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Elemental Review

by VoxClamant, 2010-08-28

(Note:  This article has been revised to reflect the significant changes in Elemental's V1.06 hotfix.)

Elemental: War of Magic looks as though it is well on the way to becoming a good game - perhaps even a very good game - for the subset of RPGwatch that enjoys strategy titles.   As delivered today, version 1.06, it is not yet there, though a flurry of patches has gotten it a lot closer in the days since a buggy launch.  It was released with more problems (and some fascinating histrionics/politics covered below) than most releases.  Right now the ultimate success of Elemental is dependent on how well and how quickly the developers implement a very required series of patches.  They appear to be on the right path after a rocky start.  Even with the pain of losing all my saved games because of the latest hotfix, the worst problem (crashing to desktop) seems to have been resolved.

Right up front, Elemental is not an RPG despite the "RPG elements" so many games like to tout these days.   What gives Elemental promise is that it fits a very interesting niche.

At the risk of horrendous oversimplification, this is Civilization-lite, a stripped down version of the Civilization series.  And that is its strength.  It centers on the fun, central parts of an empire-building, warfare, strategy game without adding the many additional layers of complexity that push some away from huge empire strategy games.  You have interesting tech trees, empire development, exploration and warfare.  What Elemental strips out in terms of complexity, it adds back in terms of quests, hero customization, tactical battles, and use of magic by your leader.

Bottom line: I would wait a week or so for another couple patches before laying out $US 50 but I think this will be a fun, casual strategy title that many will enjoy.


Author Caveats

As usual, a couple cautions for those reading this review.  It is based on only about 40 hours of play time.  I never played the beta or participated in the beta forums.  I cannot cover multiplayer because the MP portions of Elemental have been broken and unavailable since release.

Most importantly, I have spoken to no one associated with the title and have no ties to the publisher or designers, so I might be wrong on how much I expect the developers to fix the existing problems.  Most of my conclusions that Stardock will ultimately patch this into a very good game are based on reading through literally hundreds of forum postings the past couple days to see what the community thinks will happen based on their experiences with Stardock during the beta and on prior games.


A Very Ambitious Indie

Stardock bit off quite a lot in their design effort.  Elemental does not feel like an indie and there is a lot of polish and depth here beyond what you might expect.  Graphics and camera views are solid -- a long way from matching today's titles like Dragon Age, Disciples 3, or Mass Effect 2 -- but a long way past the Heroes of Might & Magic or Civilization series.  It offers three modes of play: a single user campaign, random scenarios, and multiplayer.

A likely great strength is good support for mods and map making with what appears to be a solid set of modding tools built into the game.  In the first week of release already mods and maps are starting to appear (probably with a head start from the betas).

Game complexity and scope are impressive.  The tech trees, alone, seem to be a good improvement over comparable games and are well thought out.  The best part of these tech trees is the balance between complexity and fun; there are dozens of choices, but they never seem to get so complex that you cannot reason out a plan for your empire.

One intriguing claim Stardock made I cannot verify, seems a refreshing step forward for games, if correct.  A design goal was to develop a game that could be played on a wide range of computers, and "... played for the next 20 years."  I am playing on a very high-end machine, so I cannot test the low-end playability.  However, forum posting seem to indicate they have achieved that goal.  The Stardock mod support and history of expansions suggests they might be right.


Strategy - stripped to the fun basics

Elemental has struck an interesting and engaging balance between strategy and RPG elements.  It is a bit like that elusive quality of the old HoMM series or Disciples 2 that somehow combines the two in a way that is enjoyable.

Empire-building strategy is what you would expect.  You found and defend cities.  You need resources to grow.  As you develop technologies more building and army options are open to you.  The tech trees are well done.  There are five major areas, and each time you choose to upgrade you can select one of 2-5 choices for the results. 

Mastering the tech tree, like any good game, takes patience and retries.  If you put all into Warfare, your cities develop slowly.  The Adventuring group opens up some of the more enjoyable quests for items.  The Magic area opens up a lot of possibilities with new spells and buildings.

Treaties and trading are integral to the game.  One nice thing about non-aggression treaties, if you choose to negotiate one, is that they cannot be broken by the opponent for 99 turns.  Trade and technology treaties are possible and you can establish caravans between cities.

The ability to custom design units is well done.  You simply choose the types of weapons, armor, appearance, etc of a unit that you wish to create.  Then you name it and save it.  The cost, resource requirement, and development time of all choices you make are clear.


