Posted by on August 27th, 2010 in Articles

These past few days have seen an online shitstorm brewing with regards to Stardock’s latest game, Elemental: War of Magic, which offers a curious mixture between role-playing and turn-based strategy. After actually getting a few hours of play time in myself I’m now going to chime in with my own opinion, but let’s first take a look at what exactly happened.

On monday Stardock unlocked a pre-release version of Elemental on Impulse. This was a day early in response to stores breaking the street date. As a result the day 1 patch Stardock had been preparing arrived too late. Soon after pre-release, PC Gamer editor Tom Francis issued a warning that gamers avoid Elemental for now. At first glance a fair warning for a buggy product, albeit one that saw massive improvements a mere few hours later with two large patches.

The story soon got picked up by other websites, exaggerated and spun out of control. But the launch day patch(es) actually did fix a vast majority of the issues present in the pre-release version of Elemental. And now that I’ve given it a go myself, I’m left wondering why PC Gamer haven’t rescinded their pre-review warning yet.

I’ve played several hours of Elemental by now, most of which in the campaign. I’d feared to run into countless bugs both major and minor, but that hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve seen a small graphical anomaly and stumbled across a bug where the game turns into a slideshow when certain advanced graphics features are enabled. That definitely needs fixing, but is also easily avoided because those features are disabled by default.

Aside from the above I haven’t stumbled across any bugs, the game has never crashed and I’ve only encountered a few minor gameplay issues. The same appears to be true for a lot players, but some do suffer from performance issues and rare crashes. But that’s hardly the horror story that Tom Francis’s warning and the subsequent exaggerations imply.

Now Tom Francis probably did this with good intent upon seeing the terrible state of the pre-release version. It’s unbelievable how much the game has changed since that version, but the unlikelyhood of such a change doesn’t really excuse the case of double standards that went into issuing this warning in the first place. It’s the first time PC Gamer ever issued such a pre-review warning and they do so for a niche game like Elemental?

Oh look, it's an artifact! Must be one of those supposed game breaking bugs.

I actually think the concept of a pre-release warning for games that are released in a truly unplayable state might be a good idea. I’ve purchased such games in the past and later wished someone would’ve warned me off, as I’m sure many of you have. I can recall Star Wars: Battlefront, which was a buggy mess with shit for netcode and an atrocious server browser that made selecting a server a challenge in and of itself.

And games like ArmA, Gothic 3 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl certainly would’ve warranted similar warnings based on their states at launch. These were all games riddled with game-breaking bugs, performance issues and crashes. Surely a few oaths have been uttered over the state of those games, but no one in the gaming press ever warned people not to buy it before the very first review was out.

The fact is that Elemental: War of Magic doesn’t even fit amongst those titles. The current version suffers from only a handful of bugs, most of which are minor. And it’s entirely playable for most players. It’s more comparable to the likes of Empire: Total War and Neverwinter Nights 2. Games that suffered from issues and bugs at launch, but nothing that really stood in the way of actually playing and enjoying the game.

There's something deeply satisfying about seeing your cities grow... and your enemies

That’s not to say that Elemental: War of Magic is just fine and everyone should go out and get it. It does suffer from a lot of minor bugs and other issues. Most problematic of all is the lack of a proper tutorial, which the campaign was supposed to provide. It doesn’t really explain much and leaves far too much up to the player, so newcomers have to resort to the in-game help functionality, video tutorials and user tutorials. That’s not good design.

That singleplayer campaign is underwhelming with no voicework, a generic story and poor writing. It may not be the focus of this game which centers around custom games, but it doesn’t add any value in its current form. Also disappointing is the AI, which is fairly strong early on, but eventually fizzles out, at which point the game becomes a cakewalk. The tactical combat also leaves something to be desired, but fortunately auto-resolve is handled very well by the computer.

And multiplayer functionality is temporarily disabled until a patch early next week. There are also a few game systems like tactical combat and diplomacy that leave things to be desired, but none of that really warrants a “don’t buy” alert that’s never been issued before. There’s no reason to hold Elemental: War of Magic to different standards than any other game.

Is Elemental worth buying then?

I haven’t regretted my pre-ordering the game yet, but I don’t think it’s quite worth a full price purchase at this point. I may disagree with Tom Francis’ method and timing, but his message is inherently correct. Elemental: War of Magic is buggy and still needs quite a bit of work to live up to the potential that’s undeniably there.

So at this point I’d recommend waiting for the upcoming demo before making a decision.

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