As I open this review I will confess that I am pre-disposed to like some games even before I see the first load screen. As such, I find myself overlooking flaws, blemishes, and other imperfections that other gamers will not (and maybe should not). Elemental: War of Magic is just such a game--I adore 4X titles, I find myself ever drawn to an epic fantasy setting, and I have always had a soft spot for Stardock as a developer. Given this, I may not be as critically harsh as I should be in this situation while admitting that I have overlooked a great many flaws and imperfections in my time with Elemental.
Set in a fantasy world devastated by a war with a powerful race of beings known as Titans, Elemental begins with players controlling a Sovereign, one of a paltry few humans left with the ability to command magical energies. From these humble beginnings players must scratch out a kingdom powerful enough to take on the rest of the kingdoms of the world who, coincidentally enough, each have their own Sovereign at the helm.
Each Sovereign has the ability to establish a single starting town, after which players must cultivate their empire in traditional 4X fashion. Once established, each town tiles suitable for building various structures helpful for establishing the burgeoning economy. As the shattered remains of human civilization begin flocking to these newly-urban areas, the towns grow in influence and control. As a town's influence spreads across the map, it may encompass various strategic resource points, from forests to fertile soil to the magically-infused elemental Shards. Building the appropriate structure on these resource points nets the empire the various resources needed to further expansion, such as food, money, and building materials. Further town improvement also nets an empire Tech points and Magic research points, necessary for researching down the various paths to advancement and, ultimately, victory.
Technology points allow players to re-discover knowledge lost during the cataclysm. Research is carried out in one of five areas, and when a discovery is made in a given area, a specific tech from that area may be chosen. Some of the technologies have a random chance of appearing with any given discovery, so there's a bit of a blind-research feel to Elemental. Many techs provide access to new buildings, many of the Warfare techs allow for better equipment for units, and some have truly interesting effects. Adventure techs, for example, allow players to encounter bigger and bigger quest locations, but as they do they ramp up the types of monsters unleashed on the unsuspecting maps.
Working in conjunction with technology, magic research allows players to open more and more powerful spells for use by their Sovereign and other magic-using units. The spells themselves are a mixed bag, many being almost completely useless and others being game-breakingly powerful. Research continues until players reach a victory-inducing Spell of Making, the game-winning spell whose casting requires at least one of each elemental Shard location to be controlled.
Should the tech race not be the desired path to victory, players can choose the more tried-and-true conquest or diplomacy routes, either convincing each of the other races to get along or simply beating them into submission. As a fourth victory condition, the Adventure technology tree eventually opens up a five-part Ultimate Quest, whose conclusion will trigger a win. The non-Sovereign units consist primarily of humans outfitted with a vast array of weaponry. Researching the Warfare tree unlocks better and better armor and weapon options, as well as the option to generate squads of units in a single training run. These units are highly customizable, allowing players to mix-and-match weapons as cost and training time allow. I found that the customization was not nearly as entertaining as I at first thought it would be, and often found myself just letting the computer outfit the best default warriors I could buy.
Hero units wander the map and can be hired on for a price. These units, while not as powerful as the Sovereign itself, can be quite useful to an empire. Often giving the empire a bonus to resources or knowledge, these units also can level up their attributes and be outfitted with weaponry as the Sovereign. Even so, I often tucked these units safely in a town to protect their empire bonus rather than unleash them on my enemies.
The Sovereign unit is the most powerful in the game, and permanently losing the Sovereign is a game-ending defeat. Initially the only magic-using unit in the game, the Sovereign gains ability score improvements as it levels up through combat experience. Also given the ability to be outfitted with the best weapons available to an empire, the Sovereign can often single-handedly tear through enemy armies with the proper use of spells and attacks. If players want a little extra magical firepower in their arsenal, they have a few options. Sovereigns can sacrifice a bit of their magic ability to imbue other hero units with spellcasting abilities. Sovereigns can also choose to marry one of the hired hero units, and will subsequently produce up to four magic-capable children, each of which will eventually be controllable, magic-using hero units. At least on the lower difficulty settings, a magic-using family supplied with one or two of the more devastating spells can chew through just about every other army in the game.
