Monday, August 30, 2010

Elemental: War of Magic Review

Elemental: War of Magic, developed and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Tedium-free and manageable city development, robust character customization, world-altering and tactical spells, in-game unit design, extensive content editors, can recruit (or fight) neutral adventurers, several research branches for different strategies with semi-random choices, clear diplomatic negotiations including treaties and arranged marriage
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve with insignificant tutorials, linear campaign with poor direction, tactical battles encourage waiting in defensive terrain, indistinctive spells, lacks fully randomized maps, some bland research options, limited quest variety, occasional bugs, iffy AI, no multiplayer yet
What say you? Part turn-based strategy, part city management, part role-playing game, partly finished, occasionally fun: 5/8

Strategy and role-playing games have traditionally been separate entities on the gaming spectrum, satisfying their audiences (intelligent people and furries, respectively) with computerized entertainment. But as gamers become more sophisticated (meaning “older”), so have their games. We’ve seen the occasional mix of RTS and RPG, like this thing, but now it’s PC champion Stardock’s turn at the plate, hoping to hit yet another out of the park. In Elemental: War of Magic, you are a powerful spellcaster, attempting to restore proud kingdoms of the past and dominate all those who oppose your path to righteousness. The game borrows conventions from turn-based strategy games (city management, armies, resources) and role-playing titles (quests, NPCs, magic) to hopefully produce an unforgettable recipe. Do too many ingredients spoil the pot?

The graphics in Elemental: War of Magic come in two flavors: the 3-D world and 2-D map. I actually found it easier to play using the cloth map, where it is easier to identify things based on icons instead of 3-D models (especially the difference between resources and quest locations). The simple but effective cloth map fits the fantasy theme of the game very well, strongly evoking classic literature. The 3-D graphics are no slouch, either, with some nice character models and animations with cities and locations that add subtle detail as you zoom in: a really neat effect that also improves game performance. The ground textures could use more detail, but at least some of the spell effects are suitably devastating. As with Sins of a Solar Empire, Elemental: War of Magic is designed to run well on a variety of PCs: even netbooks can run the game by using the cloth map (which I prefer anyway) exclusively, an important feat that more PC games should strive to achieve as mobile gaming becomes more prominent (although game performance decreases as the number of turns increases). As for the sound, things are much less exciting: there are few, repetitive special effects for selecting units and battles (most spells sound exactly the same). Game notifications are extremely subtle: when a building or unit finishes, or a city is idle, it’s difficult to find that out based on audio alone. There is no voice acting in the game, despite the campaign being linear in nature. The music is nice and dramatic, but this is the lone bright spot in the very minimal and bland sound design.

In Elemental: War of Magic, you are the Sovereign: a magical guy (or gal) who must rebuild the world while seeking ultimate power. The campaign plays out more like a traditional role-playing game with some strategy elements: you follow a single character through a linear storyline, going on quests and building up your empire along the way. This is a nice alternative to the usual “kill everything” missions in most strategy games. The campaign is ultimately not that interesting because of its linear nature (one play through is enough) and it does a terrible job moving you along: objective locations are not displayed on the map, just instructions like “head south, then west” (no compass rose is shown on the map, of course) that may or may not be recalled by looking in your campaign summary log. You can easily get “stuck” since you must complete key missions before unlocking the next area of the map. Some of the features carried over from the regular custom games are questionable: why give the option for city research bonuses when there is no research in the campaign? In the end, the campaign is a limited diversion.

The real “meat” of Elemental: War of Magic is contained in the custom games, where you take on a number of rival factions attempting to achieve victory through conquest, diplomacy, quests, or spells. You can set the world size and difficulty of monsters, game pace, and number of opponents. The game uses somewhat random maps: the layouts are recycled (same continents, same placement of forests and mountains), and will be recognizable after a number of games, while the resource locations are changed. This is a bit of a disappointment as I was expecting more randomness in this area. Elemental: War of Magic does an inadequate job teaching you the mechanics of the game, as the tutorial instructions at the beginning of the campaign are very basic and don’t address more advanced topics, like simply how to do certain actions that the interface might not make apparent. You can consult the in-game encyclopedia or view a set of online video tutorials, but neither of these are a substitute for robust in-game instructions.

