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A lot of the changes in Legendary Heroes are the stuff of solid patchwork. Lots of rebalancing, tuning, interface improvements, and supposed improvements to the AI. I say supposed, because I still get the sense that the AI players don’t quite understand the importance of grabbing land and keeping a strong army together. But they play by the rules and there’s plenty of challenge to be had, unlike many other strategy games with AI shortcomings.

But like solid patchwork, a lot of the changes in Legendary Heroes mean there’s no way I would play Fallen Enchantress without them. Legendary Heroes makes Fallen Enchantress the game it’s wanted to be all along.

After the jump, how

Despite a smattering of changes through the game, the one that leaps most to my attention most often is swarming. A new concept in tactical battles is the swarm bonus. It’s an unfortunate name, because it sounds like something for ravening hordes. On the contrary, it’s a matter of careful tactics that deserves a better name, like “flanking”, or “support”, or “not being dumb and running off alone into a line of defenders”. Swarming means that whenever a unit attacks, it gets a bonus based on how many friendly units are also adjacent to the target. While this can sometimes play out like swarming — a bunch of swordsmen surrounding a dragon and whacking away, for instance — it more often plays out like moving your units carefully and keeping them together. Flanks matter. When a unit attacks matters. Most importantly, where a unit stands matters a whole heck of a lot. Fallen Enchantress previously had a pretty good tactical battle system. Now it’s got a really smart one.

Swarming opens up new uses for a range of abilities like shield bashes and shadow swap. The shield bash is a great way to knock a unit out of the way so it can’t lend its bonus to an adjacent attacker. Shadow swap, which switches the place of the casting unit and an enemy’s unit, is a great way to get distant enemy ranged units standing in sword’s reach of your melee units. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a great way to disrupt an enemy line. Getting headbutted by a Hegron and knocked out of formation sometimes hurts more than the actual damage it inflicts. And this also means a unit that does splash damage or a catapult with an area effect attack can be an invaluable asset. Basically, the overall balance of Fallen Enchantress is thrown into a tidy new intuitive array.

Unlike a game like Civilization V, where the developers keep piling on more and more stuff over successive add-ons, almost all of which are variations on stuff already in the game, Legendary Heroes cares enough to pare down the game. The influence system, which provided a resource used only in diplomacy, is gone. I miss it a bit, but Fallen Enchantress never lacked for ways to win friends and influence enemies. What I miss more is the cool food system that made city growth an empire wide concept. Previously, you could either grow fewer cities faster or more cities more gradually, which was a great way to set a cap on city spam. It was one of my favorite things about Fallen Enchantress’ awesome city system. But Legendary Heroes’ new food rules are the same as what we’ve been doing in Civilization all along. Each city’s growth is entirely a factor of how much food it’s producing. Pile on more and more farms. Yawn. Back to the same old city spam, as if the meager unrest penalty for additional cities is any sort of disincentive. For all the smart changes in Legendary Heroes, I don’t get this one.

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The add-on’s name comes from the new rules for heroes. Previously, heroes were goody huts. Basically, a bunch of dudes were loitering around the map waiting for you to come along and hire them, like day workers outside a Home Depot. This made heroes a facet of exploration and how much gold you could spare. Now heroes are their own system, with their own resource. Fame, which used to be the driving force behind city growth, is now a value that unlocks new heroes at certain thresholds. When you hit the next fame threshold, you get to pick between two random heroes. Randomly selected, but not randomly created. These heroes are hand-made and all the more interesting for it.

Furthermore, as heroes level up, they plot out their upgrades on a traditional skill tree, a la any RPG worth its salt. I can see when and which must-have upgrades I’m going to get for each hero. Along with Fallen Enchantress’ robust magic and inventory systems, and especially Legendary Heroes’ new unique abilities for each weapon type and each faction, this is even more of an RPG strategy game than it was before. Previously, the game’s best character system was how you developed your cities. Now, the game’s best character system is how you develop your characters.

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The AI can still be disappointingly passive, and it’s particularly bad about setting up new cities, which is a primary consideration for any faction given how few suitable spots there are to build cities. When you see those productive tiles in Fallen Enchantress, you want to grab it pronto. The AI apparently doesn’t agree. But it’s a real delight to see the AI using the tools of the game. You’ll encounter a Magnus city with a wall of fire around it. Yithril loves to build and attack with its juggernauts. You can peer into any city and see that, yep, the AI is playing by the same rules, even if it’s not always doing it efficiently. The most worrying thing is the timid attacks with understaffed stacks, and I hope to see these issues addressed in the 1.3 update, currently in progress and available as a beta.

4 stars
PC