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Elemental: War of Magic Review
One year ago I heard that Stardock was making a new strategy game. This game was called Elemental: War of Magic, and it appeared to be a combination of Civilization and Heros of Might and Magic, two great franchises. I was excited. Stardock's Galactic Civilizations 2 is one of my five favorite strategy games of all time. I preordered without hesitation.
Then, on August 24, I received a strange notification - Elemental: War of Magic was out! This seemed strange not because it was unexpected, but because Stardock didn't herald the coming of Elemental with trumpets or fanfare. In fact, the company seemed intentionally quiet.
So, without knowing what to expect, I jumped in. And what did I find?
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It is very difficult to talk about the gameplay of Elemental for one very simple reason: this is not a finished game. Oh, sure, you can load it, and it runs. But the design of the game feels frayed at the edges. It is a tangled weave of half-hearted ideas that becomes impossible to comprehend. Elemental isn't the wonderful strategy game I expected. Instead it is a warning to designers everywhere. HARK, DESIGNERS! THOU WILL NOT BITE MORE THAN THOU CAN CHEW, LEST YOU BE FORCED TO SPIT OUT YOUR MEAL!
There is a lot going on in Elemental. City building seems to be half-way between Civilization and SimCity. You build upgrades, but you actually place them on the map. However, the placement doesn't seem to matter, and it is sometimes unclear why some buildings are not available while others are. I get the sense that Stardock was going somewhere with this mechanic but didn’t have time to finish it.
Or let's consider combat. The idea of adding turn-based strategy combat to a fantasy oriented strategy game is cool, but again Stardock has missed the mark. The turn based combat, as it exists currently, is little more than a blueprint. Units rarely possess interesting abilities, and the combat maps all appear to be identical, perfectly flat rectangles. Luck is also a huge factor thanks to weapon damage rolls that have huge variance. Combat in Elemental is like playing Dungeons & Dragons with nothing but a twenty sided die.
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These problems are made worse by a learning curve that is as gentle and kind as a bomb shelter. Elemental throws the player in with almost no assistance. The manual is thin and in-game help is mostly provided at random by The Scribe of the Blatantly Obvious, who generally says things like "Don't let your main dude die." Okay, I'm paraphrasing a bit there - but that's generally what his help amounts to.
The main source of information about the game is actually the game's forums, which already has several "mega-threads" devoted to explaining the game. This, however, is only a partial remedy to the problem. Stardock should never have shipped this game with such baffling in-game help, and the inclusion of a comprehensive tutorial should be patched in quickly if Stardock wants any chance of attracting new fans to the game.
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Graphics and Sound
It would be wonderful if I could change the tone of my review and tell you how the visuals are stunning and the sound is top-notch. I can't do that, however, because the graphics are terrible and the sound is barely there.
Elemental’s visuals are straight from 2004. Character models are blocky and coated in amateur textures, and the world map is equally low-rent. It isn't as if Stardock can't do this sort of thing - Galactic Civilizations 2, for example, looks much better. The graphics even reflect the game's unfinished state, as some menus - like the diplomacy menus - look as if the developers simply forgot to add a background graphic.
While a decent musical score provides a proper background for the game's fantasy theme the audio is otherwise sub-par. It audio that does exist seems unoriginal, and some audio seems missing. It would be nice to have a number of different sounds for different notifications, for example.
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Elemental is a disturbing game. The release of Galactic Civilizations 2 and the subsequent release of the game's excellent expansion packs put Stardock on top of the strategy gaming world. Elemental could have been the company's tour-de-force, proof that the company had what it takes to duke it out with the most popular titles.
Instead it exposes a major flaw in the company's armor. Why was the game shipped in this state? Is Stardock having financial problems? Or did the company simply realize that the game will never be what they hoped for and decided to cut their losses? Stardock is well know for releasing huge patches to games after release, so there is reason to hope that Elemental might yet turn into a decent game. Demigod, for example, was massively patched until the game's early issues were resolved. This release-and-patch strategy won't win Stardock any fans, however.
Unfortunately, Elemental is a defining game for Stardock. Galactic Civilization 2 established the developer as a leader in PC strategy games, but Elemental has trashed all of the progress the company has made.