Multiplayer is planned for Elemental: War of Magic, but it’s currently not activated. Rumors have it that sixteen players will engage in faster games using shortened tech trees. Tactical battles might also be added in the future. Still, it’s disappointing that an anticipated feature was initially disabled. On a brighter note, Elemental: War of Magic features an excellent set of editors that let you create all sorts of content for the game, from maps to items to buildings to effects to new nations. The tile editor is most impressive: you can point-and-place all sorts of architecture and items for a building design and then import it into the game. Most of the game’s values are contained in XML files for easy editing as well. In addition, you can share your content with others from inside the game using Impulse Reactor, a fantastic idea for growing a strong mod community. The ease of which you can alter Elemental: War of Magic is great and ensures a long life for this title.

The interface is uneven, partially attributed to a number of bugs. The cloth map viewed when zoomed out is fantastic (I use it almost exclusively) and the empire tree lists and highlights all of your units and cities. You are also given a list of your current resources and notifications for in-game events (though a stronger audio indication would be much appreciated). Equipping units is a bit of a chore: you must trade items between units and then equip them manually as traded items are not automatically used. The interface also shows the current building queue instead of the resource income list when choosing a new construction project, not helpful since most of the buildings in Elemental: War of Magic grant bonuses to existing resource values. The oddities don’t stop there: the item shop icon can become blurred even when you are in friendly territory, the empire tree doesn’t update during a turn to reflect newly-queued buildings and units, the currently selected unit isn’t highlighted on the cloth map if you are zoomed out far enough, sometimes buildings don’t disappear correctly when queued for construction (some structures are only allowed once per city), founding a settlement may not work without any indication of why not (you might be too close to another city, but the game doesn’t say this), auto-explore isn’t efficient enough (scouting territory you already have seen), tool-tips occasionally appear in the wrong location (or not at all), the mouse may select the wrong object during tactical battles, I still get some "out of memory" errors after about an hour of play (good thing I auto-save every four turns), and alt-tabbing sometimes produces a bad DirectX call, crashing the game. I also found performance to be below acceptable levels when using the zoomed-in 3-D view. Elemental: War of Magic could certainly benefit from some additional polish.

The first thing you’ll do in Elemental: War of Magic is choose or customize your sovereign, the in-game character that represents you. The game features role-playing customization options: attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, constitution), a profession, talents, weaknesses, appearance, and starting items. You can also choose which spellbooks you initially have access to, although it is easy to activate most (if not all) of them and they are similar in nature. Experience is gained through combat, and you can improve your ratings in each of the attributes as you fight monsters and other undesirables in the game. Your character can eventually get married and you can use your kids as champions or to improve relations with rival nations. If your sovereign is defeated in battle while in enemy territory, the game is over, no matter how awesome your empire may be (this goes for the AI as well). Elemental: War of Magic features robust options for developing your character as you see fit.

Resources are global, which makes it much easier to manage your growing empire. You will need to collect is gold (called “gildar” because that sounds more nerdy), food (for troops and population growth), materials (for stuff), metal (for metallic stuff), knowledge (for new spells and technologies), and magic crystals and shards for advanced spells. These resources are located directly on the map, although you can build structures in your cities that provide a very small initial amount to get you started. You can collect any resource that lies within your boundaries, which means a lot of the game will be a battle over these resource locations. The other nice side effect is that cities will be built up based on their surrounding resources, rather than using the same build order for every settlement. This also means you will need less cities: three large cities are more effective than ten small ones if they are taking advantage of the resources within their borders. This eliminates a lot of end-game tedium that usually results from having large empires with many cities. There are no production chains in Elemental: War of Magic, but that’s fine because I think it would have resulted in too much depth and things to keep track of. You can set up trade routes between cities to increase your income rates, build up prestige from inns and pubs to increase population growth, and purchase shiny new weapons and armor from the item shop in each city.

Research comes in five flavors: civics (new buildings), combat (new weapons), magic (new spells), adventure (new quests), and diplomacy (new…diplomacy). It’s not quite as simple as that, as there are some interesting high-level technologies, but in general that’s what you’ll get. You are given a semi-random choice of technology in the field you researched, a nice way of introducing chance into a place where options are typically linear in nature. New buildings and weapons are the most useful for expanding empires. Diplomatic options are helpful once you encounter other nations. Adventure technologies sprout new items and resources on the map, which gives that branch purpose. Magic seems to be the least useful, simply allowing access to new spellbooks that offer a lot of the same type of spells. There are some open-ended bonuses you can continuously research when you have reached the pinnacle of a tree. Even with the random elements in research, you’ll still unlock things in the same general order, assuming you stick to the same strategy each game.

