Where we stand: A review from War of Magic to Fallen Enchantress.
I have been involved with Elemental since the WoM beta. I have watched this long, long process that has taken us from WoM, which was one of the greatest disappointments in gaming history, for me, to FE, which is already far better than WoM ever was, despite the ongoing development. I had high hopes for WoM, and they were dashed. I have high hopes for FE, and so far those hopes are being rewarded. We have come a long way, mostly for the better. However, there are still areas that could use some work before release.
I will be looking at the changes from WoM, and the current state of FE, using the 5X model, which was Master of Orion 3's evolution of the 4X genre. Adding to the standard eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, MOO3 (another one of the great disappointments of all time) added eXperience, an attempt to better integrate lore, narrative, and other neglected areas of gameplay.
+ Basic exploration functionality (map with fog of war, locations to explore, dedicated scout skills)
+/- Goodie huts are fun to find and reward exploration. A better variety of results would be nice. I think the RNG is a bit off because in many games I will find the same magic item 2-3 times.
+ Wildlands are a great, great, GREAT addition. I love that you get a special event screen when you find one. Unique features like this make the world far more interesting. I would like to see more of the special event screens for other key events (new faction discovered, alliance, enemy defeated, etc.).
+/- The world can be quite dangerous to explore with a variety of nasty monsters. The variety has grown a bit since WoM, but it is still a bit underwhelming. It would be nice to see some further expansion of the available nasties. Having lairs that spawn wandering monsters is great, and provides incentive for seeking out and destroying the source of the nasties.
+/- Champions are now easier to find than in WoM, since they stay in one spot. This is good from a gameplay perspective, although the old wandering parties of Champions helped bring the world alive a bit. It would be nice if we had a mix of the two - some that stay put, and some that travel around, fighting neutral monsters, stirring up trouble, etc.
- Some maps end up with significant dead space, areas with no fertile ground, no resources, and no monsters or quests. These areas are thus wastelands forever, in a very boring way.
- Monster locations are very uneven. Sometimes a world will have a good mix of low threat / high threat monsters on the starting map. Sometimes you will just have low threats nearby, sometimes you will be surrounded by high threats. This needs consistent balance so that players aren't screwed over with impossible starts where they are swarmed with armies of high threat monsters from the start, while at the same time ensuring that there is a good mix of enemies to create early conflict and opportunities to earn experience.
o Reserve initial high level threats for Wildlands. This will make the Wildlands appropriatly special and dangerous. Initial monsters should be dangerous and require the player to fight to survive and expand, but they should not be unbeatable. An early level player can never beat an army of high threat monsters. If the initial threats are not defeated, allow some of them to upgrade to more dangerous lairs with more dangerous spawns.
+ Players have a large choice of buildings, equipment, and spells.
+ Current system is fairly clean, and tooltips explain most things, breaking down and showing where the player's income, mana, etc. comes from.
+/- The new food / city growth system is good. However, I do miss housing. It was nice being able to control the growth of my cities a bit more easily. In some versions of WoM, you could place housing in cities, and that is where any growth would go. If you didn't expand the housing in a city, it would stop growing. Now it is spread evenly across all cities that have room to grow.
- Lack of fertile land for cities is extremely limiting, and some maps will constrain players to the point where they won't have an opportunity to found even one additional city.
- Outposts must be spammed everywhere to gain resources, control terrain, and give line of sight. But they are boring and don't provide much of interest.
o Increase the availability of viable spots for cities. All terrain, with the exception of certain really rough areas, would be viable for a city, with plains giving more food, hills and forests giving more materials, etc. Maintain a minimum distance between cities. This will prevent large areas of the map being utterly useless, and won't leave players unable to found another city due to poor map generation scripts. Allow for more areas to be 'healed' by magic to allow settlement, as was the case early in WoM.
o Make terrain matter. This will make city placement more strategic and also more characterful. Right now we have a weird system that sort of wants to be Civ, but isn't really developed. Allow the player to build a city anywhere, but have the terrain impact how that city can grow. So if you build a city in a 1/1 spot, it won't really have much potential for huge growth, but it may be a good spot due to resources or strategic location. For buildings, right now we have some limited options for rivers and forests. I would like to see this expanded for other terrain. So if you build near a mountain, you can build special mines.
