Access Granted: Element28 Dec 2015 0
Of spherical maps, seasoned arbiter Tom Chick once said you gain nothing and you lose half of everything. For the most part, that's true. But along comes Flightless with Element to provide an exceptional exception to the rule. The energetic amalgam of MAD sims and arcade-speed action, served on a bed of gorgeous minimalist design, Element's current early access build bodes swimmingly.
Starting with a single base of operations, you begin rolling out an array of structures and scaffolds to expand and consolidate territory. Land-based resource nodes can be hitched to the polygonal papercraft topography, each affording access to unclaimed lands on the periphery. Resource anchors need to be defended, or bolstered by proactive missile platforms that target any enemy structures or satellites in the area. The defensive units intercept any ordnance hurled within their proximity. This is mirrored on water, with seaborne platforms offering the same three unit types to help expand and combat across the straits.
Similarly, satellites come in the same three types. Satellites roam in set orbits around the spherical map, and they're by far the most exciting to loose upon the outer atmosphere. Intercepting ICBMs and lesser missiles and harassing other units with their payloads, the only mobile units in the game ply the skies and give a really good sense of depth and distance. Orbit becomes a frisson of satellites jostling, bombarding targets below in their sweep around the planet. Players can also manually target enemy satellites with missiles that can track marauders over the horizon, either as a preemptive action or in immediate retaliation.
Element lives up to its wry elevator pitch as a strategy space game for people who don't have time to play strategy space games. Due to the automated nature of combat, this isn't a game that requires Pro League APM, leaving players to plot the next land grab or focus ICBM barrages. It is a furious, unrelenting game metered out in an acceptable pace. Think an accelerated DEFCON or along the same lines as the fine First Strike. Element isn't a game of turtling, but will scarify a player who doesn't tread with purpose.
Within its small clutch of deployable structures, there's a good sense of tactical variation. Do you open with a wing of attack satellites at the expense of affordable land expansion? Land resource rush to the mineral mines, or bulwark with rows of missile batteries to lock down potential enemy expansion routes? These might seem pedestrian and par for the course, the usual tactical musings you'd expect to make in most strategy games. But when you're managing three discrete layers of cordoning and controlling, with a map whose three dimensionality hides the immediate, balancing economy and fighting is no mean feat. Five minutes is the average game, and those five minutes are dense.
Chick’s aforementioned misgivings about spherical maps do hold water when fussing over comparatively complex systems, but here, it adds to the physicality of the playing field. Were this played across a flat map, the impact of missiles arcing over the horizon would be dramatically reduced. Seeing a fleet of satellites tracking out of visual range would be diminished. If anything, Element is made by its suspended map.
Controls are simple, supporting traditional mouse and keyboard, gamepad and touch-interfaces. I tried all of them and found each more than serviceable. Boding well for the future iOS and Android releases, playing on my plucky-but-anaemic Asus T100 Transformer in Touch Mode was a pleasant experience. Not only running very smoothly, but the ability to spin the planet as one would expect gave a very tactile, very dioramic feeling to affairs. The locked central reticule never felt clumsy, allowing me to paint my territories out and manipulate the globe in a fast, responsive manner.
It's all a work in progress, but the touch-only interface does lose the snap of hotkeys. Given how constant the action is in Element, not being able to whip to deploying missiles or repair drones feels somewhat detrimental. Flipping back through the side-mounted hot bar is easy, but a time-consuming and takes focus away from goings-on. It's a small niggle in an otherwise artfully-crafted game.
And it really is a holistically artful game, the kind we saw in a slightly more playful Multiwinia. The creased topography, the stark spartan use of flat-shading and simply geometry, it's so damn clean. But moreover, the audio is sublimely low-key. Subtle chirps, low synth and bass stabs to effect the impact of weapons or deployment of structures, lo-fi destructive burbling. Remember that night you first played DEFCON? The gentleness of the audio design and the distant, sparing use of music? Again, not to draw too similarly to the pre-Prison Architect Introversion library, but Flightless have inflicted the same auditory less-is-more approach with a keen ear. I'd be left struggling to replace Element's blend of hums and throbs with anything else. The aesthetic demands something pristine, and what's here right now is good enough to stay.
With a mere hotkey nitpick in touch-mode and current lack of multiplayer, I can't see much wrong with the core conceits of Flightless' effort. A slick, smooth, engaging affair that doesn't forgo tactical chin-stroking in being light and brisk. More deli salad wrap than beer and pretzels. Approved.