Note: This review was written using the pre-launch version of the game. Any changes via patches since release will be noted in the review.
The presentation of Elemental is not of the ridiculously detailed kind, but that's to our liking. In all, there's two main view modes: cloth and real. Cloth maps show what looks like an old medieval map with important markings done in 2D, while the real map shows all of the player models and terrain. The game's models do not have a high polycount, but the textures are fantastic and lend a definitive painter style to the game. The particle effects are all well-done, if decidedly minimal, and animations are functional, although stiff at times. Sound and music are mostly forgettable, with neither being extraordinarily good or bad. They just are. The music, thanks to this unobtrusive quality, makes for perfect easy listening.
Elemental's core gameplay follows the standard 4X conventions: found a city, build it up, establish a strong economy or military, triumph through either spending or war. Where it differs is in the details, and Stardock has introduced a number of great twists on the genre that we hope to see in future games, despite minor balancing issues. The three main areas that it improves are city building, unit creation, and the questing system. All three form the core of the Elemental experience, even if the other segments of the game are not as unique.
City-building occurs once you found your town, and functions in a similar way to most city building in games: you select what to build, and the city builds it. There are two queues - construction and units - and each queue operates independently from the other. Unlike most 4X games, however, Elemental takes a direct approach to your production of buildings. Whenever you set yourself to produce a building, you choose a physical location for the structure, which is then built. While this doesn't seem like much, it's rather unique, as it lets you do some truly fascinating things with your cities. Want a long city that can see a good chunk of terrain? A sprawling metropolis? You can do either or more. In a sense, the game channels SimCity for this. The rest of city management is balancing production via what is built, as you do not actually allocated workers. In fact, there are no workers whatsoever in Elemental, making a city in the tundra just as valuable as a city in lush farmland.
Once you've established your city, you'll want to build some units. In order to do so, you must design them. Designing units is done similar to how you would outfit a character in an RPG: you choose armor, weapons, and accessories, name the unit, and off it goes. Due to the nature of the spellcasting system, this means that you can design your own heroes rather than recruit them. Beyond that, units come in four group sizes and four veterancy levels. Not that after a unit has struck out into the world, they can actually buy things from shops to augment their armaments. This makes unit production more like making customized adventurers than building armies, although you can just build straight armies if you wish.
Once your units are out there, you must contend with the questing system. This system is a natural extension of the random finds in Galactic Civilizations, except with a little more depth. In order to take quests, you must be at the proper total quest level, and your hero should preferably be able to take on any opponents along the route. Quests range from simple explorable ruins to multiple objectives that must be completed before a final reward is given. They are all randomly generated, so it's not too deep, but it does lend a sense of role-playing to the atmosphere. We like that! Hopefully the quest system will be expanded upon in future updates.
When you encounter a hostile unit, you enter combat. Combat plays out in a very similar fashion to the classic Master of Magic, and also seems to draw inspiration from Might and Magic Heroes. Each army is placed on a grid, and the two armies must duke it out to see who wins. Naturally, this emphasizes both speed and striking power over defense: the army that hits hardest and fastest tends to win skirmishes. Surprisingly, auto-resolve seems to work out in the favor of the player more often than not. We're unsure if this is an error, but it does seem a little odd, as most strategy games do the opposite. It even retains this behavior up on the harder difficulties, making auto-resolve the most valuable tool for someone trying to play on the hardest difficulties.
Elemental's other systems are all fairly standard. Research is the same to Galactic Civilizations or Master of Orion: research a line, choose technologies in that line when you gain a level in that research tree. Getting external resources, such as gold deposits, is very similar to the Civilization series. Diplomacy is the same it's been since the original 4X games hit the scene. Kingdom resources are the same ones you expect from any fantasy 4X: gold, food, metal, wood, mana, and whatever fancy magical element the designer made up.
Elemental may be Stardock's best game, but that doesn't mean it is without flaws. The worst flaw, in our personal opinion, is the lack of a more in-depth economy simulation. It would've been excellent have something akin to a simplified Dwarf Fortress, as was discussed when the game was originally revealed. Instead, it simply took a standard 4X approach to resources: they go to the nearest city, and give that city production bonuses. It's rather disappointing, because the initial discussions made the economy aspect seem more robust and fulfilling than it is currently. This is especially noticeable in single-player, as the game does not balance its economics with a fine eye like Civilization IV did in 2005.
Other major flaws include the inability to make female units without a certain sovereign trait, the relative uselessness of spells on lower difficulties, and the lack of deeper quests. In short, Elemental suffers, like Galactic Civilizations, from a chronic lack of depth. While we feel it is more entertaining and engaging than the former, it has not quite reached what it is striving for. Future updates and mods will hopefully remedy the situation, and Brad Wardell has outright stated that the game will receive significant post-release support for a long time. Here's hoping the hooks left in (city planning, quests) are elaborated upon.
It's worth mentioning that the game has had a very, very rough start. We did not, however, suffer from many of the issues players reported. No white screens, no sudden hangs, nothing. The game does tend to become a little crash-happy with constant alt-tabbing, though, which is irritating. Thankfully, it saves every 5 turns by default, so any crashes set you back in a very minor way. Most technical issues have been resolved with the initial week's patches, so it's safe to play the game now.
Those looking for a game to keep an eye on post-release will absolutely adore Elemental. Unlike Galactic Civilizations, Elemental has multiplayer for up to 16 people. While not originally in the launch code, it is coming within the next week or so. It also has all of the design tools necessary to create fully-featured mods, from a editing maps to creating brand new particle effects. We're sure that, as time goes on, Elemental will become the paragon of everything a developer can achieve in the post-launch period.
Elemental is, as we have said, the best game Stardock has made so far. It really is a wonderful title, and despite some incredibly poor design decisions, it stands out in a tired genre. Post-launch support aims to elevate the game beyond the relatively simple status it is at now, and we welcome it with open arms. It's worth noting that this is the first time we've found ourselves sitting on the fence regarding buying or waiting, but in the end, buying wins out. There's plenty of game there for those that get it now, future updates will make it incredible, and the developer could definitely use the support.