I've been following Elemental for a long time now (with occasional periods of increased activity when my job allows it). I loved Master of Magic and have been craving a spiritual successor for almost 20 years. Elemental had the potential to be just that, but fell short on a number of different metrics, and as most people will agree was somewhat of a disappointment.
However, I'm excited about what I see with Elemental Fallen Enchantress and with the improvement we've seen to the base game E:WoM. I'm also of the opinion that if there's is one company that will do this right in the end its Stardock. The limited information that we have about E:FE points to a game that is definitely going to be a step up from E:WoM. But that step is going to have to be fairly significant if its not just going to lead to further disappointment in a product that ultimately fails to deliver in its promise.
So what I'd like to ask here is what exactly are people expectations for FE? What does it need to accomplish in order to get a thumbs up from you? What does it need to accomplish in order to transform into a game that people will still be playing 20 years from now (I just downloaded MoM from GOG and while its obviously has aged in some regards its still fun)? And finally, based on what you've seen so far, do you think Stardock is moving in a direction that will meet these expectations?
Here are mine in order of importance:
1)More interesting strategic choices
2)Systems that are more balanced
Number one and two and in many ways inextricably linked. In order to have more interesting choices you cannot have one decision path that dominates all other paths in all circumstances. In Elemental, as updated and tweaks have come out over the months we've ricocheted between which path is dominant at any one point in time. Arcane arrow beets everything -- nerf magic. Now just teching up military branch beets everything. We've never arrived at the beautiful sweet spot where there really are multiple interesting ways in which to conquer the world of magic.
Right now E:FE looks like its trying to remedy this with the 5 different ways to tackle the world: Armies, Champions, Magic, Infrastructure, and Diplomacy. Looks good. Five different equally good ways to win that are both properly balanced and that require significant trade offs would be great and would go a long way towards #4 as well. But the two keys to this are both properly balanced and significant trade offs.
In order for there to be interesting tradeoffs there has to be some real opportunity costs to my decisions. I want to agonize over the decision of whether I should build the barracks or the Mages guild in a city, because for some reason (population, gold upkeep, production time, etc., the exact reason doesn't really matter) I can't have both, at least not right now. The decision needs to be HARD, with each path giving significant benefits and weaknesses that can be exploited.
Stardock had done a good job of showcasing these different systems, but hasn't really shown me yet how they're going to introduce these types of interesting trade offs that would really make the game interesting.
3)World with more effect on decisions
4)More interesting world
I want a world that in turn has a dramatic effect on the interesting decisions that I talked about above, but also has an effect on everything from city placement, to army movement, to tactical combat, to magic implementation. I want terrain to matter. I want where I fight my battles to be important, I want where I build my cities to be important, and I want to be able to influence the ground on which I fight my battles and build my cities.
Just posted about how Elemental was a disappointment on this front in many ways. The world never really had any impact on how I played my games, and when it did it was in the simplest way possible, that of forcing really one and only one correct strategy.
Notice that I actually put "World with more effects on decisions" above "More interesting World". While I think both are incredibly important for making a good strategy game I would settle for a world that had more impact on my strategy and decision making than one that simply had more bells and whistles.
GalCiv is a good example. The "World" of Galciv is hardly interesting. Its a simple map of stars, planets, asteroids, and resources. Pretty boring, actually. But the layout of those stars, which strategic resources you had access to, and the quality of those planets, had a pretty huge impact on how you ran your economy and how you went about achieving victory. Civilization also has a pretty boring world. No monsters, no Wild Lands. Just plains, grasslands, desserts, mountains, hills and forests. Snore. But those few different terrain types lead to wildly different strategic setups and challenges. Its these challenges and how the world interacts with how you play your game that ultimately makes a game really interesting.
Stardocks has done a really good job of addressing #4, but I'm still concerned about #3. The world of FE looks like it will be significantly more interesting than the drab brown world of E:WoM, but I still haven't seen enough to ease my fears over #3. Things like the wildlands may make the world more interesting, but what I really want is for them to dramatically change the strategic problem that faces me every game and how I respond to it.
For instance. Say I spawn next to two different Wild Lands: The Burning Lands and the Ruins of Umayyad. Everyone's pretty familiar with the burning lands, but I just made up the second to make a point. The Ruins of Umayyad are the ruins of an ancient, wise civilization that was destroyed in an epic cataclysm. The ruins are haunted by restless spirits that occasionally emerge to attack your towns and units if you're near. Similar to the burning lands spawning fire creatures. You can conquer the burning lands through sheer force and once you do you have access to extremely powerful fire magic. Awesome! You can also conquer and destroy the ruins to end the threat. But you can also do something else. You can send a lone champion into the Ruins to negotiate with the ancient kings of Umayyad. He has to get past the spirits, but once he does his chances of success are dependent on your diplomatic tech level. If you succeed in your negotiations with the ancient kings they deem your civilization the heir to the glory of Umayyad and agree to aid you civilization in its struggle. You now get a small permanent boost to tech and arcane research and the ability to recruit a small number of "Spirits of Umayyed" powerful spirits that can drain the life and knowledge from opponents (and pass that life and knowledge on to your units and champions).
Basically in this situation you have two options. Go for military techs to take out both and grab those awesome fire shards, or risk someone else getting those fire shards first and instead focus on diplo techs to get the advantages from the Ruins. Which path is better? don't know, its an interesting choice that you have to think hard about when planning out your tech research. But its this type of interesting choice that I want, not just two cool wildlands that can both be conquered with large armies, powerful champions, or powerful magic (I.e. it doesn't matter which choice you make you still be able to subdue them).
This almost goes without saying. There's going to be a lot of cool new stuff in E:FE, unless the AI can also deal with the wildlands and other interesting dynamics were going to be right back to E:WofM where the human player continues to essentially play a different game than the AI.
1-4 will go a long way to solving this problem, but key here is also some sort of faction differentiation. Without it we'll have a game that's only worth a couple play throughs. In this case balance is actually less important. Make the factions play differently, if this in turn makes one a little overpowered vs. others solve it though a little brute force of slapping a penalty on or just making us up the difficulty level. GalCiv was a great example. The various races really did play very differently. A game as the humans was a different game than one as the Clan. However, everyone pretty much knew that playing as one of the evil races was significantly easier than playing as one of the good ones. Thats okay. I just bumped up the difficulty whenever I played as an Evil race, problem solved. But it made each game feel a little different, which was what mattered.
Have heard bits and pieces about faction differentiation in various dev journals, but I'm definitely not satisfied that this is going to be great in FE.
7)Improved tactical combat
This could get a completely separate thread on its own. However, its still #7 on my list, bottom line if you get everything else on my list nailed you'll have a classic even without tactical. Most of the great TBS games don't have it. Its icing, I want good cake first.
Tactical combat needs to be better in every way, more interesting maps with obstacles and line of sight (and for god sake make sieges different in some way), better AI, more and more interesting abilities, some sort of rock paper scissors mechanic at a minimum so all damage and all troops are not the same, etc.
We've had a few scraps thrown are way but nothing that makes me feel really good about the development of tactical combat in FE. Basically, the measure I'm holding Stardock to is the measure of Age of Wonders. If tactical combat is not at least as good as Age of Wonders (a game that came out 9 years ago) this portion does not get a B. If tactical combat is not at least as good as Master of Magic (a game that came out 20 years ago) this portion does not get a passing grade.