Elements of War presents a bleak vision of the near future. Apocalyptic weather changes and devastating seismic activity have destroyed the United States' infrastructure. Looters are running amok, and things are looking especially grim in the American Southwest, where the problems originated. The region is slowly becoming a Mad Max-style wasteland, barely within the U.S. military's ability to control. Even though the environmental catastrophe idea is overly topical and a bit of an eye-roller, it's a decent conceit for a real-time strategy game. Lamentably, developer Lesta Studio does very little with the reasonably interesting subject material. Everything Elements Of War attempts has been done before – and more impressively.
The story is centred on Captain Paul Wilson and General Derek Kirkker, who have been tasked by the U.S. military with pacifying New Mexico and the surrounding states. The looters – exclusively referred to in the fiction as “marauders” – are making life miserable for law-abiding citizens. As Wilson and Kirkker work to combat the marauders, they slowly begin to uncover the truth about the cause of the environmental catastrophe ravaging the country. It's a rather dull and uninspired take on the disaster trope, and the plot twists are prosaic and unsurprising.
Of course, a poor story is almost always forgivable if a title plays well. Unfortunately, Elements Of War presses against the limits of what one might consider ‘finished software’. Glitches abound. On several occasions, Elements failed to register completed objectives. This led to a game-breaking limbo in which no new tasks or enemies populated.
In addition, the story's cut-scenes feature an almost farcical amount of weirdness. Background characters occasionally move across landscapes at speeds rivalling DC Comic's Flash, and conversation cues frequently trample over one another, resulting in either half-completed lines or a strange cacophony of poorly written dialogue.
Elements doesn't fare much better in the challenge department, either. Though its gradated 10-point slider would have you believe otherwise, the game features only two difficulty settings: ridiculously easy and abusively hard. On the lower side of the slider, player units have a seemingly inexhaustible amount of hit points; on the higher side, enemies are unfairly multitudinous and nigh indestructible.
With a better tutorial mode and more balanced difficulty, Lesta could have turned the game's decidedly simplistic and antiquated design into a selling point: a sort of budget-priced light RTS for the casual crowd. As it stands, the only people who will be able to competently play Elements are those who will instantly recognise its shortcomings.
Elements also lacks any clear progression or unique features. StarCraft 2 offers a fiercely competitive multiplayer mode and an engaging story. Dawn of War 2 boasts an ingenious levelling system as well as creative, strategic cover-based fire-fights. Elements features glacial pacing and a half-baked currency system. The only sense of progression that the game offers is the occasional introduction of a new special unit based around the idea of the four elements.
But ultimately, the most aggravating problem is the path-finding algorithms. They are, in a word, slipshod. Even though Lesta took the lazy shortcut of letting your soldiers clip through many objects in the maps' geometry, your units still can't seem to find their way past one another. Watching a tank and a repair convoy endlessly circle one another like two dogs sniffing each others' behinds certainly involves a fair amount of comedy, but it doesn’t constitute a satisfying strategy experience.
In the end, everything about Elements feels low-rent. Units react to your commands when they feel like it, textures pop in and out of existence in the blink of an eye, and even the image on the start menu looks like Lesta cribbed it from a MechWarrior fan site.
No matter how you slice it, Elements has very little to offer: If you prefer a top-notch strategy experience, stick with the essentials, like StarCraft 2, Shogun 2, and Dawn of War 2. If you want to play a great Kalypso-produced title, give Tropico 3 a try. And if you're just looking to play an RTS on the cheap, type “GemCraft Labyrinth” into Google. It's a free Flash-based tower defence game that's light years ahead of Elements of War in terms of fun and playability.