Stardock's CEO Brad Wardell is one of those for sure -- as he showed me the latest beta of the game earlier this month, his enthusiasm for the game he's built was quite clear. Elemental: War of Magic, like all of Stardock's titles, is as "homespun" as any video game can be, and Wardell's personality and preferences shine through almost all of its (sorry) elements.
"Wait a minute. See this stat?" Wardell said frustratedly as he moused over a 'Prestige: 1.0' stat display in one of Elemental's beta city stat screens. A tooltip appeared that only repeated '+1.0 Prestige.' "What does that mean? I can see that," Wardell said before making a note to have the team fix it. In the game, a city's Prestige influences population growth in one of the many, many stat relationships, and the tooltip should say something about how many citizens Prestige adds per turn, not just repeat the other display. "And look at the 'Citizens.' 1.0. Well, first of all, it's a float. What, 1.3 people are going to come to the city?"
This is how Wardell makes games -- he sees things that he wants fixed as a player, and then fixes them. And that explains a lot of how Elemental came together. It's a Civ-style empire builder with a heavy RPG bent. You control a custom-made character (Wardell likes D&D) that runs through a story (Wardell is a big fan of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series) wrapped around an empire-building game (Wardell founded Stardock, which has made some of the best strategy games in the last ten years).
Elemental is involving, to say the least. There are five different basic resources to collect (and a host of secondary resources that affect those), each character has an in-game Magic-style card with six D&D-style stats and multiple spellbooks to build up, and cities and units create even more number relationships to deal with. Combat takes place on a completely different tactical screen, where you control individual units, each with their own spells and abilities. Every unit can be named separately, be given its own armor and weapons, and you can recruit various named heroes wandering around the game's landscape, and either use them to complete quests, build your own empire, or fight against any of the game's other ten factions (five of Men, five of a group called the Fallen, though as Wardell says, "there are no Elves and Dwarves in this game").
If I haven't lost you yet, you'll probably love Elemental. It has the kind of stuff that 4X players dream about. There are no constructors from GalCiv or workers from Civ -- cities' additions basically build themselves on command, assuming you've got the resources to build them. The worlds are gigantic (fully zoomed out, you get a cloth map representation, with your custom town names inscribed in the right places) and randomly generated, so quests are always available and different. There's little tricks like a currency called "Diplomacy Capital": Having a lot of it helps your standing with other factions, or you can trade it away for money or resources, earning you quick cash but giving good will to your friends ... or enemies.
"I hate hexes. One, I like being able to move in eight directions."- Brad Wardell
Even with the innovations, Elemental is stubbornly traditional in places. "I hate hexes," says Wardell when asked what he thinks of Civ 5's big new feature. "One, I like being able to move in eight directions. I don't like only being able to move in six. Two, it makes the game feel like playing on a hardcore board tile game. I just don't like that look." Wardell also shrugs at Civ's attempt to remove multi-unit "stacks of doom" from the genre. "First of all, we call them armies. And historically, there have been armies, and I like them. I don't like stacks, though -- I don't want to have fifty units that are fighting individually," hence Elemental's seperate tactical combat sequences.
The story behind the game is complicated as well -- the collector's edition will come with a book called "The Hiergamanon," part of a series published by Random House, that sets up some of the centuries-old history of the game. The story revolves around the Forge of the Overlord, an item built to warp reality and create magical items, so powerful that just the creation of it attracted a race of superbeings called the Titans to Earth. Over a series of battles, they created the various races in the game, broke the Forge, and eventually imprisoned the world's magic in elemental shards found around the now barren game world, leaving the player to bring back life and magic to try and break out of the Titans' grasp.
Besides the regular sandbox mode, there is a full campaign attached -- "a single continuous story-driven campaign, written by Random House's writing team," says Wardell -- and beyond that, the modding tools are immense, with players able to create their own heroes, races, factions, questlines, maps, or whatever else they'd like to put together. The in-game campaign was created with the included tools, and it's easy to imagine players recreating famous D&D storylines or old-school RPG campaigns, along with their own original creations, all shared directly inside the game.
There's a lot to deal with in Elemental -- it's the product of a man and a company that knows how to make solid and satisfying strategy games, and even on top of that, it's a wild mix of genres and gameplay conventions and customization options. Even if you're a die-hard Civ player, it will probably be easy to be overwhelmed by everything happening in this title.
But that's exactly what some players want. For those looking to dive in and get lost in a sea of fantasy-based strategy, Elemental will gladly provide the plank when it's released tomorrow.