An honest personal Elemental opinion

My thoughts on Elemental.

The opening…

A week after release, and good bit of time put into the game. And I’ve come to a general conclusion. The game has a gigantic amount of potential. It’s potential to present games of a ton of varieties is easily visible to one with an iota of imagination.

But potential isn’t the game that was put out. And while I’ve modded in a lot of my own fun. The fundamental presentation of the game, was one of interesting paradigm choices. Two stand out, one the art style. It’s a very deliberate style. And it really is something that takes time to warm up to. And this isn’t knock on the works of the artists. They’ve created a very visually interesting game. That while esthetically pleasing to some, it goes against the grain of modern games. That I feel is the first jarring impact that people will experience when they come to this game, from playing, virtually at this point, almost any other one out there. Now I’ve warmed up to it as a presented medium, and method, it’s definitely not something I prefer for my favorite art. I would say when I initially saw the art style and direction. I did not like it. But as I played in the beta, it grew upon me, and I think for me it’s mostly the unit models that interrupt my suspension of disbelief and crowd in on my feeling of being there, on the battlefields.

The other paradigm choice. Non-standard fantasy races. Getting rid of dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins, dark elves, lizardmen, halflings, and pretty much the whole gamut of standard fantasy fare. The reason games with fantasy races have the standard fantasy fare. It becomes easier to suspend disbelief. Each person has their own favorite elf style, and dwarf style, and orc style, and undead, and so on. But the reason the most popular games contain those standard D&D races, and are hugely popular. Because the customers have grown up with them, and now their kids have grown up with them. So when the choice to remove the standard fare, and the couple it with an unusual art style. It’s very jarring. And feels very devoid of the trappings that feel comfortable.

The going joke for some is wanting a Fantasy Total War series. And you know why? Because people want that.

NOW.. that’s not Elemental. So when you hear about a successor to say Master of Magic. Well, that’s a big shoe to fill. And throwing out a good chunk of the races that would help make up that true evolution of the game is a huge hit. I don’t think it was the right decision personally. Especially for the sake of a story. I think it really then began to impact expectations. Because then people were left with a fantasy Civilization game, but again without the standard fare of traditional fantasy. It felt hollow.

And before I go on, I want to be clear. I don’t mind, and in fact at times, enjoy the shaking up of the status quo. As it relates to Elemental, I do enjoy aspects of the game that were presented that were new and different and fresh. But that said. This game has some significant flaws for what was presented, as the sandbox game. But also before I go on. I think those perceived flaws that are not related to the art, or limited fantasy races, are very easy to “Fix” as it were. I’ll get to that a good way down in this opinion piece.

Let’s bring this back around to some focus points. I’ve outlined two of the issues associated with the immersion factor that count as knocks against the game presented.

Then, what else is at issue with the core game? Well it’s not the modding. That’s a lot of fun.

Deficiencies…

Magic doesn’t feel special. And it didn’t feel special in the beta, and sadly it didn’t grow into something really rich and special when it went live. Is it acceptable? Barely. It performs as advertised, but you won’t feel like it was something neat, or rare. And Stardock knows this. They’ve said as much.

The combat system, feels lacking. Now they’ve made some strides to setting up some balance with this while also working on trying to make it special. But this ties heavily into the unit/champion/sovereign specialization issues, and their lack there of. So combat right now, feels very Hit & Miss. This area has some significant flaws, that can be fixed, and I do NOT doubt they will. I know they will, this is a game by Stardock after all.

As it relates to the combat system, the idea of a system that has you swing, and then I counterswing, is quite interesting. It feels right. And that came late into the beta, when people were just frustrated with how it went. Well right now, everything runs into overpowered, one shotting opponents. Or if they are closely balanced, or decently challenging, the units are similarly matched. But then you have to look how frequent that combat is and how difficult it is to replace a unit when it’s lost.

And that’s where a sense of balance is truly needed. Right now, monsters spawn much more significantly on normal, in the areas of the woods and mountains that it turns into a situation where you find yourself increasingly frustrated by how quickly they come. And for me, they spawn to quickly. Because grinding out an army that can challenge that unit is part of the problem. Either you spend a lot of time creating a guy with 5 hp’s, and a good attack and maybe a good defense, enough to one shot the enemy, but then if they’ve got that same level of hp and attacks, they one shot your unit. Really? No give & and take, just pure either I hit and kill you, or vice versa. Or you run into the problem with enemy units with a LOT of hp’s, a monstrous attack value, and no defense. But they can in turn one shot every single person on your team. No, that’s not balanced.

And then it gets into other issues, as it relates to combat. Your Sovereign is an all powerful channeler. Who is outclassed by the archers. Or you have to get them a bow.. a freaking bow.. just to give them something to do if they aren’t a melee class. When they run out of mana. And you will, because the uninspired spell system is weak, it’s spells that do damage, but the variable is often absurd. I’ve cast spells where I could do 36 damage, and the opponent in turn has only 1 defense.. 1.. and I do 2 points of damage. And this happens time after time. And that’s either a bug or a bad game mechanic. To the point that you run out of mana. That’s a bad mechanic.

