Elemental: War of Magic
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Release Date: 08/24/2010
Elemental is ambitious. A game that spent years in development with the aim of being the modern day version of Master of Magic with modifying capabilities, multiplayer and a world with a large background story. There was a problem and that problem is that the company that made it, Stardock, loved its child too much. Released on August 24th, 2010, Elemental is a bug addled game that would normally be cause to be up in arms. There are some redeeming qualities though, and remember, even Caesar was ambitious.
The world of Elemental is a world divided into two continents that suffered a harsh war, a war between channelers (humans that can use magic) and Titans (gods that wanted the magic of Elemental for themselves). The Titans altered some humans into what is collectively called “The Fallen”, four races that look humanoid but are no longer mere men. After the titanic battle between humans and Titans that saved the world, the humans stayed in the west while the east was mainly ceded to the Fallen. The world is decimated and you are one of the few channelers left, tasked with the goal of bringing back civilization as either a member of the kingdoms of man or the empire of the Fallen.
Overall I would say the story is standard fare but there is quite a bit of breadth, if not some depth, that really comes with the background of the game that I would say the story is above average, not the greatest story ever told but it is more than expected.
Story Rating: Above Average
Elemental‘s 3D world is not too shabby, though it’s a bit too brown, like most modern games. The graphics work for me on the overland map, and seeing the buildings you have built in your towns on display is nice. The portraits of characters are not pug fugly but they are not super model gorgeous either. They work, but don’t expect beauty.
Graphics Rating: Mediocre
In playing Elemental, I discovered the music was not too bad. I cannot say it was overly memorable, but it did not make me want to turn it off. The sound effects are pretty standard. I am glad Elemental allows me to toggle volumes and whether or not I even want their sounds playing. Since the music is not too bad and the ambiance created by the game noises helps my experience, I can go on record as giving Elemental an average sound score. It’s easy to screw up things with annoying soundtracks.
Sound Rating: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay
When you choose to start a game you get the choice of being kingdom (good guys; mainly humans) or empire (bad guys; mainly non-humans). There are a few differences, mainly that it seems the Fallen (dark non-humans) have a more fascist sort of background than the kingdom humans, but that’s really it. I do like making stark white characters, but The Fallen, with their slave pits and skulls, just kind of turned me off. I did spend a tad bit more time with them though because they can get dog mounts! Oh, and a few resources cannot be used by the other side (dog mounts, horses, villages, darklings/smaller wild fallen, amongst others). This just adds a bit of flavor to each side.
The bulk of the game is spent in the single player free mode, which is what I will be covering exclusively. To begin, you get the option to choose what means of victory are in play. There are four options: conquest (which is self explanatory), diplomatic, master quest and the spell of making. The first two are now standard in most games but the last two tie into the theme of a major cataclysmic event happening to the world of Elemental. As you play the game, you research and try to rediscover civilization, magic and quests. Each bit of lost knowledge returned to the hands of the people means more options open up. You can re-learn how to arrange marriages, learn lost spells or find new ways of recruiting NPC characters to your cause, amongst the many things that research brings. The overall rediscovery of knowledge is governed by tech points, while spell acquisition is covered by knowledge.
When you create a sovereign, your choices can influence just how fast you get on the research paths. There are perks and detriments to choose from and generating research (for spells or techniques). You may also select what spell schools your channeler knows at the beginning from air, fire, earth, water, wind and hea… enchantment. The option not to take any spell school is there, and you will have a few spells, but may also, unlike some, learn from studious research in the magic research path. Generally, it is a good idea to take all of them, but air provides chain lightning which makes encounters easier. Also get any summon creature spell you can because they help way too much.