Elemental: War of Magic features some quests. A lot of these are pretty repetitive (you’ll see the same ones in each new game) and usually involve going (or escorting someone) to a location, fighting some enemy, and getting some new item or a cash reward. The items can be varied (weapons, books that give attribute bonuses), which is nice. Still, I found the quests included with the game to be generally uninteresting due to their lack of variety. You can design your own, and hopefully Elemental: War of Magic will have more interesting, multi-faceted quests in the future. The world is populated with bandits and monsters that move around the uncivilized portion of the maps and grow in power each time you level up your adventure tech rating. Hunting these creeps down is usually just as interesting as going out on quests, and you also get a cash reward once you kill them and take their money (how nice!). You will also encounter other adventurers out on their own; you can recruit them to your cause and equip them with sweet loot. Recruiting them can be expensive and you can usually get more powerful units through research, but you can give champions magical abilities and they are needed for marriage, which makes them somewhat important at least.

As you might imagine, Elemental: War of Magic features magic. There are four main spellbooks: earth, air, fire, and water, plus summoning and enchantments and some advanced books that are unlocked with research. The spells come in tactical (for battles) and strategic (for the game world) flavors. Disappointing, most of the spell categories offer up the same types of spells: offensive weapons, attribute bonuses, and pets. I fail to see the difference between a throwing a fireball and throwing a boulder (so why have both?). Spellbooks fail to retain any source of individuality, save for a couple of high-level spells. Some of the spells are cool, though, especially those that alter the game world and inhibit enemy cities. Controlling a shard of a particular spellbook makes those spells more powerful, so there is some luck in that you find shards of the same type you set up your character with. I never found the need to specialize in more than two (and usually one would suffice) spellbooks, since each one has a number of tactical and strategic spells and there is significant overlap of spell abilities. Overall, I think the spells could use a lot more variety and individuality.

Eventually, you’ll have to deal with rival nations. Diplomacy in Elemental: War of Magic is very straightforward, using clear numerical values for reference during trading. You can swap resources, technologies, children (in the form of arranged marriages), or champions, in addition to entering a number of agreements (non-aggression pacts, alliances). The value of each item in a trade is plainly visible and you can add in money or diplomatic capital (earned from buildings or collecting specific pretty resources on the map) to sweeten the deal. This makes it no mystery as to why the AI rejected a trade agreement: the numbers are right there. The AI does occasionally overvalue some items (especially peace treaties even if you are dominating the war), but overall the system works fantastically.

Units are just peasants that you give weapons (and training, which is automated when you queue them up). There are no “knights” or “archers” (although the game has them once you research the weapons they use), but simply units that have the appropriate weapons, armor, and abilities you have researched. It’s a great system that makes your units feel more like people than killing machines, and also gives you a lot more variety in designing your army while taking advantage of your resources. The unit design interface is easy to use: just choose your weapons and items and watch the unit cost skyrocket. Each unit is rated according to hit points, attack, defense, movement, attack speed, healing, sight range, and magical ability, plus some rarer special abilities. I also like how unit design is optional: the game has pre-canned options that work just as well for those who don’t want to mess with intricate designs. Eventually, you can recruit squads of veteran troops, more expensive options that are appropriate for well-developed empires. I wish high-level weapons were made of more than just metal (bows and arrows are kind of weak); this overvalues metal, especially if you don’t happen to have any within your boundaries. The same items you use for new unit designs can also be given to your sovereign, other champions, or any other unit, albeit at a high price of gold (instant swords are expensive, apparently).

Elemental: War of Magic is a world of constant conflict: even before you start killing other nations, there are lots of monsters and bandits in the woods to destroy. The game clearly displays a combat rating for both your troops and any enemy stack, which makes it very easy to determine your chances of victory before you approach your adversaries. You can choose to auto-resolve most battles (ones involving a quest must be done manually), which does a decent job replicating the proper results (I’ve only seen one battle I lost but won manually after I reloaded the game). Elemental: War of Magic also includes tactical battles for those want a more personal approach to combat. The battles use attack and defense ratings for each unit and a bit of random dice rolls to determine damage; both the attacker and defender deal damage during an engagement. The rare unit can also have access to special abilities, while morale can be important when units with high levels of health are involved. Weapons and armor have bonuses against specific types, always providing the maximum amount of damage or protection. The use of terrain is also important, as certain tiles on each map provide additional defense ratings. The attacker goes first, so an advanced spellcaster can wipe out an entire low-level army before they even have a chance to move if they have a powerful enough set of spells. The defensive bonuses mean you should find high terrain and stay there. The AI will simply move towards your trap, which doesn’t really allow for interesting tactical play. The game could use some objective locations the attacker must reach in a certain time limit in order to discourage stalemate play. Elemental: War of Magic also makes it trivially easy to retreat, as the escape point is always behind your initial position, away from enemy troops. While I like having the option to play out tactical battles, I usually skip them unless it’s a close battle between large armies with lots of magic involved.