Three Modes Of Play - And Modding

As shipped, there are three ways to play, but only one "works" well enough to play.  Fortunately, the one that works will be the most fun of the three for most players.

Campaign -- this is a fairly linear campaign that almost appears to be an afterthought add-on by the developers.  When shipped the campaign was almost unplayable at times.  At present (V1.06) it is better but still needs a patch or two before you will want to try it.  However, a curious design decision was to strip the campaign of many of the best parts of Elemental --  quests, hero customization, and tech development, especially.  This is a very strange decision because it really guts what might have been a good campaign.

Sandbox -- This is their term for random-generated scenarios.  This part of Elemental has excellent potential and as of V1.06 already is a lot of fun.  You design your hero, choose map size and enemies and dive into the full game.  Almost by definition this meets the Stardock claim of extensibility and years of play.  You will start and restart a few times as you learn the tech trees, etc. 

There are a couple significant problems with sandbox play that need to be addressed in a future patch.  One is that perhaps half the time your starting location does not have ready access to a gold mine.  This is such a crippling strategic drawback that when it occurs you would be better off immediately starting over.  The second is your starting location: perhaps it was an odd coincidence but in the 8-10 times I tested it I started every game in the dead center of the map surrounded by enemies (when I had four enemies).  Never once was I on the side or a corner.  This is a huge strategic disadvantage compared to your neighbors.  If you give the rest of the empires a 20-30 move head start while you search for a more defensible location for your first city you take on an even more serious handicap.  When I tried it with three enemies, I was always in one of the corners.  Unless I missed something obvious, lack of a random starting location (with a farm and goldmine nearby) is an odd oversight.

Multiplayer -- I did not try MP, and due to launch problems MP is still unavailable as of this writing.

Modding -- There appears to be a fairly robust suite of mod tools integral with Elemental.  I have not tried any of these tools.


A Few "RPG" Goodies Added

What one hand takes away (in terms of the heavy complexity of most empire strategy games), the other gives back in RPG elements and magic.  Please do not misread that line to think this is even close to being an RPG.  It is not.  But the RPG elements that are incorporated -- level up, battles, quests and magic -- somehow add the glue that gives Elemental its potential.

Battles are handled in their own screen much as HoMM and Disciples.  Your army (in the screenshot just individual members not yet using stacks) is spread out on the left while the baddies are to the right.  Each of your army gets their turns, and then the enemy gets to slap you around.  You can move, act, or both.  The order of attacks by your army is up to you.  Simple, but engaging.

Your PC is an active part of each battle.  This is especially where magic comes into play as your hero is the only significant caster. 

There were a number of irritating problems with the battles in the original release.  The first two patches seem to have done a good job of improving three of them -- speed of battle, camera panning without snapback when you fire a ranged attack and selection of your army members.  As well, the enemy AI seems better since the 1.06 patch.

One significant problem with battles remains --  the initial formation cannot be changed by the user (or perhaps I was just never smart enough to discover how).  And sometimes it would shift between battles.  The ability to start a battle with your archers at the rear, melee forward and hero where you need him would be a very nice improvement to the game.  As delivered, the locations are somewhat random and change battle to battle.  This means you are often wasting initial battle moves and losing actions because you are repositioning your troops while the enemy is roaring in with swords raised.

Leveling up is simple.  You get one point to add to attributes.  The attributes are the standard six with the usual impact, plus attributes for movement and battle speed.

You will enjoy the magic system.  You start with next to nothing for spells and cannot research them until you have possessed the right kinds of buildings and resources.  Spells come from the usual schools of magic for any experienced RPGer.  There is a well thought out set of spells including single target spells, buffs, area-effect spells, heals, and summoned creatures.  Spells by your hero add a great deal to the game compared to traditional empire-strategy titles.  With few minor exceptions, spells are limited to your hero.

In the sandbox mode there are many quests available.  Most of these are to go kill something or find something that result in you getting an equipment upgrade. 

At the start of sandbox mode (and I presume MP) you can design your own hero.  These let you juggle the starting attributes of your character, race, sex and appearance, and choose some special abilities.


Restart And Restart Again!

One caveat for anyone who did not play the beta is that, like any such game, plan on a few restarts before you start to suss out the tech tree, attributes, spells, etc.  I probably tried 3-4 small sandbox games on "easy" before I felt I had enough knowledge of Elemental to bump those up and give it a serious try.  There is a reasonably long learning curve involved here.  However, it is far less than the curve for a "comparable" game like Civilization.


