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5 Reasons I Bought Elemental: War of Magic

5 Reasons I Bought Elemental: War of Magic by Zeus | 2010-10-02

Elemental: War of Magic is a fantasy 4X strategy game for the PC, developed by Stardock, makers of Galactic Civilizations. As a wizard-king tasked with restoring life to the broken world of Elemental, you're free to stride into battle like a magical warbeast, assemble a party and venture forth to complete quests, or glue your butt to the throne and micromage your empire.

This is not a review; just a list of five reasons I bought the game.

#1 - It's a Spiritual Successor to Master of Magic

My brother and I once spent the entire summer playing a computer game called Master of Magic. We took shifts with the sort of grim determination normally seen from workers tasked with preventing their third-world nuclear power plant from going critical. I wouldn't call it addictive so much as all-consuming.

I've waited fifteen years for a Master of Magic followup. Mars loves Age of Wonders II, but it's not enough like Civilization for me, and Fall From Heaven 2 is too much like it.

Sadly, 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) strategy games are usually set in space. It's been that way ever since Alan Emrich made a pornographic pun and coined the term "XXXX" in a Master of Orion preview. Galactic Civilizations is Sci-Fi, so is Sword of the Stars and Sins of a Solar Empire. It's not just big studios who are fixated on reaching for the stars, even developers so indie their programmers have nicknames like "Thy Reaper" stick with science fiction.

These days, it seems no one's interesting in exploring a medieval land, expanding their kingdom, exploiting fantasy creatures and exterminating rival wizards.

No one except Brad Wardell.

Diplomacy means not throwing this guy through a window.
Diplomacy means not throwing this guy through a window.

Years ago, the Stardock CEO began negotiations to make a Master of Magic sequel for Atari, who had bought the rights to X-Com, Star Control, Master of Orion and other PC classics. The deal fell through when Atari's legal department demanded too much control over the project, which makes sense considering Atari's legal department is famous for releasing fine strategy games. That's when Brad Wardell decided that if he couldn't make Master of Magic, he'd make Not-Master of Magic, and Elemental: War of Magic was born.

#2 - The CEO Walkthrough

Advertising a game is tricky. Elemental's dreary launch trailer was released the day after I pre-ordered, and it almost made me regret the decision.

The next turn beckons, sire.
Did... they just reference Envoy in their launch trailer?

You can't judge a film by its 30 second trailer, but that goes double for video games, whose trailers are missing what makes games unique: interactivity. When there's no demo available, one way to tell if you'll actually like the game is by watching a Let's Play, a video diary where a player narrates their journey through a virtual world. A skillful LP can reveal the depth of a game, or its shortcomings, better than the average review. And while Stardock can't make a compelling trailer to save their lives, they were smart enough to release a series of "CEO Walkthroughs" on GameTrailers.

These videos did so much more to sell me on Elemental than the ridiculously overblown (yet somehow drab) trailer. But it was their casual demonstration of the combat system in Part II that really convinced me to buy the game.

A high level dragon barb unit camps on the goods.
The unaligned factions in Elemental are burly monsters who, if left on their own, can grow stronger than the combined forces of your empire. Which may cause problems if they're using your preferred victory condition as a kitty box.

#3 - Tactical Turn-Based Combat

I love a good turn-based game of strategy, like Chess, Go or Twister.

Real-time combat is a dealbreaker for me. Turn-based combat reminds me of games that stretch back into the dawn of recorded history. Real-time combat reminds me of shouting orders at chickens and hoping none of them get caught up on a wall.

Two years ago, my hopes for a modern Master of Magic followup were dashed when the earliest previews revealed Elemental would have real-time battles. Thankfully, beta testers managed to convince Stardock that taking turns is the way to go.

Unexciting tactical combat screenshot.
Godzilla is attacking my spearmen!

Believe it or not, a lot of people say tactical combat has no place in a 4X game. Some argue that enemy AI can never keep up with the player (even though X-Com, Jagged Alliance, and every Chess sim on the market somehow manage); others, like Civ creator Sid Meier, believe tactical combat bogs the game down, which is arguable, but that's why the quick battle option was invented.

The spellbook opened to a page with a sword against a sunset.
There's a number of spells to cast during battle, like this Arcane Arrow. Sure, it looks suspiciously like a sword, but when it comes to art, I don't ask questions--especially when they're illustrating a tome bound in human skin.

