Elemental has come a long way since it's release. I know this is harsh, but as I've often mentioned on the forum, I've never considered it to be a game until now - more like a demo for kumquat with moving medieval fantasy dudes. But 1.09p has changed it all. Sure, it's not perfect, but it's finally a game. A rough, unpolished, unperfect game with a perfectible AI - but hey, it's a beta patch.
However, the reason why I wanted to test 1.09o so much was so I could assess its current mechanics, balance, and overall fun. I wanted to contribute by sharing constructive criticism, so here I go. Please understand, I want this game to succeed as much as anyone else, so none of what I'm saying is meant to be offensive. Direct, sometimes. But I'm on Stardock side, or rather, the players' side.
So, let's start. I'll organize my feedback with the same structure as research in Elemental, because those 5 areas are exactly the 5 large blocks that make up this game. Let's go !
1) Civics. Aka cities, buildings, research and the economy
While it's difficult to separate this from the resource aspect of the game (adventuring tree), there's a lot that can be said about city building alone. First and foremost, this "population as resource" is a good idea, but not yet really exploited.
If population (and thus, food) is the core resource in this game, then it needs more uses. Make it so that almost everything can be obtained if you're willing to pay the price in terms of population. Of course, that shouldn't include food (infinite loop exploit spotted!), crystal, and maybe horses. For now, it looks like the current system doesn't yet integrate this "population as the core of your kingdom/empire" thing.
Close second in terms of complaints, there is very little choice involved when building the city. We have tons of citizens, lots of room and entire cities, and all we can build are: arcane labs, studies, and workshops. There are other buildings, of course, but in a given city, only a handful of those are relevant. And this is where the current city building system falls short: there's no choice to make, almost. All we're doing is spam studies/libraries, but in the end, there's no conundrum, no hard sacrifice to make... nothing. Actually, having the workers commute from hundreds of miles away isn't helping: placing your citizens isn't as critical. Oh, and you might want to diversify level-up bonuses. What about a discount on unit building time? What about, say, mana production? Or a random resource every season, including crystal, horses, citizens and rarely elementium? That leads me to the part I think was the best in city building: natural balance between city spamming and a small empire made of huge cities. The food system, combined with the level up system, makes it hard to spread everywhere to make lots of small cities. If you want to make lots of level 2-3 cities, you'll have to give up on level 5's. That's a very good thing... almost. Maybe a small upkeep, like 2-3 gold per city, would help making this even better, by preventing the construction of houseless outposts made only for resource grabbing.
Now, to research: my main complaint is the following: it's currently to easy to rush a line of techs. Actually, an advanced tech like heavy armor and a basic tech like training will cost the same to research. And this is a clear problem, because an early 20 attack or 20 armor soldier isn't that hard to create if you focus exclusively on that. And by the time you create it, no other faction will be able to even put a scratch on it. Light plate should be an early mid-game armor, heavy plate a late mid-game. It's not fun if everyone's in light plate by the time the fighting start, is it? I've refrained myself from rushing those techs... but yeah, nothing prevented me from doing that. I don't have a solution to that problem in the current research system, since we choose the tech after the research is done. Maybe some techs could only become available after a certain number of other techs have been researched in the same tree, or after N turns/N discoveries have passed since the last tech from the same line. Like, only make heavy armor available after 3 other techs from the warfare tree have been researched after light armor's been discovered.
That's it for this part, so now, ont to:
2) Warfare, Aka units, stats, balance, pointy sticks and tincans. And tactical battles.
I'm not going to discuss abilties in tactical battles, although it would be nice to have slightly less straightforward weapons. Like hammers which diminish armor, or polearms with a counterattack bonus like in Gnilbert's mod. But's that's not what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is the balance of units and fun of tactical battles in the current system. I've run several tests in several games, 200-300 seasons long (or even more), changing the values of unit hit points, accuracy, and weapon damage. And here is what I believe (I've already stated it before, but I can confirm it): armor is completely unbalanced.
The issue with armor is that it is much higher than hit points. The consequence is that 1) early (shortsword-era) weapons struggle against armor of any kind and 2) it creates the need for very powerful weapons, such as lordhammers. The issue is that, aside from heavily armored units, nothing (almost) will survive a lordhammer. But lordhammers are just an extreme example: at the mid to late game stage (but it starts happening even at the early stages), even with experienced/veteran troops, damage variability becomes so high that units die in one round. Sometimes even one blow. Not only that, but it's impossible to even damage a unit with moderately strong armor with a weapon almost from the same era, or barely "outdated". That's not fun at all. Where's variety? Where's the "quantity vs. quality" balance? I'm fine with quality being a viable choice, and I'm fine with wooden pointy sticks not being able to lay a scratch on a Master Heavy Plate, but right now, it's a bit exagerated. And "blocked" results are too common. Armor is supposed to be damage mitigation, not a replacement for dodge (which is currently quite a lot less efficient than several layers of metal...). The solution would be to raise the power of weapons, especially early game weapons, but then the combats would only last one round, and the one who strikes first would always win. That's not exactly fun either.
The solution is simple: increase significantly the power of early weapons, increase the power of mid-late game weapon in a more moderate fashion. and in order to make battles last 2 to 4 rounds as they should (so that some tactics can be involved), increase hit points by significant amounts (I've tried with 15 base HP instead of 10, but actually 20 would probably be the right choice). Veteran and Legendary level units have more hit points, but even they fall short of expectations, and they take a lot of time to build. They should be very long to kill - and they aren't in practice.