Besides perks, stat categories (your basic set of character categories like strength, intelligence, constitution and whatnot), background and equipment, you get to select what race, what complexion, clothing colors and general appearance you have. The creation options are pretty good, and for those who really want to immerse themselves, there is a place to write some back story for your newly created leader. I, personally, wrote one back-story about a man pushed to the edge who had returned to clean up the place with a no-nonsense brand of justice and a club. I then told our esteemed head man Alex about this, and how my diplomacy via club was going. Man with Club, from the city of Clubland, clubbed some dumb lady who refused to talk with him (because I did not have enough gildar/gold to recruit her). Her accidentally hitting her head on the bottom of Man with Club’s club repeatedly until dead sent shockwaves across the world (called Land of Things to Club by Man with Club) that lead to Man with Club clubbing more things into submission. Eventually, I ran out of things within the immediate area to club and Man with Club became bored and built a city, but none of this relates to his back story, which was for flavor. Instead of seeking justice, Man with Club mainly set out to bash things on the head. I liked that this option was available for me to ignore later.
As far as the maps go, the randomly generated maps are very friendly. While not always in a prime position, I rarely found a game I started where I was completely screwed as far as map location. Sometimes I ended up neighboring too many other kings and queens, but that was solved via diplomacy and club diplomacy. The only difference between the two is one has words the other has a club to the skull. I rather liked the latter as a means of solving problems, especially since the AI often just sat there and waited for you to visit their lands and take their towns.
I tried actual diplomacy, but the fact I had to relearn how to do anything of real weight, like peace treaties and alliances, often meant it was easier to take out my trusty club and create a different sort of pact, an impact if you will. Unlike fractured alliances or trade treaties, this impact usually left the other side speechless… because they were dead. If I wanted to spend some more time searching for the ultimate spell, I often had all the time in the world because of the AI not attacking. Questing to victory? That required not only research, but actually moving around the continents in search of quest huts. That took too long, despite the sheer amount of things to club along the way; it could not hold my interest. Another person, someone who has more drive to club everything in existence, could work with the master quest option. Me? I wanted my clubbing fast and messy, not that fancy book learned clubbing they teach at Ivy League club schools. Take your east coast, pinky out, tea sipping, hoity toity style of clubbing and shove it; I’m a real clubbing man who don’t need no fancy, roundabout route to club everyone into submission. Did I mention I liked the option of just clubbing people into submission?
Managing cities is fine and all your resources are shared. The game makes it hard to have numerous large cities, with food production being a bottleneck from my games. You must build more and more housing, using up more and more food, meaning you must pick and choose what city grows into your large city. Resources can also be scarce, or certain ones can be lacking, making you choose how to equip your troops. Your cities may not produce jack for metal but have magical crystals so you can give them necklaces that make them harder to hit or make them do more damage. Managing your cities is a big deal. With a city placed in a terrible location, all it does is drain resources. Small cities produce nothing, so learning how to control their growth and just what they produce is a concern.
You can also get married and have heirs, as some maps take ages to complete (provided you aren’t crashing). I have a queen in one game that likes to get down and dirrty (with two r’s). She keeps popping out babies, but mainly women, so they’ll be married off. This is an interesting little tidbit, but not really anything that super excited me, despite seeing baby announcements. Now fantasy baby showers, that’d be pretty sweet.
However, as entertained as I was with the options, the ability to bludgeon fauna and people alike as well as using magic to fry trolls and summon imps, the game itself is fundamentally flawed. Elemental was released with a memory leak that, if you managed to get the game started, were able to get to move, and did not have a white screen of death on the beginning of combat, you were destined to crash. Sometimes, when I tried to start a saved game, all I would get was a crash. I felt like a crash test dummy. No matter how much I liked Elemental, no matter how many different paths I tried to take to victory or no matter how many spider skulls were caved in for Clubland, the crash was there. Sure I enjoyed using magic on the occasions I used it – especially crushing large armies with a few summoned creatures with guaranteed area of effect damage, but not knowing when my game would die was irritating. If I saved, sometimes I would lose my cloth map game or I would end up crashing again after I exited the main menu. For all the fun I thought I was having or wanted to have, Elemental would rebuke my love and send me crashing down like a ballerina out of control. I felt like I was left outside on Frigid Winter Days, Stuck Between Something and Nothing – I am referencing Ocean Blue songs, damn it. I tried it on my desktop that is ancient and it played okay, a 2008 laptop that ran it like crap thanks to an integrated video card, and a machine from last year that has 6 gigs of RAM and I think talks to God… and they all crashed time and time again, like clockwork. I don’t buy games to have an arbitrary play limit set, thank you very much. I can turn off my machine any time I want to!
