TLDR: C+, moving higher with every patch they release.
From patch 1.01....
Overall: Mechanically and technically, the game shows a lot of promise, and is a solid base on which to build a truly epic game. It doesn't deliver on several key selling points however, or under delivers. Thematically, I don't enjoy Elemental but I guess that's to taste.
Campaign: Since I'm not a fan of the story or the writing per se, the campaign was pretty underwhelming for me. I don't consider it what people should play first if they want an accurate representation of the game's depth. The new tutorial hints and such are helping it feel more fleshed out, but for a game that thrives on choices, randomness and control, the campaign offers none of these. It really only delivers the story, which again, you may or may not care about. It feels like a first-time attempt at an RTS campaign, and coupled with some other problems, results in a pretty bad presentation. That's about all I have to say on it, lest it get too nit picky and negative. I will only say that after playing the campaign for 4 hours, I was pretty disappointed and fearing the worst. Luckily the sandbox is much better.
Sandbox: Overall, the sandbox has delivered an epic game experience because the maps are huge, there is a lot of stuff to do, and the pacing feels about right. There are lots of choices to make, things to explore and the monsters add a lot of dynamism to your turn-by-turn decisions.
On specific features
AI: I'll start here because I have the least exposure to it. On a normal game, the AI has been passive except for one repeatedly approaching me for treaties. (Shouldn't he take a hint at some point, or like me less because I rebuff him?) The AI has almost managed to kill off one player, who I've not seen because they're on the other side of the world. In comparison to my forces, the one AI I do see isn't intelligently building units or building armies strong enough to stop me. Nothing else much to say, other than it seems semi-random whether the monster AI chooses to attack you or not. They do seem to have a preference for caravans though.
Magic: This is where I'm afraid I'm going to get pretty negative. The magic in Elemental sucks, there's just no two ways about it. What should have been a focus in development feels like an after thought, from how spells are named, to how they're presented, to what they do, to what the core of the system actually is. After 6 hours of a sandbox game, I've yet to see the spells that supposedly make this game awesome. No volcanoes, no storms, no earthquakes, not even especially impressive summons..and I started 1.01 as as summoner.
There are handfuls of exceedingly generic spells, and having spell damage range be almost 100% means you often plink guys for damage one round, then explode them for max damage the next. Neither tactical nor strategy spells really have any oomph. Strategy spells are especially underwhelming. There's no creativity in them, they don't scale in power compared to what you start with, and they don't even have visual effects. How much of this is still in the pipeline, and how much has been completely overlooked, I don't know. Read down if you want constructive criticism on magic. But I had to get this off my chest. Do not release a game with Magic in the title then under deliver on it like this.
City mechanics: Overall I'm pleased here. Elemental still does not get away from "all cities tend to be a like", but the process of building cities and watching them grow is enjoyable, and all the mechanics and strategies that revolve around cities works. What I don't like is the Food Mechanic. Available fertile land dictates city placement way too heavily, as it's hard to grow a city in decent order without it. I like that I don't have to worry about starving populations, and that recruiting for my military seems to have a negligible impact on my population....but since it all ties back to the rate of city growth, and city growth is so important...I feel like Food needs another role than just how many homes you can build, or whether you have the 1 food available to build a trade center or something. Going back to magic, it doesn't provide (at least that I saw) much way to compensate for what you lack in the environment. I've seen the +1 food, +1 materials enchants, but little else...and again, I STARTED as an enchanter.
Tactical battles: They're about standard for 4x fantasy game tactical battles, now that some patches have gone in. I won't comment on the actual combat mechanics, since those seem to be in a great deal of flux. I don't have much to really say about tactical battles, since how fun it is is driven by a lot of other things...but since magic and some units are underwhelming, tactical battles have the tendency to feel that way too. It would be nice if terrain was more important, and more random. Also I have units that sometimes start the battle in the middle of the field, way ahead of my army, for no earthly reason.
Unit customization and gear: This is an especially good part of the game. Building units and equipping them and champions adds a lot of depth. Equipment however feels overemphasized in terms of effectiivess. Levels don't mean squat without the gear to back it up, for both heroes and regular troops. I have suggestions below. Overall, this is a great start, but equipment DOES lack quite a bit of content once you've played a single game. With only 4 sets of armor, a handful of weapon types with 1 to 2 levels of quality, and only a few trade offs between them, it's more of a sliding power scale than a real tactical choice.It's cool that I can have shirtless berzerkers with axes and Stones of Rage...but they'll never be "good."
Items: As I said above, it's a good start. I love that I can make troops with magic items. But like a lot of this game, there needs to be more, and more thoughtfully designed items. Suggestions below.