Raising weapon damage, raising hit points: in the end, it all comes down to lowering the power of armors. Actually, you could also lower the power of master heavy armor and legendary armor. There's a jump in armor values once you reach that level, and even though they are costly, they're not entirely unaffordable. And someone clad in this kind of armor is a bit too close to invulnerable for the game to stay fun.
My second suggestion is the following: lower base accuracy by a few points. I've tried with "8", and it's nice. It makes all those shields, leather armor, broadswords, and other dodge-preserving or increasing items useful. It contributes to making dodge a viable alternative to armor for survivabilty. With 8 base accuracy, well, I still get hit quite a lot, but I manage to survive battles if I'm careful and resonably lucky. And strategically (provided you lower the power of armor), it's interesting: it allows units to survive against high-attack, slow weapons, better than with armor. You don't soak a giant's club, you dodge it.
What could be fun is to have training (experienced/veteran/legendary) increase dodge and accuracy. A better trained unit should hit more easily, and predict blows more easily (and thus deflect them more often). Not a critical thing to implement, but a nice touch.
3)Magic. Aka shards, arcane research, mana, spellcasting and firecubes.
The best feature of this patch, so far, is the mana system. It's not the one with the most potential, but it's the one which is the closest to achieving its full potential. Mechanically, it works. Mana production is almost well balanced, leading to interesting choices, especially in terms of combat buffs. So, where are the issues ?
Well, issue number 1: a caster shouldn't be able to cast 3 times in a round. Otherwise, you need to weaken the spells to balance them, and they end up feeling weak. Make them stronger... but let us cast only once per combat turn. Seriosuly, I can decimate armies with the combat-line targeted and area spells. I avoid doing it... but it's totally possible.
The spells themselves need a balance pass. Arcane arrow scales with intelligence, and makes almost all fire spells feel sub-par by comparison. Also, by the time we reach elemental spells in the research tree... well, usually, we're already at the second or 3rd spell level. So the 1st level fire spell will not see a lot of use. Then, the enchantment spells... feel really weak, for most of them. The only one I use is the one that increases food production by 1; it'd actually be even more interesting if population was actually more useful (and thus more critical) as a resource, but I've already discussed that. Anyway, +1 gildar for 1 mana per turn isn't worth it. It doesn't make me feel like I'm playing a powerful caster, but more like a sorcerer's apprentice. I'm not against creating resources with spells, but it needs to feel more... powerful. We need to have to make meaningful choices, and be faced with having to decide wether to spend 1 more mana per turn for a significant effect, or keep that mana for blasting. Actually, introduce spells that have a less straightforward feeling than "+x gildars". Call of the Titans is a nice example. We need more of those.
Oh, and teleport is overpowered for now. We need to have it scale with the number (or even better: power) of troops we want to teleport, or the channeler will become a logistics airplane.
4)Adventuring. Roaming creatures, resources, quests.
Well, not much to say about that one. Creatures are a tad too abundant at first (they make it too difficult to do anything meaningful in the early game), but then they're too few and far between. Balancing this won't be easy, but it's a vital part of making the game world exciting. Of course, this will also require a careful balance pass on monster stats so as to keep it in line with the units players can create and heroes that will be fielded at that stage of the game. 50+armor/50+damage units are kind of invulnerable, for instance (well, aside from cheesy Mr. T tactics)
Also, please spawn fewer, but more rewarding goodie huts of level 1+. There are times when I can't make a step without my foot landing on an abandoned graveyard.
As for resources, please check the resource generation algorithm. Crystal and Ventri iron are often more comon than standard iron, and the later is really lacking sometimes. If you can't find any iron, the way the game currently is... you can give up, because you can't do anything against those Heavy armors + greataxe wielding warriors.
The AI still needs some update, and there's a lot of work to do with the current diplomatic capital system. It's not that it's fundamentaly flawed, but it's easy to abuse and puts the AI at a disadvantage. I'm not an expert in the area, but the system lacks depth, for now, so there's a lot to do here. Also, the diplomacy techs are quite weak as it is, aside from "trading".
In the end, the new system is really interesting, and the game is starting to take shape. A nice one, slowly but surely. 1.09o restored my faith in Elemental, and proved that our patience will be rewarded. There is still a lot of work to do: balance work, XML cleanup (to remove or update entries that break the game because the context has changed, such as warstaff...), but also depth. Those new mechanics need to be fleshed out: interesting spells for the mana pool system, interesting buildings for the "population resource" system, for instance. And adding depth in one area of the game will impact depth in the other areas, making the overall game more enjoyable and challenging.
Anyway, congratulations to Kael and Stardock, and thanks for this patch !
Nota Bene: A few issues I've found so far:
-Some freezes from time to time. Not a PC freeze - I can still move the mouse cursor and clic on the "next turn" button and see it move, but nothing will happen, units can't move or use spells, etc. I don't know what's happening. Happens on both tactical and strategic maps. Maybe a leftover multithreading issue?
-The "Moriah's tomb" quest doesn't give any spell. Maybe the spells it's supposed to give haven't been updated ?
-I'm still losing squad members when entering a city due to the hit point bonus.
-Does AI build command posts ? Haven't seen it doing so. Maybe that's the problem with the AI not building squads !
-Spiders cast their web twice on the same unit in a tomb fight. Unless the first one is resisted, the next one should be directed at another target.