#4 - It's The Little Things That Matter

Elemental: War of Magic has a lot of nice touches that quickly piled up like a killer stack of Earth Elementals, or some other hokey game reference.

I have a rule about not buying Special Editions. It's hard to justify dropping $69.99 on a game you haven't played yet, and more often than not, the extras turn out to be stupid (*cough* cat helmet *cough*). With Elemental's Limited Edition, I made an exception. Mostly, I just wanted to support the first commercial fantasy 4X game released since 2006. But I have to admit, the Limited Edition pewter dragon and huge canvas map were some of the coolest feelies I've seen since Working Designs went out of business.

Feelies!
The Limited Edition includes the Hiergamenon world guide, a canvas map, poster, pewter dragon & 20-track soundtrack. Hooray for feelies!

Speaking of what's inside the box, the retail version of Elemental is DRM-free, meaning there's no online activation or CD-check. But the only way to update the game is through Stardock's Impulse client. Good news is, Stardock is going to periodically release a fully patched, DRM-free, "archival" version on DVD. Which means long after Brad Wardell retires and sells the company to Activision-Blizzard-ZeniMax-PepsiCo, we'll be able to install the latest version of Elemental without having to resort to BitTorrent.

As an added bonus, Elemental was designed to be mod-friendly, allowing players to easily add their own spells, quests, and campaign maps. Mods can extend the life of any game: Doom wouldn't have been the same without Ghostbusters Doom allowing us to trade in our shotguns for proton packs (or Army of Darkness Doom allowing us to trade in our shotguns for boomsticks), and Mount & Blade mods transformed the game of medieval warfare into a western, space opera, and even a hilarious gangland brawler set in modern-day Scotland. Sooner or later, someone's bound to come along and turn Not-MoM into Actual-MoM.

#5 - RPG Element... als

The key to Master of Magic's success is that it combines two vastly different yet wildly popular games: Sid Meier's Civilization and Richard Garfield's Magic: The Gathering. Not only do you build, explore and conquer, you have access to hundreds of spells, ranging from summoned troops and world-changing global alterations to troop enchantments that can layer, allowing for limitless (and joyfully game-imbalancing) spell combos. Just ask anyone who enchanted their battleships, making them flying, invisible, and perfectly capable of taking out whole villages on their own.

Elemental adds a third wildly popular game to the mix, combining Civilization, Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons.

This shopkeep looks all-business.
Item shops: Not one of the things you expect to find in a strategy game.

Most 4X games cast you in a role that Civ IV lead designer Soren Johnson called, "A weird hybrid of king, god and general." But few also cast you in the role of hero, a warrior of myth and legend who, with the aid of a magical weapon and a few companions, manages to slay the dragon, topple the evil empire, and collect all 151 Pokemon.

This makes Elemental a much more personal game. As a god, you're not content to sit on your cloud, you're fathering offspring with your mortal wife. As a king, you don't sign decrees from behind the walls of your castle, you walk among your people, hiring artisans and leveling hills to expand each village. As a general, you don't view battles from afar, you rally your troops with your neck on the line as much as theirs.

And as a hero? You actually create your character, customizing everything from their strength and agility to eye color and personal flaws (hint: pick Ugly, it's not as bad as it sounds). Supply at weapon shops, complete quests, escort old ladies across the street--it's up to you.

This wizard looks like Naruto, just because.
The character designer is flexible enough to make any type of leader, even one who regularly attends anime conventions. Casual observers may notice this wizard is based on Naruto. Naruto die-hards will notice his headband is the wrong color. Either way, I'm getting beat up tonight.

Elemental puts you on the front lines. Outside the fantasy genre, this wouldn't make much sense, which is why you don't see Ghandi personally dropkicking enemy archers in Civ. But here you are no mere mortal, you are god, king, general, and hero.

That's why Elemental had to be mine. If there's one thing I love more than a strategy game, it's an RPG, and in a way, this is both. Like a good Master of Magic spell combo, Elemental combines two things I love, like... I dunno, Elvira and pizza.

Elemental: War of Magic is like Elvira asking me out for pizza.

- Zeus (click to e-mail the author).

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