A decent strategic foundation is rendered all but meaningless by horrific bugs, missing features, a poor interface, and plenty of other defects.
- Solid turn-based formula may cause you to lose a few hours to its spell
- A nice amount of strategic flexibility.
- Loaded with crippling bugs
- Terrible interface and player feedback
- The AI fails to put on the pressure
- Tactical battles aren't worth the effort
- Plenty of slowdown in spite of the unimpressive visuals.
It's never fun to purchase a game you're excited to play, only to discover that it's an incomplete mess. Yet if you purchase Elemental: War of Magic, whether from a retail outlet or developer/publisher Stardock's own Impulse distribution service, that's exactly what you'll get. This strategy game boasts shades of SimTex's classic Master of Magic, but any goodwill this similarity inspires is dashed by a slew of disastrous bugs, uninspired art, AI problems, bad sound effects, non-working multiplayer, and a shoddy interface. When it works, Elemental possesses that "just one more turn" factor that can keep you invested in your civilization's advancement. But even if you somehow avoid the game's penchant for crashing--often over and over again--it's hard to get past the noticeable sloppiness that invades almost every element. At the time of this review, three patches have smoothed out the roughest edges, but it's going to take a long time before Elemental: War of Magic fulfills its potential. Maybe at that time, this product will be worth your money, but for now, even the most adventurous gamblers should keep their funds safely in their own pockets.
Of course, there's no guarantee that you will run into bugs that others experience. However, on four different machines far exceeding Elemental's recommended system requirements, we found that crashes were frequent, both before and after three patches. Before the second patch, we found that out-of-memory crashes and DirectX errors were common, often occurring several times an hour. We've still run into a few of these cases after that patch, which rendered saved games unusable. In two separate games, both hundreds of turns in, we reached a point where we couldn't continue past a certain turn, as ending it caused the game to freeze. (Moving the save game file to other machines delivered the same result.) In another case, the game crashed to desktop whenever a champion's army was defeated. In yet another scenario, selecting a particular city, either by clicking on it or cycling to it using hotkeys, would cause the game to lock up, rendering the city--and the units therein contained--unusable. And in some games, after spending many hours on Elemental's large maps, the game seemed to buckle under its own weight; it would sometimes freeze when ending a turn, clicking on a dialogue button, or after having a sound effect indicate the appearance of dialogue--but before the dialogue actually appeared. And unless you want to chance a crash, don't ever think of alt-tabbing out of the game.
Perhaps you'd be lucky enough to avoid these major obstacles, but even then, you'd still encounter any number of other usability issues. While some tutorial hints have been added since the game's initial release, strategy newcomers shouldn't give Elemental a moment's thought. Few games explain themselves so poorly, and the best way to learn the ins and outs is to click on everything until you figure it out. The in-game help index, called the Hiergamenon, is of little assistance, failing even to outline all four victory conditions. (It tells you there are four, but then it explains only three of them.) The user interface is also bogged down by all sorts of issues. When a city levels up, you get to choose a reward, such as additional gold production or a boost to the pace at which the city produces arcane knowledge. But the dialogue window covers most of the screen and doesn't allow you to view city details before making a selection, so unless you remember what resources that city is producing, you may select a pointless improvement. Should a champion's army arrive at a quest giver's location while you are focused on a different unit, the camera will briefly zoom to the quest destination and then back to where the camera was focused, giving you no sense of where the quest is in relation to your champion. Letters and numbers spill outside of their interface elements, misspellings are scattered about, camera position and minimap state are not remembered by the game when saving your game, the wrong minimap may get carried over when you load one game without closing out the current one--the list of essential elements seemingly delivered without attention to basic detail is exhausting.
And yet, amidst all this technical chaos is a game with future potential in which some very patient veteran strategists will find value. At the start of each game, you select a sovereign from a predesignated list or create your own and select one of 10 kingdoms/empires; five of these roughly correlate to the forces of light (the race of Men) and five correlate to the forces of darkness (the race of the Fallen). Then, starting with a single settlement, you spread your influence and might across the land. Elemental utilizes the beloved 4X strategic formula: Turn by turn, you e(x)plore the land to discover strategic locations and other empires, e(x)pand the reach of your empire, e(x)ploit the map's natural resources, and e(x)terminate your rivals. There's a nice amount of flexibility in how you can approach the road to domination. You choose technological advancements from one of five broad categories and select spells from a number of different spellbooks. But just as the game is flexible enough to offer some strategic variety, so must you remain flexible and adjust to the whims of the map. Arcane and technological advancement depends on whether you have access to the resources that fuel them; it makes little sense to pursue certain military and magical enhancements if you have yet to encounter any crystal nodes, for example.
On the subject of flexibility, another nice touch comes in the form of the ability to create your own units using the various pieces of armor, weapons, and trinkets you unlock. You can even choose different poses for them on their unit cards. Making a custom unit is a pleasant side task, but doing so doesn't have much gameplay impact: simply creating the most powerful unit you can afford at any given time is always the right choice. Also the right choice: auto-resolving your battles. You can play battles on the tactical map, but they aren't particularly satisfying. At best, you can simply roll over an easy opponent and be on your way. At worst, depending on the statistics of your own units and those of your opponents, you might get stuck having to watch units miss each other over and over again. There are occasionally some environmental twists, such as patches of foliage that might offer a defensive bonus. But these are usually shoved to the side of the battlefield and enemies seem unaware of them, so they rarely come into play. These are grid-based tactical battles at their most basic, so there's nothing to ignite your enthusiasm. Furthermore, these skirmishes don't harbor any visual appeal. The battlefields are bland, and soldiers don't look like they are marching across the tiles so much as they are floating while their legs move.