Many interesting features that look good on paper, the gameplay is sadly bland and unengaging.
This long-awaited game comes with some disappointment, particularly because expectations were (perhaps unrealistically) high. In general, the game itself plays as a decent TBS in a fantasy setting and even has some noteworthy elements, yet these lack an overall total cohesion which makes for perhaps the single most important characteristic of any game: fun.
While innovative in some regards (a randomized technology tree, a "dynasty" function that lets you marry and have offspring) and traditional in others (drawing strongly on characteristics of genre-staples, most notably MoM and Civilization), the game ends up feeling unfinished. It plays largely like Civilization and looks a bit like Warcraft III.
- Acceptable AI which will be sure to improve as the weeks and months go on
- Good modding tools for those who want to mod
- Can be played on almost any machine
- Technology "trees" are randomized, but otherwise streamlined, uniform and predictable
- The "dynasty" function lets you marry and have children – not always fun
- adventure and quests – not always exciting
- decent city-building options
- robust diplomacy options
- Rudimentary combat system
- Flavorless units and unit creation
- Uniform, indistinguishable factions
- bland, unexciting magic
- Graphics reminiscent of a poor-man's Warcraft III from 2002
- Various UI suboptimalities
- No random maps
- Many bugs, glitches and imbalances (sure to be fixed soon)
I will not spend too much time on the graphics, since most of these are readily visible in screenshots and tastes vary greatly. Suffice it to say that the graphics are, while not displeasing, far from cutting edge, and are somewhat reminiscent of the cartoony figures of Warcraft III from the year 2002 – except that Blizzard did a significantly better job then than Stardock does now. If Blizzard earned a 9 of 10 for its graphics in 2002, than Stardock deserves a 3 or a 4 here.
Yet the graphics are done in such a way as to be playable on almost any machine, so that no massive rigs are required to play Elemental.
There is nothing noteworthy or appealing about the sound.
This turn-based-strategy is set in a fantasy world where civilization has died and magic is rare. You, the player, take over the role of a Sovereign, a person tasked with returning civilization to the world, and you may win either by military dominion, diplomatic craftiness, peerlessness in adventure or in magical supremacy (four default victory conditions). Because you, the player, take up the role of this founding Sovereign, the game takes on some rudimentary Role-Playing-Game functions – your Sovereign has the standard RPG statistics and may engage in adventuring and siring offspring. These elements, however, lack the depth and feel of their RPG progenitors, and the player rarely has more connection with her Sovereign as a player of Civilization might have with, say, Ghandi or Washington or whoever her Leader of her choice was.
In fact, while the game claims to be a successor to MoM, it plays a lot like Civilization, or a combination of Civilization and Galactic Civilization II (Stardock's last big game). The standard 4X structure does not bring any surprises to those who have played any of the Civ-incarnations: City-building, unit-building, researching, exploring, coming into contact with rivals, managing the economy, conquering and making treaties – this time, however, the setting is fantasy. While many of the differences are, in fact, cosmetic, some are merely different, for instance:
- Instead of building epoch-defining units (e.g. macemen or tanks), you design your own units (like GC2) – and these units feel and function much like those of GC2, both equally universal and equally bland. Updating your unit types is almost as exciting as discovering "Lasers IV" in GC2 and replacing your "Lasers III" with these new, exciting weapons. This holds true for the Sovereign as well: the bland statistics a Sovereign have little impact in the world, it seems, and leveling up does not feel exciting.
- Combat takes place on a tactical map, and can thus be micro-managed – yet combat is as unfulfilling as it is oversimplified and plain. Here, no new ground has been broken, and combat smacks of the older HoMM incarnations.
- Individual technological breakthroughs are not obtained individually, but rather as bonuses for obtaining enough gross research in one of five particular fields. Three of these five fields almost immediately lead to a discrete victory condition (adventure, magic, diplomacy), so there is no particular subtlety or surprise in strategic choices. Each of the five research branches is, while randomized, unsurprising. In general, breakthroughs here feel like breakthroughs in GC2.
- The map, while colorful, does nothing with its potential: the various terrain differences have almost no bearing in terms of strategic choices to be made or differences in unit behavior (partly because all of the units are so similar). In fact, it is difficult to differentiate meaningful information on the map from merely cosmetic decoration.
- The "factions" are about as different from one another as the Civilization civilizations are.
- Much like Civilization, there are many turns where there is, simply, nothing interesting to do.
- Like Civilization, there is no invisibility, stealth, or assassination; while unlike Civilization, there is no espionage or subterfuge
People looking for the depth and complexity of one of the Dominions incarnations will be sorely disappointed, while those familiar with one of the Civilization incarnations will be scratching their heads and looking closely for meaningful improvements (other than vastly improved modding tools and a better AI). There might be "more" elements, and these individual elements might look good on paper, but more is not always better, and the whole is often quite different than the sum of its parts. The game feels unfinished, bland, and quirky.
If you liked Galactic Civilization II, you will probably like Elemental quite a bit. Yet if you had hoped that Elemental would bring a vast, exciting improvement to GC2 in a different setting, you might very well be disappointed. Sadly, Stardock seems to have learned little from the weaknesses of its predecessors (its own GC2 and Firaxis' Civilization IV being the most blatant), the strengths of some of the more innovative of its rivals (for example Dominions3, the elements of Civilization IV it failed to incorporate, or RPG-/RPG-TBS hybrids like Jagged Alliance 2), or the advice of many of its beta-testers.
I pre-ordered this game in 2009 and have been a beta-tester since the beta phase opened. This might help explain the level of my expectancy and, to some degree, my surprise at the "finished product". We beta-testers were subjected to what the CEO (correctly) called "painfully boring" and "awful" beta-testing experiences: while Brad Wardell (CEO of Stardock, programmer) was also attempting to be coquette, he struck a truth: The beta testing was not fun. Yet – and this is the sad news – it never did become fun: we were never given a complete version of the full game to test, only its individual elements, which, as individual elements, we were able to test for functioning and consistency – yet we never tested for "fun". And this is the main drawback Elemental now faces. In some ways, therefore, it really lives up to its name: Elemental consists of a good bunch of theoretically interesting "elements", each of which does well on paper, yet none of which harmonizes to such a degree to make this game stand out, stake a valid claim to excellence, be particularly innovative, or even to be particularly fun. This is not to say that Elemental might not be that in the not-so-distant future – the modding community is sure to be strong, and Stardock is known for its good post-release service, if not always for listening to constructive criticism.
While entertaining at times, it is not often that the player is challenged or engaged. In general, while I am usually excited at new games, playing this game left me feeling, more often than not, slightly bored.
One thing is for sure – while tastes may differ and expectations vary, Elemental is, upon release, not nearly the game it could have been.
(This review is based on version 1.01, shortly after release. It has the potential to be better later, but according to the Gamespot calibration, the current version has some strong points, but is not a great game.)