o Outposts / Cities: Combine them. Allow for a player to build an outpost basically anywhere, with a small minimum distance from other cities. The player can then grow the outpost into a full city if the terrain and their needs allow for it. If not, it can remain as a small outpost, with some possible development for trade and military. This feels more organic and realistic, and ultimately more interesting. Right now the game encourages Outpost spam instead of city spam. Not really an improvement. Combining them will make things simpler, still allow for establishing control over key terrain, and provide interesting options for upgrading an Outpost into a trade hub / military fort, or into a full city.
+ Decent variety of special resources.
+/- Shards are easy to understand, but still very limiting since you may be playing a Fire Sov and end up with nothing but Water Shards.
+/- City levels are far more interesting now with special buildings than they were with the old generic bonuses in WoM. However, the buildings still end up being a bit generic. It also can take a long time to actually build the level up building, since the city is trying to build basic buildings at the same time.
+/- City militia is a great addition and really needed in games like this. However, it is a bit off in implementation since militia units get huge bonuses and access to equipment the player hasn't researched yet.
- Multi-tile cities: I know this is being worked on for Beta 4, but I'm going to come down against it here. It has been developed further since WoM, but it is still just not a very compelling feature. The issues with city snakes and other multi-tile city problems have been talked about to death, so I won't rehash it here. I will just say that I continue to feel that the mechanic either needs to be developed in a way to make it meaningful, or it needs to be dropped.
o Make most shards generic, and allow players to build whatever shrine they want. This will allow for more strategic gameplay and less luck of the draw. It will allow for more characterful gameplay, allowing a Fire Sov to focus on Fire Magic. Possibly keep some special super shards for specific schools, maybe in certain Wildlands or quests.
o Make City Level bonus buildings special. Create a true difference between standard buildings and Level Up buildings. Use the Level Up buildings to give the city flavor and character with really unique and interesting buildings that utilize lore instead of the current generic stuff. That way, a city will be more interesting because it has the Prancing Pony Inn instead of Almshouse #3. Tie the available bonus buildings into the local terrain, the stats of the city, etc. So a city that produces tons of gold will get some unique gold-focused special buildings. Use this mechanic to help tell the story of the city.
o Tie militia into the tech tree. Make players earn stronger militia through research. If a player hasn't researched bows, don't let militia have bows. Don't give militia crazy bonuses, just make them fairly weak - moderate strength units that can help defend a city. Have some techs, faction abilities, and buildings that can strengthen militia with better stats, numbers, and gear.
+ Tactical Combat is much much more interesting and developed than WoM on many levels. Traits and special abilities are a wonderful addition to the game, as are weapon-specific abilities such as counterattack and backswing. Overall, the tactical combat is now actually fun and somewhat balanced, unlike the utter mess of WoM.
+ Enemy AIs can now surrender and become a controlled Champion. Neat addition that gives some depth beyond just capturing everything.
+/- There is a decent variety of equipment, but it is still a bit lacking. It would be nice if there were varied levels of armor, instead of just light leather -> medium chain -> heavy plate.
- Some weapons are cool, but some are still lacking. I think most weapons should give an ability, the way that swords give a Counterattack, to make each weapon more interesting. Spears could have a range of 1 or give better defense when set, for example. It would be nice to have more equipment choices with more interesting abilities, especially the unique faction equipment.
- Some techs are, frankly, boring as hell. Standing Army gives a wooden shield. Thats it. Lame. A tech should give more than just 1 piece of low level equipment. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if the expanded arms and armor system I suggested above was used.
- Add variety to equipment. Right now, everything ends up looking the same.
- Equipment lacks visual variety, units end up looking the same.
- Lack of tactical combat unit placement really hurts tactics. It would only take seconds to deploy units, but instead we have a random clump that has to shuffle around.
- Most traits are just stat bonuses.