But seriously, a sovereign should always have a basic mana bolt spell. And it should be something you should be able to upgrade as you go up in levels. But it should be equal to a comparable level bow. And then other spells should exceed it by bounds by having to spend mana. That mana bolt spell should cost nothing, and be usuable every turn, and for those who prefer to fight in melee it should be something that you should be able to use in melee. So that way, it’s thematically appropriate.

But I can’t express to you how important these ideas are to a fun balanced system.

So, if magic is deficient, and the presented combat system is anemic and frankly uninspired at this time.. then the units that you can design, are just drab.

Units…

Okay, so the idea of you designing a unit and equipping it with gear, and giving it a name is great. Good job! That’s not the problem. The associated hit points, attacks, and defenses, and complete boring vanilla flavor associated with a unit is underwhelming. Sure the idea of parties and squads and so on, are essentially another way to create the next evolution of a powerful unit. I get that. That’s a great and fun way to do it. But by that same token, you should be able to merge 4 units of the same type, into one unit, once you understand the tech. So your not wasting space, or having half assed units. But.. when you create a unit, you should be able to pick some form of special ability that is tied into the tech/magic trees for what you do or have learned. So that way as you unlock a tech, it’s got some special benefit that you can apply for free to a newly created unit. (Or also something you could in theory “Pay” when building for more than one free starting special ability.)

So that gets into the theory about special abilities.. that they should part of the design phase. And ALSO part of the leveling up process. As units go up in level, they need to gain significant benefits. And not something, that doesn’t feel significant. A unit that goes up in level be it a peasant, or some other such unit, should gain significant benefits over lower level units, who don’t have that experience. Be it what I think would in a lot of cases more hit points, and a better attack value and defense value, from leveling up experience.

Add into that the lack of forts and keeps and castles, and citadels, and the lack of an organic satellite community growth presentation.. (yes I feel especially in a game like this, that it should be a core feature).

On the Elemental Forums I’ve in the past written up dissertations on organic satellite communities grown up around the founded cities, that (in turn should act as the multipliers for the cities) would also expand the borders of the nation/civilization naturally and feel more realistic. But, beyond that, to make spells, and abilities special and interesting, you really need to be able to upgrade them. And they should allow you the chance to really specialize those spells. (Which I’ve also written a dissertation on).

The compilation and compounded round up…

And by not doing this, for whatever the reason.. Stardock released a game that, technically after the patches, that fixed it so the game mechanically was playable. Was a series of design choices, and missed opportunities, that ultimately fell pretty flat. Compared to other games Stardock has put out. In a sense, right now were in a fantasy genre revival and boom. D&D 4th edition is doing gangbusters, Magic the Gathering is hugely popular again, Games Workshop games are finally starting to blossom, especially their video games. You’ve got games like Confrontation, and Warmachine, and Hordes, and oh let’s not forget some of their knock offs.. you know the ones inspired by say Games Workshop IP, originally, like Epically popular World of Warcraft, and say Starcraft, and Diablo 3, and other games.. were in a good place for a fresh IP to come along.

But while I think for Elemental, it’s got two significant identities. And they don’t seem to mesh well together in this day and age. You’ve got the idea of a fantasy world that your building up society on your way to winning. By founding cities, and gaining power and spells and what not. And the campaign story of Elemental, the War of Magic.

I think the campaign should of been just that, a story told with the engine. But the game itself, should of had a more traditional fantasy genre to wear, for the sandbox game. Without having to make a player mod it together to get that result.

Brad mentioned, that 95% of the game is getting the mechanical aspects in place, with the last 5% being the “Game” itself. Which means build the engine and art assets first and then it’s time to turn out a game from it. And while I think he’s pure money on this idea. The 5% that was Elemental: War of Magic. Just wasn’t that great. And yet I still love this game, and it’s potential. But what’s there to me right now.. ultimately..

The game is a C game. And I can’t recommend it immediately to my friends. Because I can’t. It’s not special enough to do so, yet. I can’t sell them on the fights. That they may have fun with, but would probably just end up putting it aside for something else that met their fantasy genre needs that has evolved to the expectations of a game in 2010. And with this game, almost being ready, well I’m optimistic, that this game could easily jump a few points. But right now, as of version 1.06.019. It’s not good enough.

And yet the potential to fix this is.. right there. And I feel that I’ll be able to once several primary concerns are ironed out be able to fully recommend this game. Would I recommend people buy it? Hells Yeah! But because it’s going to be more and more interesting in the future. This isn’t a game engine that’s shot it’s load of ammo. It’s just starting to wind up that belt fed cylinder of ammo. I would of personally recommended if I had, had any actual say in the design of the game.. don’t throw away the fantasy norm’s. Because your game, is an engine to tell that story, a fantasy Civ game. That does justice to TBS games. But I had no say, and no one else truly did either. This was Brad’s game, and his general vision. He’s admitted that he’s an engineer, and doesn’t have the same design bones/chops of say a Will Wright, or Sid Meier, or so on. But to me that just means maybe he should really explore that idea. Maybe he should get his hands on a good designer who’s got great ideas, and just needs the team and engine to work with. I don’t know, if that’s the right answer for sure. But it feels right.

