The brainchild of Flightless, a New Zealand company that describes itself as a "boutique design and independent games development studio", Element is "a realtime strategy space game for people who don't have time to play realtime strategy space games".
That interests me greatly. While I've always liked the idea of RTS games, I've never become truly addicted to one. Their complexity has always befuddled me, and I simply haven't had the patience to learn how to play them properly. However, Element promises something that is easy to pick up and play, and as I sit down to sample a demo of the Xbox One version, I'm all ears. Could this be the RTS I've been waiting for?
Its premise is simple enough: The objective is to escape from a decaying solar system by moving from planet to planet, and defeating the enemy that resides on each one. The planets increase in size and complexity as you progress through the game, and in the demo I played there were seven in all – although according to Flightless creative director John O'Reilly, more are planned.
I start out on the smallest planet that's nearest the sun, and the first thing that strikes me is the game's incredibly cool visual design. At first glance, it doesn't look like a typical RTS. The action takes place on a stylized globe that essentially represents the planet and that level's playfield. The planet's surface is broken up into a myriad of chunky geometric shapes, and I can spin the globe any which way I choose. There's no fog of war – other than not being able to see the other side of the planet unless you turn it around.
I'm advised to set up a base to get started, and then create a mining operation to begin generating resources. I do this with ease, spinning the globe until I find a suitable spot that's marked as resource-rich, and then swiftly planting my mining operation to get it underway. I immediately start generating resources, but notice that the AI opponent has done the same. The best thing to do here, I'm told, is to set up some attack installations next to the enemy mine to slow down its resource generation, and possibly even destroy it. I select land immediately adjacent to the enemy mine, and plant a couple of installations, which then start attacking their target. I'm barely a minute into the game, and I'm already juggling resources and trying to attack the enemy. This is certainly seems like a very fast RTS.
As I create additional mines, the enemy quickly sets up attack installations to thwart my efforts. To counter the threat, I create some defensive bases to protect my assets, but my efforts aren't quite swift enough. My mines are bombed to pieces, and I see that my AI opponent is quickly gaining the upper hand. Despite this being the simplest level, I'm just not reacting quickly enough to what's going on. I desperately launch a couple of attack satellites from my base to attempt to slow my opponent's advance, but I'm way too late, and my base is destroyed – game over. With just a few minutes elapsed on the clock, it's clear that this is a very fast RTS.
I have another attempt at the game, and this time last a little longer. The AI opponent still trounces me, but I manage to slow down the enemy advance by using my attack and defensive operations more effectively – but I still don’t react quickly enough to stave off the inevitable. At this point, I understand what I'm supposed to be doing – I'm simply not yet good enough at playing the game to be able to beat it.
John then takes the helm to show me how it's done, and chooses one of the more advanced planets. Its larger size makes for a complex playfield that's soon filled with bases and installations. Tiny missiles fly between them as they attack one another, and satellites provide a bombardment from above. It's quite a sight to behold: John is quickly cycling between his assets. giving them instructions as to what to hit next, while reacting to the enemy's moves by creating new buildings. To my untrained eye, it's almost chaotic, but it's clear he's winning the round. After a few more minutes of pitched battle, he emerges the victor.
What's apparent is that while Element is very simple in terms of the way it plays – it's very well designed to make building and giving instructions to your assets very straightforward – it's nevertheless deceptively complex. The AI is no slouch, and you need to be able to react very quickly to defeat the enemy. While, of course, juggling resource generation to keep you ahead of the asset manufacturing curve. It's classic RTS fare, but played out at a serious clip.
Although I was terrible at playing the game, I still enjoyed doing so. The fact that you're managing buildings and installations, and launching missile salvos, rather than zergs of enemies really appealed to me. It makes for a battle that feels large in scale, almost like managing a global thermonuclear war. I also loved the graphical style – the interface is beautiful, and the way the planets are designed is very crisp and stylish. It all adds up to a very different-feeling RTS that really does look like it delivers on its promise: It's easy to pick up, it's fast to play – but it's challenging too.
Element is currently in Steam early access if you're interested in playing the PC version now, and the Xbox One version is scheduled for release later on this year.