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.
Some role-playing elements spice up the strategic gameplay and provide context and incentive to explore. You may recruit champions you encounter on your travels to your cause, and they can lead armies of their own. Your champions and sovereign alike can purloin loot scattered about the land, take on quests from inns, and even explore dungeons (that is, engage in a tactical battle with the possibility of earning extra goodies). This is a nice idea that allows you to level up champions and earn loot, and it's an important facet of the domination/adventure trees. However, you'll discover after just a few games that there is a remarkably limited number of quests. You see the same quest dialogues over and over again, which leads to repetition, and the simple, minimal text outlining the quest fails to capitalize on this new fantasy world. The interface may also interfere with your adventures. It's easy to lose track of your quest destination, and there's no clear visual marker in the main 3D view or any way to just zoom the camera directly to the location.
While your sovereign gallivants around, your cities grow in population, level up, and expand their geographic influence. Starting settlements in advantageous, resource-rich locations is important, and provided you follow the right research path, you can use transport ships to carry units to remote locations by sea. Just be careful: It's possible to establish a settlement in the water--a settlement that can create invisible underwater units that you can't use. Fortunately, not all attempts to expand and enhance your kingdom are so troublesome. You might utilize the magical properties of elemental shards, build schools to increase the speed of your technological learning, or construct inns and pubs to build up a resource called diplomatic capital. Diplomatic capital is a handy negotiation tool if you want to parlay with competing empires. You can create nonaggression pacts, trade treaties, and more, though the AI stringently sticks to its perceived value of the agreement at hand, which isn't always sensible. For example, you may fence in a neutral kingdom's few cities, making a nonaggression pact worthwhile to that kingdom--yet the leader will have no interest in this wonderful bargain, making it easy to roll over the kingdom's underdeveloped realm at a later time with your inflated empire's powerful troops.
In fact, the AI doesn't generally have a smart sense of self-preservation. Though harder difficulty levels make it more challenging to exploit your dim-witted foes, enemy sovereigns in open conflict with you often wander about with a few odd units, making them easy to defeat. (And a defeated sovereign means a defeated empire.) Small sovereign-led armies may even attack a well-defended city, essentially winning the game for you on your behalf. Even if the AI does put up a fight, bugs might interfere with the proceedings. For example, an aggressive empire may demand more gildar (that is, currency) than you actually possess. But you might still click the option to pay the tribute without losing any gildar or encountering any noticeable consequences. The diplomatic route (or cooperation route, if you are playing as a Fallen faction) is still useful, though, mostly because it leads to the ability to recruit units like spiders and dragons. Should you avoid delving deeply into warfare/conquest research, you still gain access to effective armies.
In light of artistically striking games like Disciples III: Renaissance and King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame, Elemental is disappointing. Its bright cel-shaded look isn't unattractive, and there are some nice details if you zoom into cities. But the plain environments and ho-hum unit designs hardly inspire thoughts of grand fantasy adventures. Units like dragons should look imposing on the tactical battlefield, but simple animations and wretched sound effects make them seem no more special than any other troop. And for a game subtitled War of Magic, Elemental's spell effects are downright pitiable. If you show up expecting fireworks, you'll be disappointed that you barely got a single sparkler. After all, magic isn't fun to use if spells don't look colorful and grandiose. More surprising is how poorly Elemental performs in spite of its simple visuals. Turning up the shadows and the antialiasing can bring the game into single-digit frame rates on the most powerful machines, though the most recent patch has seen some improvements in this regard. No patch has yet to address the poor sound effects, however. Spells sound as weak as they look, attacking units land their hits with a feeble clunk, and the canned growls of various wild creatures sound as if they were emitted by robots rather than wolves. The soundtrack seems nice at first, but after hearing the same couple of looping tunes over and over, you realize you can turn off the game's sound completely and not miss a thing.
Exploring your options outside of one-off games reveals little of value. Most notably, Elemental's multiplayer options have yet to be activated 10 days after the game's release, in spite of the promises made on the retail packaging. The single-player campaign is at least functional, but it fails to take advantage of its original fantasy world. The game's opening cutscene, starting with its initial cliched shot of a thick tome placed upon a desk and lit with a flickering candle, sets the stage for a generic backstory. The campaign's scenes feature some nice 2D art, but the dull voice-over isn't likely to move you, and the short text dialogues fail to give the characters much personality. Sovereigns fulfill their simple duties, moving the plot along without offering the player any reason to get invested. The campaign doesn't function that well as an introduction to the gameplay either, providing many tutorial hints after they would have been most valuable and leaving basic mechanisms unexplained. Intrepid players may find the most value in Elemental's modification tools, and there are maps and other mods already available for download. Most of these features are actually pretty simple to use, so if you're the creative type, you may lose some time to them.
Elemental: War of Magic could have been a good strategy game, and given Stardock's history of supporting its products long into the future, it may yet be one someday. But that day is not here. Perhaps your faith in a respected developer and your love of the 4X formula will inspire enough patience in you to see the solid game foundation buried amid all the smoking rubble and swarming bugs. Certainly, Elemental's ability to make you lose hours at a time to an expanding kingdom in spite of its major problems is proof of many worthy ideas and ambitions. But ideas only hold so much value if they're not executed properly. If you can feast on ideas alone, Elemental: War of Magic might have something to offer you. If you prefer finished strategy games that don't actively impede your enjoyment, you should focus your attention elsewhere.