But I do know this. This game is not going down the toilets. It’s only got upwards to go, and Brad Wardell is a man of his word, and Stardock is his company. He knows this game fell flat for at least 42% of the buyers. And while it’s hard to write what I did here.. it’s the honesty I stand by. And Brad knows that and appreciates true honesty. So, I’m going to keep on playing, and having fun. But in my case I’ve already modded in some of the things I needed in order to get it to my basic “Needs”. And so that’s how I can have fun with a game that needs work, to get it to rise to a minimum for myself.

Sincerely and Respectfully,

William “Gorstagg” Arndt

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

Potential: 5 out of 5.

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About gorstagg

Life long gamer.
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7 Responses to An honest personal Elemental opinion

  1. Mike says:

    For a long time there you were purely complementary about it without criticising it overly which was laudable in beta but I’m glad to read your issues with the game. I was in the beta too, I watched all your videos and I am still hopeful that they might, eventually, make this game into something truly special. However, I’m very disappointed with the game in its current state.

    It’s just… bland, really. Some nice ideas but nothing special at the moment. For a game that was touted as the spiritual successor of Master of Magic it is far, far behind what that game offered in 1994.

    • gorstagg says:

      Hi Mike!

      I agree, about being completely and positively in their corner. Though I had expectations, with each iteration of the game from beta it was often gigantic steps ahead. And I figured they were just giving us the bare minimums because they had all the key ideas in place, or at least a really strong idea of what they wanted to produce. And true to their word they released it on August 24th, 2010. But, in a sense it was at a cost. A cost of a bland, uninspired game with several knocks against it, right out of the gate. But in all honesty, I don’t think anyone could of given Brad a realistic reality check, that would of caused him to alter the game he produced. He’s a brilliant engineer, and a great AI guy, and has some solid ideas. But in putting himself and the game in a really small niche, and removed the normal fantasy trappings, that if they had been in place, would of turned the game completely on it’s head. I still stand by the idea that maybe in his core campaign, it should of been as we saw it. But the game itself should of had a good solid fantasy base to work off of.

  2. gorstagg says:

    Ouch, that’s painful. I knew it was a hard thing, but that’s just something I wasn’t expecting. The only thing I can think is that I don’t think it would of helped had I said the game wasn’t ready to go live. That it’s just too bland. For some reason I guess I was expecting less bugs, and a more robust modding engine, with all the pieces easy to just “Add” to the game ourselves.. but as always they’ll fix it. Just really sorry to hear about the layoff’s.

  3. Bob says:

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/103243-Stardock-Calls-Elemental-War-of-Magic-a-Complete-Fail

    Brad Wardell stepped forward and took the blame for the title. I always find it greatly saddening when the smaller, ambitious titles don’t do well. It just encourages all of the developers to make the same stupid FPS since those always sell. Otherwise, it’s too much of a gamble.

    Tom Chick, by the way, made some comments about it. Apparently he did some contract work for Wardell once upon a time, and he wrote about that experience in relation to Elemental.

    http://fidgit.com/archives/2010/08/elemental_the_review.php

  4. Tridus says:

    “Brad mentioned, that 95% of the game is getting the mechanical aspects in place, with the last 5% being the “Game” itself. Which means build the engine and art assets first and then it’s time to turn out a game from it. And while I think he’s pure money on this idea.”

    TBH, I think he’s pure nonsense on this idea. Look at other game companies to see how they do it. Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 public beta went on *forever* it felt like. The game was already built and fully playable, it was all balance testing. Content and systems tweaking was more like 50% of their time, not 5%. Civ 5 has been in a playable state with all systems enabled for more then a month (quite possibly a lot more, we don’t know), and it doesn’t even come out for a couple more weeks. When was that ever true in the Elemental beta?

    I’ve got a friend who works at Bethesda on games like Fallout 3, and he said exactly the same thing. Beta 4 is when the “beta” started. Everything before that was an alpha or a tech demo (actually he said that beta 1 and 2 didn’t even qualify as a game yet). That’s simply not enough time to work on the “game” if your goal is to make a good game. It takes time to tweak systems into the right state, to build content, to balance it so things don’t have the one-shot problems you noticed, and to get the fun in. Hell, it takes time to build an AI that can use all those systems, because you can’t do it untiil after they’re built.

    At the very least, it should be more like 85% build pieces, 5% assemble game, and 10% polish and tweak game. But the higher you make the latter two numbers, the better a game you get. In this case, those numbers were far too low.

    • gorstagg says:

      You know Tridus, I’m going to agree with you quite a bit. I do agree the percentages he gave were off. Maybe it was hubris on his part, but I thought he had a more specific vision. Instead we didn’t get that. And in truth, that’s what I was expecting the whole time. That’s why I kept talking about how visionary the aspects of the game were and how easy it would be to do licensed IP in it.. because of the robust strength of the engine. That was the hard part, but it would seem everyone is right in that it came out before a real game was solidly built to play. The engine may of essentially worked. But the game, was a huge disappointment.

      And yet irony is, I know they’ll get this thing fixed up. But that meant that it wasn’t done, and as he said, it’s his fault.

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