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Josh Bycer, Blogger

September 22, 2010

8 Min Read

For those that read my entry on companies that I liked, Stardock was on the list and I was waiting for their newest game Elemental. I played a bit of the beta but technical issues prevented me from getting too deep into it. I was all excited when the game was released hoping that this would be game that I was waiting for that I would enjoy greatly. Once again it turns out that I should stop being excited about games until they come out.

Elemental is a 4X fantasy strategy title, you create your character or sovereign and must survive in a world that was destroyed for some reason that I really wasn't paying attention to. Like any good 4x game you'll have to build cities, research better technology and of course deal with the other factions.

Let's start with the good; unlike most 4X titles where you don't have much control over your army design at the unit level, Elemental does offer the ability to personalize your units. You can equip different weapons and gear and give your units a unique edge. Your sovereign can be created from scratch and can also use spells that can be used both in combat and on the field.

Combat is handled in two ways, auto resolved for small fights and tactical combat for fights between larger groups. You determine positioning and can use offensive spells to destroy the enemy before they do the same to you. One of the things that I did not like about Civ 4 and most TBS titles were the hands off nature with combat, which made this, be good news for me.

Next up is how technology works, in most titles you have a standard tech tree: IE I build X it unlocks Y which unlocks Z and so on. In Elemental you have five categories that you can research at any time:

Civilization: Unlocks new buildings for you cities.

Warfare: Unlocks new equipment and the ability to train better units and group them up.

Magic: Unlocks the ability to control magic shards that allow you to strengthen your spells.

Diplomacy: Allows you to offer new treaties with the AI.

Adventure: Unlocks quests, recruit-able heroes, monsters and resources on the map.

When you complete research in one of the five you can then choose a tech from that category. For example researching a level of Warfare may give you the option to either unlock better armor, or better swords. For each level you complete in research it raises the amount needed for subsequent unlocks. The actual tech available is also graded on how rare it is to show up with the rarer it is the better. One of the later unlocks in diplomacy (if I remember right) allows you to recruit dragons which are incredibly powerful late game units. The luck of the draw with getting tech does keep repeated play from being repetitive.

So far the game sounds pretty good right? However it's time to deliver the bad news. As it stands currently Elemental is not only flawed technically but also from a design point of view. Let's talk about technical first at launch the game was incredibly buggy, with massive slowdown and crashes. With the last few patches the game has become more stable however the AI still doesn't put up much of a fight (I’ve played at hard difficulty). Stardock has been working on this area and this problem just takes time to fix. However on the design side, that is another story.

The problems with Elemental’s design are that there are a bunch of good ideas present here but nothing that ties everything together. For example as it stands right now warfare is the dominant tech as one stack of powerful units will wipe the floor with everything, no need to worry about city building or diplomacy. There is little variety in the different spell trees and as it stands; it is too weak to justify focusing exclusively in it. The idea of leveling up your sovereign and other heroes sounds good on paper, but when one party of basic units can wipe them out it also renders the adventuring tech (other than resource generation) mostly useless.

Designing units sounds good in theory but there just wasn't much thought put into it. I did not see much of a difference between weapons other than their damage and if they were one handed or two handed. Most cases the pre made units will do the job nicely. Every game of mine ended with me taking one big stack of units around the map killing everything I see.

We have a bunch of mechanics in Elemental but there are no dynamics between them. Currently the ability to raise a family and have heirs is useless for several reasons. One: A single hero unit is noticeably weaker than a party of military units. Two: Magic's cost outweighs the benefits most of the time. Three: Diplomacy is so broken right now that there is no need to arrange marriages with other factions. The entire system is just there, not interacting with any of the other mechanics.

When I did my entry on simplifying mechanics I talked about the challenge of creating 4X strategy titles and how all the systems need to be reliant on each other. With Elemental there is no cohesion here and the entire game suffers from it. To give a good example I want to talk about a little known game that I don't think anyone knows about has a sequel out.

Civilization 5 by the time you read this is going to be out in the US. Up until this past week I did not pay any attention to Civ 5. The main reason was that I will admit I did not like Civ 4; the combat system just didn't do it for me. The other night I stayed up late watching a two hour video of the designers playing Civ 5 and now I'm really tempted to pick up the game.

The reason is I saw a very interesting game with a concise and clear game-play. Just watching them play I saw how much detail and work went into all the systems to have everything work together. For example the change to how resources like iron and horses work, have changed combat, diplomacy and even city founding with new dynamics.

The more I watched the more I saw how Firaxis went over the systems and UI with a fine tooth comb making sure that they have everything worked the way they wanted. The change to combat now not relying on the "stack o doom" has me very interested. Having all your systems and mechanics working together like that is in my opinion what defines a good 4X game.

Everything that I liked about Civ 5 in those two hours of footage, I did not see within the 10+ hours I spent with Elemental. Like I said earlier Elemental isn't horrible by any means, but as it stands right now there isn't much meat to the game.

Tactical combat for the most part is just watching units hit each other with weapons with exception to sovereigns and summoned creatures. Once again another example of a system not fully developed or integrated with the other mechanics of the game.

After Elemental was release there were several articles and comments made about the game and I don't want to drag anything of that here. One comment that was made by Brad Wardell (designer of Elemental and CEO of Stardock) which I'll paraphrase was him talking about looking at the game from the view of a programmer and not a designer. I want to touch on that kind of mindset for a second.

My opinion which I'm going to sound very full of myself when I say this is that for any game you need to have someone like me on staff. Someone who will analyze and work on the actual mechanics of the game to make sure that everything is integrated and works together. You can see the difference in how the game systems interact between Elemental and Civ 5. You can't design multiple game systems in a vacuum, they all need to work and affect one another. As I'm typing this I've started coming up with ideas for how to revamp the magic system, a trait system for units and how to start having the various tech paths interact with each other.

So it comes down to this, as it stands right now with Elemental at patch 1.08 I would not buy this game if I were you. Especially with Civ 5 on the horizon, there are good ideas present with Elemental but not good game design. Stardock has said that they will commit to improving Elemental and patch 1.1 is going to be their first big one. At this time I have no idea what will be the magic patch that will make Elemental amazing, could it be 1.1, 1.2, 1.3? I wish I knew as I really wanted to like Elemental.

If you are interested in Elemental I would keep your eye on their home page and follow their journals and patch notes and wait for more patches. Personally I think it's going to be interesting to look at Elemental in a year's time or even six months to see how different it will be compared to what we have right now.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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