Champions: As people have mentioned around the forum, heroes have a lot of short comings. Even if I have them in every single battle I fight, without the right equipment, they're no better than high HP peasants. If I give them equipment, they're all "Fighters" of a generic sort. If they're not spellcasters, they aren't army leaders, in my book, since a 3x3 nuke in tactical battles is pretty much a winner. And those without combat special abilities at least seem especially worthless, the true baseline, uninteresting fighter. I have suggestions below
UI: I have to hate again a little. I'm not a fan of Elemental's windows or UI. The color scheme is god awful in my eyes, I don't find pastels to be an engaging or evocative set of colors. So much has been packed into that bottom tool bar as well that it's overloaded. More suggestions below, but is it possible to get away from the peaches, the mauves, the baby blues and the limes? When I see pastel, I think bland, inoffensive, somewhat childish. When half your game is that color, half your game gives that impression. The font in quest windows seems thrown in there, as well.
A good start. I feel you guys jumped the gun on release though, and I say that as an avid gamer who can't wait to get their hands on stuff. I avoided participating in beta because I wanted to experience Elemental as a polished product...and I feel like I'm getting the beta experience none the less. In the future, I suggest Stardock reigns in their own excitement with their title, and seeks non-fan, non-beta tester feedback before they launch. As an indie developer, I thought the benefit was control over the release process, but Elemental's initial offering really seems like someone was breathing down your necks for a release. And for the truly hardcore Stardock fans, answering that modding will solve all of this, that's not a response that works for anyone but die-hard fans.
Having played GalCiv 2, I feel like I know what to expect from the future of Elemental, and I hope continued support from Stardock takes the game up the several notches it's capable of, from average, troubled 4x game with great concepts to great 4x game with fully realized concepts. Given the amount of thread nuking of late around here, I hope these criticisms are ones you'll leave stand.
Suggestions for the next 6 months of development:
Magic: I don't propose a total rewrite or anything like that. I find the Fire/Water/Air/Earth dynamic to be totally overplayed in this day and age, but that's probably not going to change. So what I want to see is:
1) More spells, and more meaningful spells
2) Easier access to spells earlier on in the game.
3) More truly epic spells, and more spells with a lasting impact on the game and/or the world.
More spells and more meaningful ones. A new spell which only does more damage, or has a different mana/damage ratio is not a spell worth making. Yes, it satisfies a balance requirement, but that's ALL it does. More meaningful means: different patterns of attack, additional effects, different casting times, additional costs or risk to the player.
Easier access to spells earlier in game. For a player that is half magic, half combat, spell acquisition is slow and boring. You stare at the same 9 spells you don't want to waste time researching because they're not interesting, wait 50 turns to raise a spell level, to maybe get one or two spells that excite you. A single book can add a handful of spells to your repertoire, but books are infrequent and late game, making magic boring all the way up until then. Rewarding players with single spells for quests or random events would be a nice perk.
3) More truly epic spells. I shouldn't have to wait until the very pinnacle of magic to make a volcano, like was demonstrated in the videos. And that's the ONLY magic I know that's truly epic. Are there more? Probably. But I've put 15 hours already into Elemental, I've done my dues, now where's the cheese? Strategic spells are boring by and large, and many lack visual effects. I want stuff like:
-A massive thunderstorm that hangs in the map view, slowing down everyone within it and dealing some elemental damage. Can be maintained a significant power cost, with accompanying kick ass visual effect.
-A massive zone of corruption that reduces food output, morale in combat and leeches life from people within it. Visual effect please.
I'm not going to rattle off dozens of examples, but you get the drift. Apply that to tactical combat spells as well. You should be able to summon every creature in the game with the right combinations of books. You should be able to cause earthquakes that make some of the battlefield unavailable.
There should also be offensive spells castable from the tactical map. Sovreigns should be able to drop meteors or fireballs or lightning bolts at great distances, not just in combat. Make a new spell for it if you have to, but again, give us the feeling of magic's epicness both in and out of battle.They should be able to cast offensive spells in friendly terrain at 100% (or more) and have spells decrease in effectiveness the farther out of their terrain it is, or the deeper in enemy territory it is.
Make every spell count if you can...and honestly, put the leg work into good magic. The current offering really feels like a side project, or something that only got a few weeks spent on it.
Unit customization and items: We should be able to customize all the appearance aspects of troops we make. If I want to make blue skinned berzerkers, I should be able to go into the editor, within a sandbox game, and make them.
More poses for unit cards.
Unit cards should update to reflect a hero's current appearance.
We should be able to customize a hero's appearance and unit card quote once we hire them.
We should not have to be bald to wear a hood.
Layering clothes and armor would be amazing. Not a requirement but it would still be amazing.
Units poses on unit cards should not have weapons clipping through shields or body parts. If just looks tacky.
Stuff at the item vendor should be organized by item type and/or quality. A big list of stuff, if you guys plan to do more items, looks messy.
More items with a variety of trade offs and advantages, of all types. There only reason now to use light armor is for avoiding the combat speed penalty or because you're broke. There should be better light armor with a higher defense value available later on. There needs to be more basic weapons available at the start of the game, everyone running around with clubs looks ridiculous. Rusty daggers, rusty swords and reasons for why you'd want a club versus a rusty sword. You've got tons of combat relevant stats, make the gear play off those stats, both UP and DOWN the item advancement scheme.
