Beta Blocked
TomChick - News - 04/23/08 - Link

I've been playing a fair bit of the lastest builds of Fall from Heaven II (a mod for Civilization IV) and Twilight of the Arnor (an expansion for Galactic Civilizations II). Both are absolutely superlative examples of how to breathe new life into a game. And both are going to suck up more hours of my life that I could get a WoW character (or two) up to level 70 instead.

Fall from Heaven is a dizzying universe of magic and religion and monsters and heroes and artifacts, based on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign the developer has run over the years. It sounds nerdy and it is! but it's enough to make you think, 'Dang, I wish this guy had been my DM when I played D&D!' In Fall from Heaven, the assorted bits and pieces of imaginative mythology are all twisted so deeply into the gameplay of Civ IV that it's all but unrecognizable. This is one of the most comprehensive and impressive player-made mods I've ever seen, for any type of game. Even after repeated dalliances, I'm still discovering new things. (The latest PDF documentation is a big help.)

So I started a new game and let it randomly choose a faction for me. I ended up with pirates called the Lanun who can line the coastline with coves that grow into lucrative harbors. One of their heroes is a powerful ship called the Black Wind, a disguised pirate vessel that can prey on shipping with impunity, even attacking allied vessels for loot.

I started on the west coast of a continent, hemmed in by the sea on my left and an evil race of ice people called the Ilians on my right. The score of the Ilians quickly shot up higher than mine by several hundred points. They kept bossing me around, asking for technology and resources and money. I figured I was toast. But after years of giving in to their demands, I finally refused them. I am NOT going to give you all my gold, you greedy jerks! So they declared war.

And then promptly did nothing.

"Okay," I thought after a few years of sitzkrieging, "I guess this war isn't going to fight itself." So I mustered up a bunch of swordsmen and a few catapults. The Ilians defended their cities with a few basic warriors and the odd javelin thrower. They blockaded my coastal cities, but the Black Wind quickly sank the Ilian navy. At one point, a single Ilian mounted unit rode into my territory and looked around. I had swallowed up half the Ilian empire before I finally ran out of steam due to war exhaustion at home. So I called for peace, adopted the religion of The Order to turn myself good and get cozy with the good Order faction at the other end of the continent, and I'm now hanging back to let the Armageddon Counter rack up, spreading barren hell-terrain through the territory of various evil factions in the middle of the continent.

But here's the thing: I was playing on the "Prince" difficulty level, which is normally pretty challenging for me, and the Ilian's higher score meant they should have had plenty of resources to mount an offense against me, not to mention defend their cities effectively. There's no reason I should have been able to beat them so easily. But Fall from Heaven II is currently a beta many months from being complete. Any complaint I have about the game in general, and probably the AI in specific, isn't really fair. The mod simply isn't done. So when something like this happens, I feel like I've been spinning my wheels, playing it before it's ready.

It's a bit similar with Twilight of the Arnor, which reworks Galactic Civilizations II just as dramatically as Fall from Heaven reworks Civ IV. By giving all the races their own tech trees and planetary improvements, suddenly GalCiv II has personality based on gameplay rather than personality based on tweaked numbers. And pictures of aliens in the diplomacy viewscreen. And cool customizable ship graphics. Say what you will about GalCiv II, but it's a very mathy strategy game that also happens to have cool interchangeable artwork.

But in Twilight of the Arnor, the different sides now play very differently, each with their own style and flavor. It's enough to put a guy in mind of all those loveable species from MOO2, like the bear dudes, and the insect dudes, and the little cloaked spying dudes, and so forth. That sort of personality is now driving GalCiv II, and math can sit in the back seat. It's hard to overstate how much of a difference it makes, but the analogy is like going from an RTS with only one faction to an RTS with multiple factions. Imagine you've been playing Warcraft III as the humans for years. Now along comes an expansion pack that adds in the Night Elves, the Undead, and the Orcs. That's what Twilight of the Arnor is like.

But once again, I'm playing a beta. So when something weird happens in this case, my logistics dropped permanently to zero, which meant I couldn't assemble any fleets and therefore had to fight battles with one ship at a time, effectively shutting the game down I'm just spinning my wheels, playing it before it ready, and not even entitled to complaints about things that don't work. Betas. Bah. I'd just as soon wait until the game is finished. Which, in the case of Twilight of the Arnor, is April 30 and in the case of Fall from Heaven II is, well, who knows... It's a mod, so these things are often in danger of never getting finished. Let's just say if Fall from Heaven II gets a version number of 1.0 by the end of the year, I'll be surprised but very happy.

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