veektarius's Elemental: War of Magic (PC) review

Rome wasn't built in a day, but this is ridiculous.

A fantasy 4x game is something I've been keen on for a very long time.  Perhaps it's just my American, Manichean point of view, but there's something lacking in a game where the only reason that you should take over the world and the other guy should be crushed beneath your heel is that you like to win.  I want a little clear black and white, good and evil.  I want to save the world, not just conquer it.   Up to this point, the only such game that truly fit the bill I've played was a mod for Civ IV called Fall From Heaven II.  I recommend that, but still, the ideal 4x for a warfare based game is less like Civilization and more like Total War or, perhaps even Galactic Civilizations.  With that second title in mind, news on GiantBomb of Elemental: War of Magic's troubled launch inspired more interest than caution in me.  The crashing and other technical issues it pointed out are real if overblown (at least with the latest patch) but there's plenty of other reasons you should give this one a pass. 
First off, how does Elemental work?  Well, like Civ, you make your own settlements and build them up and you're constantly researching one technology and one magical spell at once.  Like Total War, each settlement can be building both a structure and a unit at once.  Like Galactic Civilizations, you choose the equipment you outfit your units with.  And when you enter battle, the format is exactly like Might and Magic.  The graphical style, cell-shaded and obviously polygonal as it often is, falls short of its competition in the genre, but all in all these parts are not bad choices to steal.  It's other puzzling design choices beneath that outer, conventional layer that are offputting.  
While you're out there battling against your fellow sovereigns, an analogy to Civ's Barbarians harry your attempts to explore the world and travel between your cities.  Magical creatures roam the countryside, but unlike the barbarians in Civ, these actually grow more powerful as you approach the endgame, requiring more and more of your attention to be rid of in order to keep your trading lanes clear.  In fact, given how casual the AI is about expanding, unless you wish to attack from halfway across the globe, you'll spend exponentially more time swatting roaming monsters and trying to expand your kingdom than actually warring with others.  It can be a diverting experience in a mind-numbing way, but after spending several hours slowly building up cash and experience only to see that huge swath of unsettled land between you and the enemy AI barely shrink... eventually you decide there are other ways you could be spending your time. 
The other problem that constantly annoyed me was with the game's technology trees.  When you choose to do research, you are given a choice of five fields to explore.  Civilization, which generally helps improve the productivity of cities, Warfare, which I don't need to explain, Magic, which gives improvements to your spellcasting, your ability to create magical items, and occasionally increases the spells you can research, Adventuring, which increases the resources available to your cities and populates the world with increasingly difficult and rewarding (materially, at least) dungeons to explore, and diplomacy, which increases your options when dealing with other kingdoms.  The problem is that by level ten, Diplomacy, Adventuring, and Magic give you next to nothing while Civilization and Warfare are still full of tough choices, and of course, researching another level of warfare takes longer as your level in it increases.  Ultimately, since it's so hard to get into an endgame war, this ended up not making much difference, but it nevertheless is an example of poor balance in the game's fundamental design.  
Liking games that last for the long haul is par for the course for 4x strategy buffs and I'm one of them.  But other good examples of the genre manage to inject excitement throughout the slow course of building an empire.  Elemental utterly fails in this regard.  Some people seem to think Elemental will be worth another look once it's patched to working order, but I don't think so.  Stardock might fix the technical issues with this game, but I've never seen a game patched from dull to exciting.

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