Combat, being at the heart of any 4X game, makes a few missteps in Elemental. Once enemy armies meet on the map, a battle screen pops up. Players have the option of picking a quick resolution or duking it out on a tactical combat screen. For a game in which combat is so important, the tactical combat screen is quite poorly done. The uninteresting grid is populated by the opposing units, often standing in football-line ranks across the field. Each unit can move a few squares and then unleash a basic attack. Magic-using units, or those with ranged weapons, have a few extra options, but for the most part combat is quite dull. The units themselves are not at all interesting to behold on the tactical screen, and the special effects of attack and spells are disappointing. In fact, many times the spell effects failed to even show up when used, just one of many technical issues infecting Elemental. In addition, the controls for the tactical combat are shaky at best. I often mis-clicked my units into the wrong position, or had a spell cancel itself before I could target.
And here we get into the heart of the problems with Elemental--the technical issues. Elemental is one of the shakiest release games I've played in a long time. With frequent game crashes, numerous typographical errors, graphical glitches, and a shoddy user interface, Elemental just felt like it could have used a little more time before release. In its defense, there have been three patches in the few weeks I've been playing, and each patch did improve things markedly. I will not venture into the minefield discussion of games being released too soon here, but suffice it to say the initial release did not live up to my expectations.
And while some things have been tweaked with the patches, some of the aspects of Elemental just require a bit of time to accept. The graphics in particular are a bit of an acquired taste. With a cartoony, almost cell-shaded look, one could describe the overall graphical experience of Elemental as "simple". Or, if one is a bit less kind, once could sum up Elemental as "beige". The entire map begins almost colorless, and the various points of interested just fail to stand out. A great expanse of tan spotted with dully-colored resources is all that greets a new player. Sure, this fits in with the idea of a land blasted by magical cataclysm, but it also removes much of the immersive aspects of the game. And, eventually, towns will cause the surrounding land to green up (or blacken into char), adding some spice to mix. The user interface, in the past a high point of Stardock titles, completely failed to impress me this time around. While I liked the unit and town display along the left-hand side of the screen, I found navigation to be frustrating at best. Little things stuck out as problematic, such as when a huge stack of my units invaded and captured a town, they would all de-stack upon town entry. This required me to individually order each unit of interest back out of the town in question. Building up towns was also clunky, and I would sometimes find myself constructing extra and unnecessary buildings because of an errant click. A few times I somehow built multiple copies of "one only" wonder-type buildings, again due to a series of errant menus and unintuitive controls.
Primarily a sandbox-style game, Elemental does come with a campaign mode, ostensibly designed as the game's tutorial. I found the campaign to be quite frustrating, with unspecific goals to further the plot. After spending a half-hour looking for the next plot trigger, I wandered off into the sandbox portion of the game and never looked back. With no other tutorial available, Elemental was not an easy game to get into. Without a detailed manual, lacking a sufficient amount of tooltips, and armed with a surprisingly uninformative help menu, even a long-time 4X gamer such as myself was hard-pressed to get going, and had it not been for a deadline I would have put this on the back burner until those issues were sorted out. I would have at least liked to see a sortable technology and spell list, along with a great deal more information available on each unit, weapon, and upgrade.
There are more issues, both good and bad, but at its heart Elemental: War of Magic is a game that will require patience and a bit of forgiveness before players will truly enjoy it. Stardock has a stellar track record of supporting their titles, and listening to player concerns when making their often-extensive content updates. Also promised is a multi-player option, presumably once the kinks are worked out of the single-player game. Because of this, I have hopes that Elemental will someday become an engrossing 4X fantasy title. As of right now, however, I will withhold recommendation of this title, and advise a wait-and-see approach.