EDITOR'S NOTE: Reviewing a game like Elemental is tricky, thanks to some of the many issues that cropped up around the game's launch. We had Kyle wait until things settled down a bit, and we feel this review discusses Elemental in a stable form.
However, it should be noted that Stardock is releasing patches continually, so be sure to visit the game site as some of the issues and concerns Kyle raises may have been addressed.
After playing Elemental: War of Magic for a week I’ve realized that while I like what it tries to accomplish, my enthusiasm dies by the sword of its many problems. As a 4x turn-based strategy game with elements of RPGs like Heroes of Might and Magic, it's elevated by several strong concepts. Unfortunately, Stardock seems to have reached for too much, too fast, resulting in a game that doesn’t quite live up to its potential – at least not yet.
Issue one is the absence of a full tutorial that thoroughly introduces a new player to the game. Elemental’s campaign mode will teach you all the basics, but it takes a while to play through and is annoyingly linear as a tutorial for a 4x game. Elemental requires a tutorial that goes through the many facets of its features; from navigating the dense UI to instructing on the merits of creating a sizable kingdom and a family for your Sovereign. The only reason I wasn’t completely lost during my time with Elemental was because of two very atypical reasons: I watched several tutorial videos Stardock had put together and I have considerable experience playing turn-based 4x strategy games. Gamers who aren’t as patient or savvy as that are certain to struggle in their first game of Elemental.
The game’s complex array of game mechanics and strategies makes it daunting, with multiple strategic options leading to four victory conditions. You can focus on a military victory, a diplomatic solution, the Spell of Making (a magic win), and the Master Quest. I could spend a thousand words explaining the entire game to you, and that’s actually a part of the problem: Elemental just has too much going on. There are at least several options for toning down the intimidation factor, however; a couple tweaks and Elemental can transform into a fairly manageable game.
Unfortunately, all this could already be of no consequence. The game launched with some performance and crash-to-desktop bugs that don’t outright ruin Elemental, but can strip you of nearly all enthusiasm. I will caution a "buy before you try" mentality for people who have anything other than a deep-seeded desire to play the game.
The most documented bug was a conflict with ATI video cards, and while it’s already been patched the news got out (along with murmurs of Elemental being unfinished and buggy in general) and hurt the game’s reputation right at launch, exactly when it needed that kind of attention the least.
I've personally experienced issues with certain visual effects being turned off in combat and a memory leak that only happens in 64-bit operating systems. Thankfully, Stardock has a great track record for supporting their titles. In fact, both of those bugs are currently gone (for me, at least) as of this time.
One of those updates should add a multiplayer component, its omission was a serious black eye for Stardock. That's the good news: Stardock is already dedicated to a schedule of content updates for Elemental, with two particularly large milestones set for 30 and 60 days after release (multiplayer update should come sooner). And there have already been more significant patches than I can recall in the week since launch.
I expect that Elemental will continue to grow into a game it could have and should have been at release. For the dedicated fans this kind of long term support makes it easier to forgive the initial missteps at launch.
Even though I’ve struggled through bugs and vague feedback on my performance in-game, I can’t deny that plenty of my time has been lost conquering my own magical worlds in Elemental. While it may be too unfocused and complex for some there’s no doubt intrigued 4x fans will feel the pull of Elemental’s premise, and those of you who do can likely find something here to love, faults and all. And, in a few months, I’ve no doubt that patches and free updates will give even casual players a reason to come back and take another look into the game.