Last week I played Elemental: War of Magic for the first time in months. And I saw something I had never seen before--a defeat screen.
I've spent a few days vetting the phonebook-length list of changes made in last week's 1.1 patch to the game, an experience I've converted into words about what's improved, what still needs work, and most importantly, if Elemental is worth your time yet.
So, right: defeat. I had lost. I never lose this game. In fact, it was almost impossible to lose Elemental in its release state if you were paying attention. But a large Kraxian army had massed on my border on my first campaign on the new 1.1 code. The Kraxian group was looking threatening, so when Capitar offered to join me in a war against this upstart power, I started moving my sovereign's army towards the Kraxian capital.
Then the Kraxian invasion started and my heavily defended border town fell. Raiders swarmed across the border and began pillaging my precious resources--shards, gold mines, lumber mills...all burned to ground by easy to destroy units that I had to chase down. I rushed to find the enemy sovereign and decapitate their kingdom (which I stood to inherit) but he was no idiot. The enemy king was hunkered down in his capital and was protected.
I finally took that border town back, but I could not crack the nut of the Kraxian capital. My sovereign fell in a siege while my empire was bleeding cash and men. Game over.
Though still far from being a great game, the new 1.1 patch for Stardock's fantasy strategy game does manage to make the game more interesting and more challenging. My own failures were due to underestimating how much Elemental could really change, and once I adjusted my expectations, some of the old problems reappeared in a new form even as a lot has improved.
So has this huge patch addressed the numerous issues raised by PC Gamer and other critics?
Issue: Weak strategic AI
Status: Slightly better
In our review , we said “the AI keeps finding sad new ways to lose.” To be fair, a lot of strategy game AI has that problem, but Elemental's was especially weak. The fact that I finally lost should be a signal that things are better. And they are to some extent. Your computer opponents now build armies at a greater rate, will have relatively strong defenses in major cities and if you aren't careful, you can fall behind.
If you are careful, though, your enemies are still woefully unprepared for you. They don't hire enough heroes to compensate for their poor leadership, and will declare war at bad moments, if they do at all. For example, one enemy sovereign was trapped in a no man's land between my cities as their borders expanded. Unable to find his way home peacefully, he declared war and he and his tiny escort was dispatched on the first turn of hostilities.
So the AI will still be suicidal at times and can't quite understand everything it has to do. Does it even know the game that it is playing? Still, there have been some improvements--sovereigns and heroes explore more, cities are placed near resources that can be exploited (though too few of them), AI armies will have advanced units and target your resources better, and if it has a good sized force it will beeline for a weak city. Overall, it is still stupidly obvious about its plans and will rarely take advantage of local superiority in numbers to harass a stronger army to death.
Issue: Cookie-cutter cities
Our original gripe on cities: “In theory you can specialize, but in practice almost everything you can build is (a) cheap and (b) a one-per-town deal. So you may as well add one to each settlement, making an efficient but utterly boring empire.” In 1.1 you can build multiple professional structures in a town, so specialization is more attractive. Leverage a city's access to a gold mine by building multiple markets or make a research center with lots of libraries and schools. Then you send the right hero units there and watch the numbers climb as their bonuses contribute to whatever is being gathered. Cities still don't feel especially distinct from one another, but that's OK--you can at least feel you are making a contribution to diversity if only in the math.
Issue: Boring magic
One of my complaints about Elemental was that a game about magic had very little of it. Spells were dull and you could easily win the game by ignoring the magic tech tree altogether. Though you can still win with an army of guys with sticks and axes, research times have been compressed in 1.1, so you can get to the cool spells before your military has plowed through all your enemies. Magic is now fun to watch in action and makes more sense in general.
Once again, however, the AI's weakness undermines this cool factor. I still never saw an enemy sovereign cast a spell, the volcano is such a powerful spell that it would be remiss of a sovereign not to research it and deploy it.
Issue: Unclear user interface
Status: Much better
Though a series of patches right after release did much to fix the ugliness and confusion inherent in the Elemental UI, the 1.1 patch makes some important changes. The population number now only describes people in your cities, not including your armies, making it a more useful metric for how many people you can mobilize if you have to. The equipment trading screen now supports dragging and dropping weapons and armor and only lets you trade with other hero units (regular units can't use equipment that is traded anyway.) If you can't build a building, you will be told why so you can fix the problem quickly.
There are dozens of other small UI fixes here and there in this patch, and the result is a game that is rapidly approaching comprehensibility.
Issue: Pointless tactical battles
Status: Slightly better
Well, at least they move more quickly. Animations have been sped up to the point where you don't wait forever for an archer to draw his bowstring. You can now select a target that is not in the range of your attacking unit and it will maneuver to get into range, whether it can attack or not.
The failure of the AI to properly build grouped units (i.e., soldiers that are three or four to a tile instead of one) was supposedly addressed in this patch, but I've yet to see it in action. The computer prefers to build lots of small armies, or maybe a couple with more powerful soldiers. Elemental is still a game that works well with a killer stack or two, and even if there were stronger AI armies, a human that will use magic spells on the battlefield can easily overcome a computer that will not.
Issue: Boring world
Status: Not addressed
The bland factions and failure of the world in translating the back story are the major problem for Elemental. Even if all the mechanics worked perfectly (they still don't), it is hard to care about what happens to Kraxis or Capitar or Alderaan or Narnia or whatever. Despite a wealth of quests to explore and hints tying everything to a larger mythology or backstory, this patch makes no effort to help the player connect to what could be a rich and interesting world to play in.
The computer opponents never really engages you diplomatically unless you count constant reminders that they would like you to consider royal marriages that they never actually agree to. It is not even clear if they engage with each other and make agreements. This makes the world even more boring because there's no sense of things happening in the background, or that this is a world where figures have their own priorities and goals. I may be the center of my universe, but my fellow monarchs should have better self esteem and not keep groveling to me in search of a good deal.
On the next page: a recap and my conclusion on the patch changes.
Where does Elemental stand? If you already own the game, it's not a bad idea to check in and see what progress has been made. Though the two largest problems--the incompetent AI and bland world--still stare you in the face and remind you why Elemental remains the year's biggest disappointment for strategy gamers, the raft of seemingly minor fixes do a lot to assure me that Stardock is on the right track.
Most of the changes are small ones, things that you might not even notice happening unless you had played the previous version for dozens of hours--and seriously, how many people could that have been? But 1.1 makes the game more stable, more intuitive, and a little more fun to watch unfold.
If you do not own Elemental, I recommend holding off until the first expansion. It promises to introduce material that will directly address the problems of world-building as well as other things that will make this fantasy epic more fantastical. Elemental's core issue is that it can't really suck you into its world. If you felt that the AI was doing interesting things that you couldn't see or that it would present a strategic puzzle to crack, then maybe you could forgive the fact that the world of Elemental is neither charming like a fairy tale nor dark and brooding like a modern fantasy novel.
This is a taller order than any patch can fill. What has been fixed makes me cautiously optimistic about what is to come. But I won't be revisiting Elemental much more until the next chapter in the story is written.