We should be able to customize units for races we get access to in game, where reasonable. Darklings, for example. It makes no sense we can produce a race of troops with different gear and arrive at different kinds of troops, but not do that with the other races. There needs to be more magic items in general, even if they just are better versions of older ones. But there also needs to be items with a higher variety of effects. Resistance items, invisibility, shape changing...you get the idea.
Again, what's there is a great start. Don't stop now or it will never be more than that.
Heros: Heroes need some more love, or they need more roles to fulfill. As it is they just follow my sovereign around, who in turn hides behind my strongest units, to get levels. Coupled with the fact they're so fragile, you never want to get them into trouble, even though they don't really DO anything for you, other than allow you to branch out into the world and hit multiple quest spots at once. Which is a bad idea unless you have two or more good armies to back them up, since they can't do anything on their own.
I feel like heroes shouldget Attack and Defense increases as part of their leveling. Make the % of increase relevant to their current stats, but all of them should be getting at least somewhat more effective in combat as time goes on, without pouring all their points into the strength.
The heroes that you haven't made into spell casters, or have no relevant special abilities, are completely boring. Who cares if they produce 1 gildar late game? At the risk of suggesting some new overarching system....let us put those non-combat, non-exploring, non-spellcasting heroes to work. What if they could be put in charge of managing cities, like a Lord? An extra slot in each city that only a hero can be put into, where their stats increase (or decrease?) a city's output or defense values? They may not be gaining experience, but it would feel like they're doing something useful at least.
UI and Visuals: Seriously, revisit the color scheme in the whole game and look for uses of boring, mild colors. I'm thinking the Kingdom/Research/Spell pane for one.
The Wraith race color is baby blue, and it makes it hard to see on the cloth map. It's also just not very intimidating. All race colors should pop brightly, because that's info you want to know immediately when looking at stuff.
Spheres of influence should be visible on the cloth map, or MORE visible.
Roads should be MORE visible on the cloth map.
We should be able to expand the minimap to get a single pane view of the whole world, rather than just a zoomed out in-game view.
Vendors should list items in some sort of order, possibly under headings like "Mounts" and "Swords"
There should be multiple tabs on the spell book to view spells according to level, sphere, strategic or tactical. The spell book should be larger too, only being able to display 12 or so spells on that one page will get tedious as time goes on and more spells are added. Do we really need to see those icons so big? The titles are right there and the art isn't so amazing it's worth having that big. Sort of like the spell art on the right page, where half of them just show the crystal image associated with the spell.
The size of each entry in the design unit screen does not need to be that big. It seems like a general them of Elementals screens that EVERYTHING is oversized/uses huge fonts.
Other stuff: Timing on many spell animations, versus the damage floater and the sound effects, are off.
Battle sounds still cut out regularly. This may be associated with the memory leak.
Friendly units should be able to move through other friendly units (but not stop on the same tile) as long as one of the units isn't a super huge monster. It looks awkward that a single unit is occupying one corner of a tile, and another single unit has to walk all the way around them.
Monster spawning is a little out of hand. Not only is it the frequent "adventureres have done something stupid!" but monsters spawn in the tiniest corners of unclaimed space, meaning very small pockets between your cities produce an inordinate amount of critters, which them go straight for your caravans, since your roads usually go right through those pockets. Don't get me wrong, it's a cool mechanic. But monsters should need at least some room to spawn and move around.
Monsters also spawning RIGHT next to units is really, really annoying. I've recruited heroes before, ended turn so we could blink back to a city to buy some gear, and had a monster spawn and kill them immediately. Very annoying. Monsters should not spawn within 4 or so tiles of a unit, so you at least have some warning, and they aren't ninja ganking caravans.
We need a "retreat" button. We at least need a chance to escape a battle without having to fight it out to the end. We should take some losses for doing so, but auto-battling implies we're too stupid to run away when it's warranted.
Autobattles should not pick out the weakest hero to kill as often. What should be any easy way to get a hero leveled turns into an easy way to get them killed, because by the numbers, they're the first to die. If my combat rating is 10x the amount of the enemies, that should tell the AI that, at the very least, weak champions shouldn't be getting killed.
We should get a notification when a champion has died, especially because of how auto battle resolves at the moment. There were a couple times I went looking for one and found they had died long ago in a random autobattle.
There should be a "select all" button for cities. It's tedious to Shift + Click 12 units, especially when it causes your cursor in game to freak out.
Rethink horses and mounts. It's very cool we can have them. There's just no reason NOT to have them. Seriously, is there a reason? Who doesn't want more moves per turn and a higher combat speed? No one, that's who. For troops, it makes sense, mounts are based on resources and in macro bump up the cost of troops a lot. For heroes though, mounts are relatively cheap and never a bad idea.