Elements of Destruction is a game that seemed to want to rest half way between the casual market and full price, and didn't seem to satisfy either. It's unique (as far as I'm aware) in that it's actually a XBLA -> PC port, as if normal 360 ports were not bad enough. This was another review released towards the end of the sites lifespan when university was looming and I had less free time to write.
Microsoft has found great success in porting of over old arcade and PC classics – including the infamous doom –to its XBOX live arcade service, the 360’s answer to low cost, casual gaming. There have been few games, however, that have made the opposite jump and moved in quite a few strange platforms as Elements, appearing on the PC as both a downloadable and a full CD release, the marketplace as a download and the even the Nintendo DS. Unfortunately, in this weird collection of formats the PC version appears to have been placed last on the list for quality.
One of the biggest words of praise I can give to elements is that it’s original. There’s no denying that there are few games that do what Elements does, even if its general b-movie style theme is nothing new. You play as disgruntled mad scientist Dr. Edgar Herbert, who has been recently fired from his long term job at a company called AIC, and is looking for payback. To exact revenge, Herbert invents a way to control the weather, and decides to reap destruction upon the buildings of his ex-employer.
This all sounds very hi-tech, but the gameplay is deceptively simple. You control a glowing orb which serves as a pointer in its neutral state, zipping around each location and hovering over targets. You can then choose to use any of the three natural elements under your control - lightning, earthquakes and tornados – to destroy your targets. Stopping you while you try to accomplish this are various installations that disable different powers, and AIC units and defences themselves, who deplete your energy level, brought back up by recharge stations around the map. Your powers grow in strength as you upgrade them using a somewhat arbitrary points system throughout the game.
And that paragraph pretty much sums up the entire game. Each of the levels has different objectives and you earn ‘medals of destruction’ based on your overall score. Even on the higher levels it’s much likelier that you’ll run out of time instead of ever actually being killed by the units, and although the game takes a few tries to get used to, it’s quickly mastered and once you’ve got the basics down, it’s a pretty clear path to the end of the game, which can be completed in an afternoon. For some reason, the achievements have been taken out of the PC version, so you don’t even have anything to work towards once you’ve completed the main campaign.
Each town you play in has various important landmarks but are mostly populated by similar looking sets of buildings and houses, and by the time you reach the third level you’ll notice that there isn’t anything in the way of visual variety. Graphics are capable enough for a budget offering and there are some reasonably nice scenes to be created if you manage to destroy lots of buildings at once, but each power’s graphical effect on a building are identical. There are no physics in the game at all, and trees will quite happily explode if you move a tornado in them just the same way as cars and guns and tanks and houses do. It would have been excellent to see everything in the town ripped up and being flung around by the tornado, Katamari style.
Worse still though, towns seem utterly devoid of life. One of the main attractions to Elements is the visceral human desire to just blow things up for fun, but it’s so much less enjoyable when the environments you’re blowing up already seem utterly lifeless. You feel more like a demolitions officer than a mad scientist as you watch the same uninspired buildings get destroyed in exactly the same way over and over again. There’s fun to be had in pointless destruction, but for the illusion to work, you have to believe you’re destroying something worthwhile. Elements is like kicking over a two year olds sandcastle; it’s mildly enjoyable for a second, but it’s not satisfying, nor will it hold your attention. To become bored in a game as short as Elements would normally be quite a feat, but here, it’s easily accomplished.
Shortness and repetition aside; Elements could still pull of being a reasonably fun distraction from greater things, and a reasonable entry into the casual gaming market. That is, it could if the controls worked at all. When I first played, I figured the mouse sluggishness was simply part of the game designed to enforce some level of difficulty, and although it was often annoying, I put up with it. It was only when I plugged in my 360 controller the controls became absolutely perfect and a joy to use. That’s all great, except this is meant to be a PC game, and not everybody has the luxury of having a 360 controller on hand to remedy developer laziness.
There’s a keyboard mode that lets you use WASD to control while still using the mouse to attack, and although this is far more responsive than mouse only movement, it’s very difficult to quickly move along in the diagonal motion that the level design demands. Even when you do use the controller, the game still offers control advice based for the mouse only, and there’s no configuration setup at all. This incredibly poor use of the mouse could have given the PC version considerable edge, but instead it’s the biggest barrier to having any fun with this game.
Multiplayer is included in both internet and split screen modes, although curiously there is no LAN play. Split Screen co-operative play is a nice little addition that PC games very rarely include these days, but playing with a friend isn’t going to make this game any more exciting, and you can’t both play on keyboard; again, you need a controller. The competitive mode simply involves seeing who can do the most damage in a certain time period, and you can be sure if you’re playing with your mouse against someone with a 360 controller, you’ve probably already lost. None of this is particularly important however, as no multiplayer games were being played at all at the time of writing. Considering the PC has a huge catalogue of multiplayer games far more entertaining than Elements, that’s hardly surprising.
It’s nearly impossible to justify this purchase. At best, it’s an average and very short casual attempt with no replay value. Even with perfect controls, it wouldn’t score that high. I would suggest that if you have a 360 controller it’s worth a try simply because it’s original and fun in places for a short time, but if you have a 360 controller, you’ve probably got a 360 and can therefore get the Live Arcade version for about half the price of the PC version with good controls and functional multiplayer. Even if you don’t, the DS version is a least portable and the games timed missions are suited to quick plays on the way to work, so I’m at a loss as to where the poor PC port fits in.