you can fine-tune to your liking. There is a guide to the parameters on the CivFanatics forum. A few notes about the way I set it up:

  • Sea Level on low and Cohesion on medium to encourage some chunky continents but some viable islands, too.
  • Huge world map with 14 civs (more civs recommended for this map type).
  • Ancient Cities on for extra world-building.
  • World Wrap east-west so this feels like a world map rather than a single continent.
  • Advanced Terrain on and Smart Climate on (modify selection) so that the world is sculpted according to plate tectonics (giving realistic geography) and then moulded according to the civs present in the world so they get good flavour starts.

The last remaining options are the victory conditions. There are a few new ones (Gone To Hell, Tower of Mastery, and Altar of the Luonnotar), all of which I leave on. These victory conditions are met as follows:

  • Gone To Hell: 90% of the map is covered with Hell terrain. Victory goes to the civ with the highest contribution to the Armageddon Counter.
  • Tower of Mastery: Acquire various mana types, which enable you to build four different towers. After building these four towers, you may build the Tower of Mastery.
  • Altar of the Luonnotar: This is a seven-step project. The first six steps must be completed by expending a Great Prophet, while the final step is a building project. This is only available to leaders of certain alignments.

The vanilla victory conditions are also valid options for victory! The above three allow for a more immersive experience, though.

Gameplay

Flavour Starts

One of the game setup options allow you to start in an area becoming of your chosen civilisation. For the Scions, this put me on the edge of a desert and surrounded by Patrian Artifacts, a unique resource only visible by the Scions of Patria.

flavour-start.png

Notice also that the unit graphics are tailored to the fallow Scions of Patria.

patrian-artifacts.png

Patrian Artifacts are denoted by black rings on the game world and can be utilised by building a quarry. Collecting them improves the chances of generating an Awakened each turn and therefore improves the rate of population growth.

Details like these go a long way to pulling you into the game from the get-go, but they’re not all that’s waiting for you on Erebus.

Rich Fantasy World

One of the most amazing things about FfH2 and its modmods is the ability to suck you into this dynamic fantasy world. Erebus truly is alive, even at the start of the game.

Exploration is a real pleasure. Between the realistic map generation scripts, the flavour starts, the smart climate models, and the unique map features, you really feel like you’re exploring a massive fantasy world. I look forward to every break of the mountain pass, every desert trek, and every push through swampland.

Far from static map features, though, many of these landmarks can be interacted with. Units can explore, loot, and otherwise adventure within these fantasy settings. This balances great rewards against the risk of rousing something that you’d rather not deal with!

Beyond these features is a living, breathing world. There are threats around every corner; building a decent military in the early game is more in line with Civ VI than Civ IV to deal with the wild world around you.

battling-orthus.png

Despite how it looks, I actually ended up winning this fight against Orthus, a barbarian orc who wandered into my lands.

raptors.png

If barbarian orcs aren’t enough to get your juices flowing, then perhaps raptor packs are?

Beautiful and Consistent Artwork

One of the problems with giant mods like AoE is that they often scrape together art assets from various sources (other mods included) and the end result can look a bit messy.

AoE largely avoids that, particularly with some gorgeous leader artwork.

Playing AoE means immersing yourself in this extremely professional artwork. Meeting a new civilisation means discovering artwork as diverse as the civilisations themselves.

City artwork is also customised per civilisation. The cities of the Scions, for example, is an eclectic mix of Roman and Gothic architecture.

scions-city.png

Early Scions of Patria city guarded by skeleton archers.

Parallel Tech Tree Branches

The tech tree in AoE is highly parallelised, meaning its advantageous for you to choose a branch and finish it rather than diversifying. This means you might become particularly proficient with necromancy and its sister subjects, for example. This adds even more flavour on top of the civilisations.

tech-tree.png

Religion

There are seven all-new religions in AoE, which play a larger role than do the religions in the base game. They give you access to unique units, civics, buildings, spells, and affect your civ’s alignment.

ashen-veil.png

One that’s always had a particular draw for me is The Ashen Veil, which is heavily-aligned to doing evil and helps move the Armageddon Counter forwards. Tick this forwards enough and you can eventually summon Hyborem, leader of the Infernals…

hyborem.jpg

After summoning him, you can choose to play as the Infernals and bring eternal damnation to all of Erebus.

Future Development

AoE is still undergoing development, although progress isn’t as fast on other mods that might still have dozens or hundreds of developers. I was lucky enough to speak to black_imperator, who’s still adding to AoE on a regular basis having worked with Fall from Heaven since its very beginnings, and is very active over on CivFanatics.