Your AI opponents are slightly below OK. The will construct effective buildings to take advantage of their resources, although they seem to build too many buildings and cities (a lot of unnecessary houses, for example). The AI goes out on quests and engages minor nations successfully, but they declare war without having the military might to back threats up. Minor nations sit in single cities waiting to be conquered (by design), so they are a far less interesting foe to deal with. The AI also has a problem fielding enough troops to defend their cities, leading to a lot of steamrolling by the player. The biggest problem is the AI sending their sovereign into your territory with not enough backup troops and engaging your clearly superior army, instantly losing the game. I suspect the AI will improve its competency over time.

The best thing about Elemental: War of Magic is the variety of things to do: build up your cities, conduct research, go on quests, engage some monsters in tactical battles, trade resources, and develop your character. The result is that you rarely are just hitting “end turn,” waiting for something to happen, which is a testament to great design, despite the incomplete state of the game. Two things Elemental: War of Magic has going for it: the mod tools and Stardock's record of post-release support. I'm fairly confident that most (if not all) of the bugs will, over time, become fixed. Also, end users (and Stardock, too) will likely produce a plethora of new maps, spells, quests, nations, items, technologies, and buildings to play with thanks to the excellent editing suite. It's because of these two things that I think Elemental: War of Magic will improve in the future. The game mechanics are certainly very solid and unique, and while Elemental: War of Magic is not beginner-friendly in any respect, the learning curve can be conquered and a distinctive gaming experience awaits.

Elemental: War of Magic takes aspects of management, strategy, and role-playing games, merging them into what will be a fun overall product once all of the problems get fixed. First off, the campaign is more than a set of skirmish maps and semi-random maps are available for custom games. It’s disappointing that the campaign is so linear and “true” random maps are not present, as resources are simply randomly scattered on a handful of continental layouts. The game will apparently offer sixteen-human multiplayer, but not yet (and its exclusion from the retail version is troubling). Elemental: War of Magic also doesn’t have tutorials that are explicit enough, a must for a relatively complex game. The comprehensive and easy-to-use editors ensure a modders paradise. The graphics scale well, functional on the lowly netbook while showing some visual muscle on the faster desktop systems. The game currently exhibits occasional to frequent bugs, depending on your system, usually crashing to the desktop. Elemental: War of Magic competes with any good RPG in the character customization department, letting you tailor your hero as you see fit. You can even recruit neutral characters (and you own children) to fight by your side, which makes the game feel more like a living world filled with people and their own agendas. Quests are available to gain new items that give your sovereign something to do, although some of them are plain. You are given some impressive spells to research and use against your foes that can be used in both tactical battles and the strategic turn-based mode, although each spellbook fails to retain a true sense of individuality. Speaking of research, the game gives you several avenues towards victory (combat, quests, magic, and diplomacy), though some of the paths are bland. City management is not tedious, substituting repetitive construction of the same buildings with enhancement structures and fixed resource locations to harvest and fight over. The simple economy is easy to understand and manage, but lacks advanced production chains you’d see in a dedicated city builder, not that this game needs depth in this area. Straightforward diplomacy uses numerical ratings to make negotiations simple. Combat involving designed units in turn-based battles is interesting when units have special abilities and magical spells, but there is nothing stopping you from simply waiting in defensive terrain for the AI. The AI also needs some additional work: while they can keep pace with a human player, you can typically overpower them with military might and take advantage of their poor decisions. I expect the competency of the AI to improve over time. Elemental: War of Magic delivers enough variety to keep you busy throughout while giving you several avenues towards victory, though the learning curve and inherent complexity of the mechanics (and lack of specific instructions) might dissuade newcomers. There is a lot to do, and novices could become easily overwhelmed (especially without a comprehensive tutorial). As you alternate between managing your cities, going on quests, designing units, casting spells, conducting diplomacy, researching new technologies, and engaging in tactical battles, you might (might) be able to forgive the game’s various shortcomings and lack of complete content. While currently an uneven game, Elemental: War of Magic has the potential to be a comprehensive and involving gaming experience with additional content and improvements.