The entire debacle of release left a tarnish on Elemental. This is a game I wanted to like, badly. Elemental is a game that had much attention paid to it from its developer and had loved poured into it… but love alone won’t make things right.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Below Average
While multiplayer may not be all that much of a draw, the random maps generated for single player mode gives players a cornucopia of options for new games. Every map generated means a new game with a new approach. The ability to create maps helps in that regard, if you are willing to spend the time. Creating factions and making mods for Elemental looks to give the game a bit more longevity, should it overcome its problems.
Replayability Rating: Mediocre
As a builder type player, I often must worry about being rushed by AI factions. Considering Elemental has bands of roving non-aligned, malicious NPCs of varying power, I expected to be in the deep end of the outhouse. However, often times the NPCs just sit there, leaving a tasty morsel alone because they cannot be bothered to attack. One game had me overstretched, with the bulk of my forces on the other side of the map, and a large force of trolls mainly sat there and scratched their butts (in my imagination).
With this relative inaction noted, I upped the difficulty level and nothing much happened. As far as I can tell, most things are passive in Elemental. War was declared on me by some yellow guys, and they waited roughly 21 game years before sending their sovereign to die, giving me their land (which suddenly lost every other city I had not conquered). I defeated this king by making as many of my generals as possible magic users, then having them summon troops and taking advantage of area of effect attacks. There are numerous spells you can learn, but basically anything that is AoE combined with certain summoned creatures just means you repeatedly use two or three attacks. Wash, rinse, have a Garnier Fructis shampoo orgasm, win.
In my play experience, the balance is very poor. There just does not seem to be a challenge (except fighting the crashes).
Balance Rating: Pretty Poor
While not covering anything completely new, by making the Fallen not goblins, orcs or vampire wolf lovers, Elemental has at least tried to address the tired nature of most fantasy settings. The slight changing of discovery to recovery in terms of the tech tree and mixing of tactical combat with traditional city building was a decent choice. It’s not blazing new trails but at least it’s putting a spin on what is already around.
Above average attempt, mainly for getting rid of the greenskins, dwarves and elves.
originality Rating: Above Average
Crashes made a game that seems to be a blueprint for one more turn syndrome into a no more nonsense frustration test.
Addictiveness Rating: Poor
The core demographic for this game is Stardock fans and fans of strategy/civilization building games. However, with the bugs that were rampant in the initial game, everyone should have been turned off. While there have been patches that have helped the game become playable, and promises that next year will be devoted to updates and fixes, the appeal of this game is still limited in scope.
Appeal Factor: Poor
There are other methods of play: a campaign mode where you take control of certain characters for goals and a multiplayer mode, but since this is a turn based game, the multiplayer is more like tonsils, kind of there but not a big deal if they suddenly disappeared.
The only other thing I wanted to discuss is how Stardock CEO Brad Wardell has handled the release debacle. Elemental is his baby and its release was at odds with Stardock’s gamer’s bill of rights. However, Wardell has been frank and honest as the Elemental release saga has gone on, being accountable and available. While this whole situation has not been pleasant, at least there is responsibility being taken. I really wanted to love Elemental, but it is a flawed game that has a mountain of frustration to overcome.
Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre
Story: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Below Average
Balance: Pretty Poor
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
Final Score: Decent Game
Short Attention Span Summary:
Elemental is a game that was released with fundamental flaws making it unplayable. Elemental is also a game that has had someone’s love poured into it, perhaps blinding them to the faults and errors that plagued its release. I would recommend buying the game much later, after more things are patched and fixed. One thing is certain: Elemental has left an impression, for better or worse.