- Battlefields are very small compared to movement rates and weapon ranges. This doesn't allow much tactical positioning.
- City battles are horribly underdeveloped. Sieges have been asked for time and time again. Either a wall on the tactical map or a turn delay before battles...something! I would prefer a wall in tactical combat ala Age of Wonders, but failing that I think the turn delay mechanic that has been suggested would be fine. The current stat bonuses for walls and other buildings are, in a world, boring. In another word, silly.
o Add different versions of armor for early - mid - late game. So leather -> studded -> masterwork studded, and -> halfplate -> full plate -> masterwork plate. This would give players more options from the start and create greater variety in units and tactics.
o Give all weapons a special ability and role, like Counterattack for swords.
o Add visual variety to equipment. Right now, everything ends up looking the same. Give us options, as in Gal Civ II, to really customize our units. Provide multiple models for weapons, from a nasty, jagged sword to a sword that is a work of art. Armor that is patchwork, or armor that is top quality. Let us add small decorations to units like banners and icons. Let us change the color tint at will so we can have an army with blue uniforms, with the exception of the elite guard wearing red.
o Add more traits that give a unit a special ability or attack. Some can be equipment dependent.
o Make tactical combat movement much slower and weapon ranges shorter in relation to battlefield size. Give room for maneuver
o Add a siege mechanic. This has been asked for again and again. Since walls in tactical combat are likely out until an expansion, at the earliest, at least add the turn delay mechanic.
+/- There is far more lore presented in the game, with Champion descriptions, monster descriptions, Wildlands, etc. Big improvement, but still a long long way to go to really feel like a 'RPG in a Strategy World.'
+/- Factions are becoming more unique in gameplay.
+/- Quests are a bit more interesting, with better text, than the old WoM 'Witch's Hut' quests. However, there is still a lack of variety and depth.
- Game history and Lore are still very, very sparse. We get some nice snippets in descriptions, but it doesn't all tie together very well.
- Quests still tend to feel very disconnected from the rest of the game. Quests are almost entirely independent from the rest of the game. There are no connections to anything the player or AIs do.
- Champions are much more interesting to use, but they have no personality beyond their stats and descriptions. They are all basically just player controlled units, not really independent characters.
- Faction differences need to be carried over into the AI personalities. Not just in how they play, but in how they act. If I am conducting diplomacy with Warlord Verga, it should feel very different than speaking with Magnar. Right now they all feel the same. There are some differences, but it is very light.
- The world feels very static. It doesn't really feel like a 'Strategy Game in an RPG World.' It just feels like a Fantasy Strategy Game. Not bad, just not what the game has always aspired to.
- Events are rare, to the point where many people question if they are even in the game yet. Add more events, some big some small, some positive some negative, and make the big events really really big. Include some events that ask for player input, and make these decisions impact the game. Gal Civ II had this right.
o Stuff the lore into every corner of the game. Add as much personality and background as possible, everywhere. These will help expand the gameworld and make it feel far more developed and less generic. The Hiergemmon is the best place to really go into detail, but make sure that all other areas of the game really draw on the lore. Quests are a great place for this. If a quest is going to offer a magic item for a reward, make sure the background of that item is presented to the player as part of the quest.
o Tie quests, events, and other things into actual gameplay. There are many ways to do this. I've been crying for it since the WoM Beta. This will help create more of a 'Living World.' For example, if a player builds an Inn, increase the chances of a random quest being offered. If a player builds an Adventurer's Guild, have a chance for a random Adventurer Champion to offer their services. Include quests with a wider variety of rewards. For example, if a Merchant Company offers the Player a quest, and the Player succeeds, have the Merchant Company build a special building. Offer quests with a greater variety of rewards. We have seen some, such as the Hunter that will give a special cloak for wolf pelts. Offer more quests like this at the Empire level, such as building a particular building or earning a certain amount of mana.
o Give Champions personalities. If the Player has an Ironeer Champion, and the Player starts slaughtering Ironeers, have that Champion get pissed and rebel. Mirror the party mechanics of traditional RPGs.
Long post and analysis, so if you stuck with it, thanks.