Elemental's disastrous launch: stay well away

Tom Francis at

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Elemental: War of Magic was released in some stores and for pre-order customers on Monday, a day ahead of schedule. It's a mess. As PC gamers we're used to launch day patches and bug fixes - that's part and parcel of gaming on our platform. However, the scale of Elemental's pre-patch problems is appalling and we want to warn you to stay away from the game for now.

Elemental is one of the most exciting game ideas for a long time, but it’s been shoved out months too soon. It’s a turn-based fantasy strategy game in which your sovereign is a character in the world, one who can take on quests and level up. The concept is magnificently grand: you can build an army on the strategic level to help your hero defeat a dragon on the questing level. You can meet an alluring adventurer to recruit, marry, and even reproduce with. And when they grow up, you can marry your kids off to other empires to improve your diplomatic standing.

At PC Gamer, we think it's part of our job to warn gamers away from games that don't justify their asking price yet. We've held off from finishing our review because of the launch problems, but felt this warranted an early warning. The game you actually get in the box, or in the initial download if you bought it digitally before today, is riddled with bugs. You should not buy it.

I’ve been playing it on two very different machines with the latest drivers for everything, and it’s crashed or hit a game-breaking bug every ten minutes. The tactical mode for playing out battles works one time in five. Half the AI races don’t leave their starting town or attempt to defend it. And the promised multiplayer simply isn’t switched on yet.

Developer and publisher Stardock are generally a great company. A small patch soon after release fixed some of the crashes and tactical battle problems, and they released a larger one last night that they've been working on for a month. They've made much of the improvements it'll bring, but that's cold comfort to anyone who bought the game on Monday expecting it to be stable.

I'm certain Stardock will fix Elemental. They may even keep working on it until it’s as good as their last game, Galactic Civilizations 2. But putting junk like this in a box and charging money for it is not okay, however rapidly you try and patch it afterwards. It punishes you for being a fan, it punishes you for buying on day one, it punishes you for pre-ordering, and it punishes you for having faith that a great company like Stardock wouldn’t ask you to pay for a game until it’s fit to be played.

They’re not even apologetic: CEO Brad Wardell says on the game’s site that they’re "definitely glad" people played the pre-patch version because of all the useful crash reports they got. Wanting customers to encounter crashes so that they can be fixed is pretty much the definition of a paid beta test. The game did launch a day earlier than expected due to retailers breaking the street date, but that doesn't affect the quality of the code in the box. And it shouldn't have been a surprise: exactly the same thing happened with the last game Stardock published, Demigod.

In response to someone saying Elemental "plays like an early beta" on the Quarter to Three forums, Brad requests that anyone who thinks so "please stay away from our games in the future. I consider it ready for release and if others disagree, don't buy our games."

Respectfully, Brad: no. I'm a huge Stardock fan, and Galactic Civilizations 2 is probably my favourite turn-based strategy game of all time. I was happy to test a very flaky version of Elemental at the beta stage, because it's potentially a great game. But it's been truly disappointing to encounter most of the same problems with the retail version. If they think this is ready for release, their internal testing isn't nearly good enough.

Brad wants people like me to stop buying Stardock games. I have a different suggestion: we should stop buying Stardock games at launch. In that one respect, I have to stop being a Stardock fan. I can no longer trust them to wait until they're sure the game is in a fit state to play before charging money for it, or even to patch it to a fit state at the time it's first available to me. That's not a great message to send to your fans, because first week sales are so important to a company, but as a fan I can live with each release date being one week later in my head.

The big patch is now out, followed by a smaller patch to address the fact that it rendered all standard archers unable to fire. So I'm going to start my review again, with fingers crossed, and find out if it's the game I've been hoping for. If you're playing too, let us know how you're finding it in the comments.

Update: No such luck. The problem where tactical battles just show a white screen and are unplayable is now back, even though the interim patch had fixed it. Before last night's patch, the game was working other than the every half-hour crashes. It hasn't crashed since the patch, but not being able to fight is worse. Others are already finding the same.

Update 2: Stardock's CEO Brad Wardell has responded to the drama.