Field Report #3 - Elemental: War of Magic

By Brian Leahy, Aug 27, 2010 4:00pm PDT

Field Reports provide our first-hand experience with the latest games, but should not be considered a review.

It is my personal opinion that Stardock's latest game, Elemental: War of Magic, is not ready to be reviewed. I'm not talking about bugs, crashes, or compatibility issues—those should have all been ironed out at the time of this post—but rather, game design and balance.

Since this is Stardock, eventually, through patching and continued support, Elemental will evolve beyond what is available to consumers today. I would like to, at some point, review that product. For now, I'd like to discuss some of my experiences with the game in a more casual setting.

It seems to me that this title falls victim to a classic case of feature creep. There are just too many systems at play and in my (admittedly limited) understanding of the end-game, don't appear to mesh well together.

The game revolves around your chosen Sovereign, a supreme leader unit that can level-up, use equipment, utilize magic, found your initial city, and even marry and pro-create. The problem is that your Sovereign quickly becomes outclassed by normal units as the game progresses. Furthermore, unit stacks can get so ridiculously powerful that an opponent's only chance is to counter with an equally powerful unit stack. The constant risk of being steamrolled by a stack means that it's generally a good idea to focus entirely on creating a stack of your own.

Magic, for all its focus within the game's lore, is boring, uninspired, and not as powerful as you might expect. In fact, I've found that the only spells worth casting are summons, which create powerful units to add to your stack, and teleport, which can transport your stack quickly around the map. Many times, offensive spells will just miss, depleting the Sovereign's ridiculously small mana pool with only a few castings.

When leveling up, players can only choose a single statistic to improve, placing the Sovereign on the path to obsolescence. Feature creep particularly appears to be at work here. The developers might feel that building these characters in an in-depth RPG-like setting, focusing on single statistics, is a great feature and adds depth. Instead, it just serves to add dubious player choice. Why not just have the sovereign level-up every stat and maintain its power level with regular units as the game progresses?

The game's battle system is similarly convoluted by features. The game offers full, turn-based tactical combat, but most units do not have any abilities to use besides the standard attack. As I mentioned, magic is underwhelming in combat and these drawn-out battles usually amount to moving forward and repeatedly attacking and taking counterattacks. Auto-resolving battles, in most cases, is generally the best course of action. However, auto-resolving actually plays out a full tactical battle. This means that a battle AI had to be created to use spells and what few abilities there are in the game. It all seems needless when attack and defense numbers get so inflated by the mid- to late-game, that no amount of tactics will change the outcome if you're simply outclassed.

Then, there are features that seem underdeveloped, but are still included. Questing, for example, involves bringing your Sovereign or one of his or her children to a specific location on the map. A quest will be given, but it usually just involves going to another location and maybe having a quick battle or even going to yet another location. There is little questing involved. Furthermore, the types of quests appear quite limited. I often get 2 or 3 of the same exact quests—each with the same reward—early on in a game. Another quest, which requires finding 3 "midnight stones" from randomly placed battlefields, can reward a lucky player with armor that will make them extremely powerful in the early game.

City building and management is similarly underdeveloped. There are many times when I hit a point where a city could not support any additional buildings—do I have enough gildar? Have I unlocked the building via research? Is my city leveled up enough?— turning it into a simple unit-training station. Units require turns, gildar, and might require materials, metal, or other resources to produce. The gildar cost is at odds with building creation and buying equipment. Prices appear to be set independently of each other. I always found myself with too much gildar or no where near enough gildar.

I could go on and on about the scattered game design in Elemental, but now I want to hear your experiences with the game. I come away from the game sad. There was so much potential and I hope Stardock gets there someday. There's enough here, in theory, to interest me; but I keep running into numbers that just don't add up nicely. Honestly, I hope Stardock is willing to simplify or cut some features of the game. Balancing the current set of mechanics in a reasonable time-frame is probably impossible.

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15 Threads* | 45 Comments
  • For the hardcore TBS fans only:

    Something useful came out of this whole Elemental debacle that I wanted to share. I following some of the drama on Impulse, someone introduced me to the Quarter to Three forums (cool formus by the way).

    In that forum, I saw someone compare the AI in games from a tiny indie called Cryptic Comet to the lousy AI in Elemental.

    Suffice it to say, I purchased and simply LOVE both games from this company. I try to think I follow most PC TBS games, but this company was small enough to fly entirely under my radar... they offer free demos and access to tha manuals. Not the best graphics, but really well designed games with nice AI and great flavor.

    As for a quick update on Elemental: yes, I can now beat it easily on Ridiculous before any kid of mine is out of the crib. Ridiculous? Yes, ridiculously easy! It's quite sad really... here's to hoping that they fix Elemental up... it really does need 6 more months :(

  • Put in about 40 hours since Monday... yeah, it's buggy, yeah, it's unbalanced, and certainly YEAH it's a very ambitious game that has a ton of promise.

    Well done article Brian... I'm very impressed with how you handled this somewhat... sticky... situation ;)

    My last game is one is actually enjoyed a lot: that's because I know how to work around the many issues and they don't shock me into getting pissed anymore... for example, restarting the game every hour or so, which really isn't a huge big deal after all.

    In any case, my bet is that 6 months from now this will be a must-have game for strategy game nuts like me, so I'm happy with the purchase: warts and all.