Review: Element RTS08 Nov 2018 1
Review: Element RTS
Released 18 Nov 2018
At last, another mobile RTS enters the field. Element has been a PC game for a long time, undergoing playtesting in Steam's Early Access program, so the version we've got on iOS now (sorry Android), is fat-free and beautiful.
Element's design is simple and incredibly refined. One might even be tempted to call it... elemental. Everything fits into overlapping matrices of three. There are three unit types: attack units shoot at other structures, defense units shoot at incoming bullets, and resource units generate energy. Each of these can be either a land, water, or air unit, depending on where it is placed, with a rock/paper/scissors strength relationship between them. Each can also be one of three strengths, being more effective for a higher energy cost. So in the end you have 36 different units, but so tightly organised they feel like far fewer. In addition, you have your base unit, mines, drones that can directly heal damaged structures, and missiles that directly attack the enemy.
This highly-structured approach to units is welcomed because the actual real-time strategy gameplay is very unique and very intense. First of all, the game is played not on a two dimensional map, but on a sphere that can be rotated and constructed upon all over. That means there may be something horrible happening on the dark side of the planet, attacks come from six directions, and you will probably lose your bearings on a regular basis. This is compounded by each side's ability to place units almost anywhere they want, which means you may find the enemy on your doorstep in a heartbeat. Rather than the traditional base buildings and mobile attack units, you will contend with sudden sprouts of enemy turrets and attack satellites that orbit the planet to regularly harass your bases. Because attacks can happen so suddenly, it becomes incredibly important to carefully manage your economy, balancing your energy expenditures. Each planet has a slightly different challenge. One will be mostly water, another will be tiny, another will have an extremely well-established enemy base you need to destroy.
Furthermore, you have a two-pronged goal for each level. Not only do you have to destroy the enemy base (mercifully, not every enemy unit) but also mine more than half of the planet's limited elemental resource before the enemy does. The AI often starts ahead of you, with several mines already pumping out whatever element is under dispute, so you have to work quickly, efficiently, and ruthlessly to destroy their ability to mine, build up your own, and defend your territory before you can finally destroy their base. It's impossible to simply rush to attack because you'll fail the mission if you haven't mined at least half the element, so each round is a delicate five-minute balancing act with orbital lasers.
The AI is ruthless on later levels, taking advantage of any weakness in your defenses and pouncing if you overextend yourself. It can sometimes feel unfair when the AI starts with an advantage as well but the game's difficulty curves well. Early missions are simple and straightforward, maybe even too easy. At the halfway point, you might be ready to throw your phone against the wall... but you won't, because trying again will just take you five more minutes.
Not only are matches short and intense, they control beautifully on mobile. Swipes rotate the map, and a targeting reticule in the center selects a territory. Thanks to the organized units, it’s easy and fast to build the structure you want from the left-side menu. The right-side menus keep you up-to-date on all the necessary information you need to win.
While the game design is incredibly tight, other parts of the game are not as thoughtful. Even at larger sizes, the units and buildings are very similar-looking. Everything is a grey or black tower with neon lighting, and while over time you can learn to recognize each one, the similarity definitely hinders comprehension. They could be more architecturally distinctive, for instance, by making defensive structures dome-shaped and attacking structures thornier. Even your own units can be mistaken for the enemy when you are spinning the planet quickly.
Despite the emphasis on quick battles, a lot of the game takes on a slow-motion 2001: A Space Odyssey aesthetic. This works well when you're trying to handle a half dozen attack satellites and missiles, but other times becomes irritating. With everything moving so slowly, yet so inexorably, it would be nice if the game speed controls were a little more accessible, rather than behind the pause menu. Likewise, the opening menu pace is too leisurely, delaying your entry into a match while you slowly watch the camera pan over outer space. It's pretty, but not necessary.
The last big missing piece is multiplayer, which is totally absent. That's a big shame, because Element's chess-like perfectly balanced design, dual objectives, and three-dimensional playing field deserve to be the object of some serious strategizing by some obsessive expert players. I'd love to see what kind of bluffs and counter-bluffs they come up with. If Element adds multiplayer in the future, I think it will be a must-buy for mobile strategy gamers.
For now, Element is a tight, unique design that works perfectly on mobile. If you are looking for a real strategic challenge, or just something not quite like anything you've never played before, Element is your game.