Elemental: War of Magic Review
By Dwayne Baird |
I enjoyed Stardock's Sins of a Solar Empire, and I've been known to lose myself to other 4X games (games based around "exploration, exploitation, expansion, and extermination") such as Civilization. With this in mind you might assume that its newest game, Elemental: War of Magic, would be a match made in heaven for someone like me who enjoys both the genre and is a huge fantasy nerd. Which is why it's so disappointing that Elemental is in the unfinished, beta-like state that it's in.
You have to admit, it looks pretty damn unique.At the time of this review Elemental has been out for two weeks, and yet it still feels like it's in development. But before I get way too deep into its issues, let me try to give you a brief overview of what this game is all about. Elemental is a turn-based strategy game where you control a hero known as a Sovereign. After selecting what nation and Sovereign you want to use (or creating your own complete with backstory), you then use a series of options to select the size of the world, the length of the game, who you'll be facing, and the victory conditions you want to play with.
In the game you use your Sovereign to build up a series of cities and forge an empire, competing with other Sovereigns for valuable resources on the map. That makes it sound pretty simple, but trust me, it's not. It's easy to get overwhelmed when you're not only managing the resources of your empire, but also worrying about the income and construction going on in each of your cities on a turn-to-turn basis. Stack on this the constant choices you're making about the research your country is performing – focusing on either military, politics, infrastructure or magic, which in turn will affect the entire way you play the game since research determines the things you can build – and the head that's wearing the crown starts to feel heavy indeed. The ultimate goal of this complicated empire building? To unite the land through conquest, diplomacy, questing, or uniting all the magical shards in the world.
Like Civilization, the primary focus of Elemental is not playing through a story-driven campaign, but is instead more about creating a world out of a series of options and seeing how it works out. Sure, Elemental has a short campaign mode that follows a story, but the tale itself is pretty mundane, and it doesn't even work all that well as the tutorial it's so obviously meant to be. You can learn some very basic ideas behind the game through playing this guided version of the game, but even by the time I finished the it – even after reading all the in game tool tips and guides that are available – I still felt like I didn't have a very good understanding of how any of the more complex mechanics in Elemental worked. Even now, after many single player battles outside of the campaign (the primary way you'll play Elemental), I still find that I learn more about the game by talking about it with other people who are playing than I ever do through any of the in-game help that's available. It's a significant problem, and one that Stardock is aware of, as they've informed me that they're working on a full-blown tutorial right now.
If, like me, you're willing to put the time into learning the more complex parts of Elemental on your own, then you might enjoy some of what it has to offer. Like other 4X games, Elemental is very addicting, and it's easy to start a game and then realize the sun is coming up because you've played through the night. And while most of the stability issues seem to be fixed now, I can understand a lot of the internet forum outrage that's occurred since the game launched in regards to its known technical issues. Repeatedly I lost my progress to a random crash, and in one case I even lost the ability to load up my prior saves because they were incompatible with the new version Stardock released.
You can play the entire game from the cloth map view if you want.Sadly, even when the game was working there are some issues with the A.I. that make it pretty frustrating to play against. The A.I. often takes its Sovereign into battle in foreign lands, making it easy to kill – which in turn eliminates the empire from the map. But should the enemy empires be smart enough to avoid this, they'll usually amass amazingly large armies and march on you, even if the victory through conquest option has been disabled. In all the matches I played I never once saw the A.I. try to win by any other way than wiping out the other nations, making it so I had to focus on my military to a point where I could never effectively pursue the other victory conditions.
The A.I. problem might be less of an issue if I could play against other players, but the multiplayer portion of the game still hasn't been activated. I would love to tell you all about how much fun it is, or talk about why this aspect of the game might make it a more appealing package overall, but sadly none of us have the option to engage in a part of the game that's advertised on the back of the box. I know that this is being delayed to fix issues and make sure it's the best experience possible, but at some point last week it became more than a little ridiculous that paying customers are still waiting for this.