Review: 4 Elements for S60 3rd Edition


PocketTorch brings us 4 Elements, an isometric real time strategy game where rival teams fight over a planet's resources.

Author: PocketTorch

Version Reviewed: 1.1.1

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4 Elements for S60 3rd Edition Review

4 Elements opening screen4 Elements is a real time isometric strategy game combining elements of both Sim City and Civilization. It's nowhere near as complex as those titles, but at the same time it's much harder to play due to a total lack of documentation or help files either in the game or on the developers' web site. It's as if they built a potentially excellent game with a good concept and good graphics and sound, but then forgot to add a decent interface or tell anyone how to play it. Hopefully this review will also act as something of a surrogate instruction manual.

4 Elements opens with a fade into a Star Wars-style cinematic scrolling text, with some excellent artwork forming the different backgrounds as it scrolls. The idea of the game is to land your colonising craft on a planet and extract minerals containing four elements, elements which when combined together in equal proportions provide a source of energy, but which are present in the minerals in unequal proportions. There are four different colonising teams on the planet competing over the same resources, and they can choose to trade with each other or fight. 

The game reviewed here was the S60 3rd Edition version, but there are versions of 4 Elements also available for UIQ 2 and S60 2nd Edition. The device used for the review was the Nokia E61.

Tools of the Trade

4 Elements start of the gameThe colonising craft you start with consist of:

 - Harvesters, which travel round the surface on autopilot, extracting minerals or trading elements with the other teams.

 - Builders, which can create important installations such as Power Plants and Factories.

 - Light Tanks, which may attack a rival team's craft if you are at war with them.

More craft become available as you build and upgrade your first factories.

Instructions are issued to each craft by clicking on it with the pointer and selecting the relevant option from a menu that appears next to the craft. Once it has its orders, it will do whatever it's been told do. In the case of a Harvester it will trundle around the planet harvesting indefinitely until you tell it to stop.

Sparse landscape in 4 Elements

You'll need support buildings and more craft if you're to stand a chance of beating the other teams, so after you've put the Harvester to work harvesting it's best to start the Builder building. The structures you can create consist of:

 - Separators, which separate the harvested minerals into the four elements.

 - Energy Reactors, which combine the four elements in equal proportion to create energy.

 - Power Plants, which convert energy into electricity (in the game these are two different things).

 - Units Factories, which allow you to build more craft. Upgrades to Factories allow a wider range of craft to be built, and also allow the Builders to create a wider range of structures.

 - Laser Gates, defensive measures which stop rival team units from passing through squares occupied by gates.

 - Storage, which allow storage of energy, minerals or elements depending on their type.

 - Repair Centres, where craft can be repaired.

 - Defence Towers, which stop rival team units within a certain radius of the tower.

 - Air Force Bases, which allow the creation and use of flying units such as bombers.

As with craft, orders can be issued to some buildings, for example Factories, to do particular tasks by just clicking on a building and selecting a task from a menu.

How to Play

Units menu in 4 Elements4 Elements has a strong idea at its heart:

All craft and buildings require a certain amount of energy and a certain amount of electricity to create (physicists, please don't write in, it's true that this is all a misuse of scientific terms but it is just a game after all!) The more minerals you harvest the more elements you obtain, but elements in minerals don't appear in equal quantities. Because there's a need to have equal ratios of the elements before you can turn them into energy, there's pressure to trade surplus elements with your rivals or take over their areas.

Trading involves instructing Harvester units to enter trade mode instead of harvest mode. Taking over rival areas is more complicated, you have to create warfare units such as tanks and bombers and then despatch these one by one to the rival units or buildings which you want destroyed. Before you attack the first unit of a peaceful rival, you will be asked to confirm whether you want to declare war, and some rival teams will leave you in relative peace even when you're living right next to each other. Other teams will declare war from afar, and you can do so yourself from the Diplomacy menu (accessed through the left blue soft key). You then have to balance the collection and processing of minerals with defending of the infrastructure, a classic "guns and butter" scenario.

Sound & Vision

Vertical screen orientation of 4 Elements The most impressive parts of 4 Elements are the graphics and sound, they're better than most smartphone games and show great attention to detail in the animation. You get a clue to the slickness of the game from its opening moments, as the application doesn't just start but fades in to slowly replace the S60 screen, a visual effect which adds to the sense of "this game might just be a bit special".

The planet's surface is rather sparse but the animation on the craft and structures is well done, they turn with many frames of animation and hide the game's isometric nature very well. The sequence where a Builder creates a structure shows each component of the building appearing over time: first the foundations, then the inner structure, then the outer shells etc, which you miss if you go off to do other things and is a lovely example of throwaway craftsmanship. It makes the world feel a bit more real and shows that the designer of the graphics wasn't lazy. It's also important to note that the in-game graphics are completely functional, you can tell exactly what is what.

The pre-game menu also has an option for playing the game with horizontal or vertical screen orientation, so you can adjust it to whatever suits your phone or your tastes.

The sound is also full of nice little touches, with lots of ambient noises representing the movement of the units and the workings of the various structures. There's a music option which is also good but as with most soundtracks it can grate after a while.

There are a few glitches though: scrolling can be jerky, the cursor sometimes leaves bits of itself behind, and the game feels slow once you have dozens of units trundling about the place autonomously. Another problem is the elements display at the top, which is quite hard to read sometimes if it clashes with objects behind. There ought to be a translucent darker background behind the display, similar to the one used in the unit menus.


