Cracking Fallen Enchantress (no, the other cracking)

Fallen Enchantress #1

2009 and 2010 were not good years for Michigan’s Stardock, a corporate developer of productivity software and PC games with an outspoken approach to distribution and development. In 2009 they published Demigod, a hotly anticipated title from Gas Powered Games (they of Supreme Commander fame), only to see it almost immediately buckle underneath its server load. The cause? A cracked version of the game on torrent sites which allowed players to access the game’s official servers, essentially putting them under load over ten times in excess of what the paying player base should’ve produced. Then there were technical problems with the game itself. It was a barely mitigated disaster for both Stardock and GPG.

The following year Stardock released their own Elemental: War of Magic, a 4X fantasy strategy game that took cues from the Heroes of Might & Magic and Civilization series. Early in development it had been planned as a sequel to SimTex/Microprose’s classic Master of Magic, itself a hybrid of King’s Bounty (the predecessor to the Heroes of Might & Magic series) and Civilization, but legal issues saw Stardock taking the game in a different direction. Despite or perhaps because of Elemental’s substantial ambitions, the game was a flop: its technical issues, unfocused design, lack of tutorials and poor AI ultimately cost a number of Stardock employees their jobs.

Stardock bounced back the following year, selling their Impulse digital distribution platform to US retail chain Gamestop (which may or may not have been due to a need for a cash infusion: I don’t know and, not being a professional journalist, would rather get on with writing than go digging for these facts) and releasing Rebellion, a commercially successful add-on to their popular fleet warfare RTS Sins of a Solar Empire.

Perhaps humbled by their prior experiences – all indicating a need for superior QA, both in environment, design and game functionality – the company proceeded with a follow-up to War of Magic, titled Elemental: Fallen Enchantress. The game was offered free to early purchasers of its haphazard predecessor, indicating that Stardock was keen for the series not to be consigned to the dustbin of videogame history – perhaps unsurprising given that Stardock CEO Brad Wardell was at its helm as designer, as he had been with War of Magic and with the earlier and successful Galactic Civilizations games (which, incidentally, were updated versions of ancient OS/2 games, which were themselves likely inspired by the first Master of Orion, which was developed and published by SimTex and Microprose!).

It was into this troubled past characterised by serious technical faults and a surfeit of pride alongside ambition, pedigree and a history of producing some solid games that I stepped last year, keen to try out Elemental: Fallen Enchantress. Historically I was a huge fan of the Civilization and Heroes of Might & Magic games, having played (almost) every entry and add-on in both series, and I’d been a fan of the GalCiv games since about 2004, when AR’s Walker persuaded me to try the first game out. I told him it wasn’t as good as Master of Orion 2. I was simultaneously right and wrong.

Walker, incidentally, may be working on a game diary series for Fallen Enchantress. It’s because of this, and because the game is a six month-old update of a three-year old game, that I’m eschewing the usual review approach and instead providing this potted history of the series and what follows: my initial experiences with the game.

Fallen Enchantress #2

I was, of course, pretty excited to play the game. How could I not be? My misgivings about its origins were evidently not enough to stop me from plopping twenty digital pound notes down for the game.

Everything began well. Even at my age (neither old nor young, old enough to know better and young enough to act like a teenager when I feel like it) the bombastic martial melodrama of the intro sequence tickled me, and the tutorial seemed to be teaching me useful things. One builds a city, as in Civilization, and there’s a more detailed city building engine in there than recent Civ games, but like 4 and 5 it seems that focusing on a powerful capital was a valid strategy. You could build pioneers – workers in the parlance of Civ – and send them out to improve nearby special resources by building outposts – as in Galactic Civilizations. The combat engine was reminiscent of Age of Wonders and, predictably, Master of Magic, and hero abilities and progression were familiar enough that everything seemed to make sense. I think at the time I described it as Heroes of Might & Magic 4 with Civilization 4 glued on the side. Or vice versa.

Unfortunately, I ended up bouncing off Fallen Enchantress. I bounced off hard, in fact. On beginning my first proper game I found that it didn’t take long before the AI – whose own territory I’d not located – appeared and wiped me off the map with embarrassing ease. This was repeated on my second and third games. On my fourth I dropped the difficulty to easy and tried a different empire type. This time it was roving super-monsters who effectively did me in.

In retrospect it seems that despite the tutorial appearing to explain everything pretty clearly, the game is actually a lot more opaque than it lets on. Coming to it as a Civ veteran is a potential disadvantage, as it is possible to make a number of false assumptions about how the game works that the tutorial isn’t equipped to disabuse you of. This is perhaps most emphatically true of the way cities utilise resource squares – they use only the square they are built on, not any that are nearby.

This and other fundamental issues meant that I was trounced very quickly in every game I played, or saw my points trailing so far behind the AI players that it didn’t feel worth continuing. I simply did not know what I was doing wrong. I even resorted to asking online, but I couldn’t find any FAQs or walkthroughs for the game and my queries on the Idle Thumbs message board met with a resounding near-silence. Alas! So, I gave up.

Fast forward to May this year and I heard about the forthcoming expansion (now released as Legendary Heroes). This reminded me of how much enthusiasm I had for the game, and how that was dashed against the rocks of ignorance and incompetence. I decided to have another stab at tracking down some guides to the game, unsure whether my initial experiences were down to my lack of understanding or a simply broken game. And I found this:

So you bought Fallen Enchantress, or you got it because you’re a War of Magic owner. Great, you got your hands on a Hell of a game!

You played the tutorial, liked what you saw, and decided to give the game a spin on a level advertised as ‘fair’, so you played a game on challenging. You did not pick Tarth, and you got crushed.

You restarted the game on “easy”. The AIs dogpiled on you, and you got wiped out again.

Your ego will not allow you to play on the levels below “Easy”, you do not feel that you have learned much from your two defeats, and you really do not know what you can do better.

So, what are you going to do, where are you going to get all the information you need? Not here. But I’ll make a start.

It goes without saying that to come across the above description of a common new player experience felt like something of a vindication. It’s also a bit alarming, and makes me wonder just how much of a potential fanbase Stardock has managed to alienate through woefully insufficient tutorials.

Fortunately, the above alongside this YouTube tutorial series has taught me enough about the basics that I’m actually able to play the game now. Walker also spotted me playing it again, and a short conversation around my issues with the game revealed that Fallen Enchantress favours early expansion – a not uncommon feature of many strategy games designed by Wardell – which is something I usually aim to do in a 4X game and even in Civilization, but for some reason in this Heroes of Might & Magic / Age of Wonder style game I instead focused on shoring up a strong couple of cities. This may have been because of the roaming monsters in the scenario maps who like to assault and exterminate your cities. When the wilderness is full of more danger than most turn-based strategy games it seems sensible to build up your one or two cities and let your heroes explore and conquer outside your borders. Apparently this is not the case.

Regardless it’s interesting how my approach to the game was coloured by those misconceptions and early impressions. It’s also a warning that, despite the lessons learned from War of Magic, the Elemental series still suffers from a learning curve steep enough to throw off someone who has played strategy games for over twenty years, and tutorials that are inadequate for the job at hand.

Despite this I’m happy to say that I am, finally, enjoying the game. A few weeks ago I beat my first game – on Easy, admittedly, but learning a lot about various elements of the game while doing so – and I’m currently playing on a Huge map on Challenging difficulty. Wish me luck!

Fallen Enchantress #3

This is not from one of my games, but I saw it online and thought these twin cities were a thing of beauty.