Serious Bugs In Release Version

Now the bad news.  Elemental was shipped well before it should have been shipped.  Stardock claims to the contrary -- that they needed to release a buggy download version because retailers were jumping the gun on box shipments -- do not seem to hold water.   How did "good" software in the retail boxes suddenly become "bad" just because it was sold two days early?

The most serious problem was CTDs.  After the first patch (1.05.016) these still were frequent and ruined gameplay even in the sandbox mode.   A CTD 5-6 times per hour, plus most times I alt-tabbed out of the game, was the norm.  Ugh!

However, hotfix 1.06 was a major improvement.  When I went back to revise this piece based on the V1.06 changes, three hours of play yielded zero CTDs. 

The game has odd mouse and hotkey problems and reminds me of the Disciples 3 release in that manner.  From reading the posts of others with the same issue I cannot find a common denominator.   Many users are reporting out-of-memory problems and strange battle glitches.  Starting a sandbox game without a goldmine anywhere near is just silly.  The 1.06 hotfix notes suggest that some of these were addressed and resolved.

The campaign version has major problems to the point of approaching non-playability.  Many cannot pass a specific location.  Portraits disappear.  The map gets rotated.   Event triggers seem to be misplaced.  Map markers disappear or never show.  Hot buttons sporadically fail.  The V1.06 hotfix repaired the worst of these bugs (a pass being blocked to you that prevented continuing the campaign).


Sometime It Gets Personal

A fascinating sidebar to the release is some of the visibility of the designers.  A developer blog on the official site, elementalgame.com, is fascinating reading ("Stardock's response to PC Gamer UK and RPS" -- dated 25 August).  The short view is a comment that has been read by some to say "... if you do not like buggy games, just don't buy it..." apparently touched a nerve that hit a few websites.  As an outsider looking in, it appears simply to be a poorly thought-out comment said in frustration that has been taken a bit out of context -- and the reaction struck a nerve at both Stardock and a couple other sites.

In an odd way, this is why I like indy developers.  Read the developer's comments on the Underworld site, and you must be struck by the almost childish glee (the good kind we all should have!) at being picked up and reviewed by sites like RPGWatch.  Look at the reaction of the Archon team to comments in the thread on the Dungeon Siege remake of U6 -- you have to be struck by the pride and passion in what they did.  Look at my reaction (if you could see it) to comments on my reviews.  You might be amazed at how much I worry that if I write "... X does not work ..." someone will reply along the lines of "... dummy, did you ever look at tab 6 of the options and check the box that ...".

Sometimes, especially with indies, developers let their hearts show.  As a reviewer, I am clear on the concept!  Time and again I have had to bite my lip at the reaction to something I wrote in a review by a reader.  This is all much ado about nothing.


The Bottom Line

I like Elemental.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I think I am going to like it a lot.  It all depends on what the developer does next.  As of V1.06 it is just barely ready for prime time, but is moving in the right direction.

Stardock released a version with significant bugs and crashes that needed fast attention to patch and fix.  Resolving the major CTD issue was a big step -- as of 27 August the Sandbox mode is now playable and is a good game despite some of the design issues cited above.  MP is still not available.  The campaign is still so weak it seems more like an afterthought tacked onto the game --  it is disappointing, buggy, leaves out many of Elemental's best features, and is not even close to the standards of the rest of the game.  Now that the deal-killers (especially the CTDs ) are fixed, there are still be a handful of needed fixes (like the start locations and battle formation) that needs to be in round three of the patches to move this to the "very good" category of game.  Obviously MP has to be enabled before Elemental will live up to the promises offered by this ambitious project.

All those problems notwithstanding, Elemental has the foundation and looks to be on the way to becoming a very good game.  It fits a nice niche between the complexity of a "Civilization" and the simplicity of a "HoMM."  Frankly, Sandbox mode is fun.  It is one of the very few strategy titles I have played that appeals greatly to the many of the players who enjoy RPGs.  Perhaps you might think of it more as HoMM or Disciples 2 beefed up a bit, than as Civilization-Lite.  Either way, it fills a fun and relatively unique niche.

However -- unless you just won the lottery and $US 50 means little to you, I would recommend leaving your credit card in your wallet for another week or two.  Elemental is still 2-3 patches away from being ready for prime time.  When and if those patches are done, Elemental has the potential to be one of those few games that stays on your computer for years as a fun gaming experience.

Box Art

Information about

Elemental: War of Magic

Developer: Stardock

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Non-RPG
Combat: Turn-based
Play-time: Unlimited
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2010-08-18
· Publisher: Stardock

More information