Not So Elementary: the Curse of the Unwieldy User Interface

4 Elements has a lot of the ingredients of a really great smartphone game, but isn't one yet, in fact it's not very playable in its current state. It's a game you expect to be good but find difficult and unpleasurable, and the reason for this is largely an interface which feels incomplete.

What's there is good: The method for issuing commands is spot on, and the alerts to problems always suggest a course of action (for example the overproduction of elements alert tells you you need to build an element store) so you get a feel for what you're meant to be doing. The savegame feature is also well thought out, you don't have to keep saving, it'll just restart wherever you were when you last exited the game, even if you kill the application using the red End Call key. If you start a new game several times, each separate new game will have its own savegame to resume from.

Buildings in 4 ElementsThe problems start to creep in when your colony has grown to a medium size and you've got loads of Harvester units scurrying about the planet's surface extracting minerals. There was no method I could find to see each unit or building in turn if I wanted to issue it with new orders, the game forces the player to just scroll around at random hoping to come across something that needs your attention. Production of a new craft would be completed at a Factory, an alert would pop up saying production had been completed, but there would be no way of jumping to the factory so the craft could be given its orders, or any indication about which factory the alert relates to.

It's a similar story if someone declares war, you're given the name of the hostile team but not told what it is that they've attacked so you don't know what to defend, repair or replace. There's a system of placing map anchors to jump to, but it would be far more logical to just automatically list your colony's buildings by type and then jump to the relevant building when something significant happens.

There are also problems with just keeping track of what's going on. There are no status screens or lists of units, there's no way of knowing how your efforts compare to those of other teams, and you spend most of your time in the game plugging away hoping that you're doing well but not really having any knowledge of the matter. This whole problem is exacerbated by the real time nature of the game, so you'll suddenly be told you're at war but have no chance to deploy your defences intelligently and have to scour the map by hand. To top it all, because the game scrolls so slowly, the frantic nature of Real Time Strategy is lost: it's sludgy "real time" rather than real "real time".

Fighting off enemy units that are destroying your colony involves deploying one military unit at a time, which is totally impractical in real time as the enemy units seem to attack simultaneously in a co-ordinated fashion. The jerky scrolling makes it very difficult to keep tabs on the situation in any case, you'll think an area is clear until your tank is suddenly destroyed by an enemy off the side of the screen. A player in a PC or home console RTS might be expected to keep an eye on things, but they have a much larger screen to view things on, mouse control, and usually a much smoother game engine. It may be that PocketTorch deliberately set out to put a PC-style game on a smartphone but didn't consider how the game would need to be adapted for a mobile platform.

Another oddity about 4 Elements, which appears to be a serious bug: if you build a lot of Harvester units they will sometimes all just stop where they are and cease to supply you with minerals. Once that happens, you can't get any more energy and without energy you can't do anything. This may be some part of the gameplay that I've misunderstood, perhaps the planet has run out of minerals, but there's nothing to indicate what you're supposed to do next and the complete lack of instructions doesn't help matters. I waited and waited for some clue but everything just sat there, and not because of a total crash (I could still move the Harvesters, they just wouldn't harvest). All the other team's vehicles mostly grind to a halt too, and it seems a very odd situation to be in. It may be that as the game fills with moving objects it stops being able to cope with them, but surely the answer to that is to impose a limit on the number of vehicles you're allowed in a colony's fleet.

4 Elements menu screenChanging the basic in-game options such as volume are impossible once you've left the title screen for some reason, which is also odd.


The Good Old Days...

What 4 Elements does more than anything else is make you yearn for the turn-based and user-friendly interface and status screens of the Microprose game Civilization. Civ allowed huge numbers of units and cities spread across vast areas to be manageable, and managing them became a joy because you always had the chance to think things through no matter how weak you were strategically. 4 Elements takes away the breathing space of turn-based games by being real time, it takes away the strategy of real time games by lacking status screens, and it's impenetrable for beginners because there's no instructions or tutorial in the game or anywhere else. There's just no fun in this game, whatever style of strategy you enjoy or however much experience you've had with strategy titles.

You never get a sense of achievement in 4 Elements so much as a sense of tinkering, unsure what the effect of your decisions has been or even what decisions have to be made in the first place.

Don't Give Up, PocketTorch!

But having said all that, 4 Elements is still a very promising smartphone game. There's a strange kind of addiction to building the colonies, it's something innate about this type of game where you build something up that can feel almost alive, and it shows that there's great potential for the concept behind 4 Elements. And as stated above, the graphics and sound are brilliant, with wonderful attention to detail. There's no problems in the audio-visual department.

If there was a sequel or an update released which included proper instructions, fixed the bugs and featured a proper user interface (status screens, jump to active area, perhaps turn-based instead of real time) then 4 Elements might turn into an excellent game.

As a finished game 4 Elements isn't up to scratch, it's far too difficult to know what you're supposed to be doing.

But as a work in progress 4 Elements is looking very good! Let's hope it IS a work in progress, and that we'll see a sequel that fixes the problems of this game. The developers just need to finish what they've started, perhaps doing an extended beta testing session with strategy fans, so they come up with the game that 4 Elements deserves to be but sadly isn't yet. I'll certainly take a look at any sequels or updates that PocketTorch comes up with.

Krisse, for AAS, 20 Nov 2006

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