Now is a good time to start following AoE development as black_imperator has started working on developer diaries. This gives some insight into the decisions being made – or that have already been made – by the modding community.

For black_imperator, there are some particular areas of focus, though:

Short term […] finish up the emergent leaders. [Editors note: Emergent leaders are a feature that allow for leader progression; leaders will become stronger and gain traits as goals are completed in-game.]

Long term, between Kael’s lore and the quantity of inspiring ideas that people in the various FFH forums have come up with, especially the RifE [Rise from Erebus] dev team which was very productive in terms of design concepts, I have plenty that I want to revisit.

Magic-wise, I’d like to streamline the magic system by linking all spell effects to a Magical Strength stat, making it easier to distinguish magic users. Culture-wise, I’d love to make culture warfare more interesting by making culture propagate along the trade routes. Making an adaptation of the Revolution system adapted to the fact that the social norms of each Erebusian civ is different would be nice, and so on, and so forth.

Bugfixing, AI and performance optimisation stay the main focus though.

There’s a lot to look forward to, then, if black_imperator maintains his interest. With years already under his belt, I’m optimistic about the future of AoE.

Reflection

Ashes of Erebus is, above and beyond everything else, an immersive, TBS, fantasy experience. (I must give due credit to the base Fall from Heaven II mod, though.) It’s better, in my opinion, than any fantasy 4X since, including the likes of Age of Wonders III or even Endless Legend (although the latter comes very close).

Incredible depth has been achieved with the diverse civilisations, beautiful and bustling fantasy world, and responsive game mechanisms like the Armageddon Counter. AoE’s contribution of improved flavour starts, expansion of unique city graphics, improved AI, and expanded alignments (among other additions) go a long way to rounding out what FfH2 started.

But. It’s still lacking polish in some areas. The artwork is spot-on, but the lore – one of FfH2’s strengths – is becoming patchy. The Civilopedia, while generally informative, has holes. There are text-holders in some in-game pop-ups. The game crashes more frequently than I’d like, and I sometimes have to load a save a few times before it works. Honestly, a lot of this is more noticeable than it might be in a comparable mod because a lot of the other additions are so well done.

When all is said and done, though, I really do feel like I’m at the helm of an immortal race of Romans ready to reconquer Erebus. And that’s what Ashes of Erebus is all about.

Installation

Civ IV was ahead of its time a bit with mod support, so installation of mods is actually pretty easy compared to its contemporaries. There are detailed installation instructions available in the Ashes of Erebus forum on CivFanatics, but for the general case of installation of a stable release, see the below.

  1. Install Civ IV and it’s expansion, up to and including Beyond the Sword with the 3.19 patch. If you install through Steam you should get the most up-to-date version. You can get the Complete Edition on Steam for £14.99 (29.99 USD or 24.99 EUR).
  2. If using the Steam version, in your Steam library, right-click on Civ IV, select the “Properties” option, navigate to the “BETAS” tab and select “Original release” from the drop-down.
  3. Download the latest release version. At the time of writing, this is version 14.11 released on the 14th November 2014. The link to the latest version is available on the AoE forum. (I recommend using the SVN version because the latest release is quite out-of-date now.)
  4. Unzip the downloaded file. It’s in .7z format so you’ll need to use an archiver that can work with this format, such as the open source and free 7-Zip.
  5. Copy the Ashes of Erebus folder into your Beyond the Sword mod folder. If you’ve installed from Steam, this will be in something like C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\Sid Meier’s Civilization IV\Beyond the Sword\Mods. If you’ve installed from a CD this will be in C:\Program Files (x86)\Firaxis Games\Sid Meier’s Civilization IV\Beyond the Sword\Mods. (I’m not 100% on these locations – you may need to hunt around for a bit, and some of the directory names might be different if using the Complete Edition. If anyone knows definitively, please let me know in the comments.)

SVN – The Bleeding Edge

If official releases just aren’t enough for you and you absolutely must have the latest and greatest, then you need the SVN. (Instructions on the AoE forum.) This will give you literally daily updates to the codebase as the modders make them.

You may want to weigh the pros and cons of using the SVN over a release version, but I know lots of fans are in favour of this approach.

With AoE, I recommend the SVN version. I wasn’t able to recommend SVN strongly for Caveman 2 Cosmos, mostly because releases for C2C are relatively frequent. However, since the latest stable release of AoE was nearly three years ago, there’s a lot of content you’ll miss out on by not using the SVN.

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