It's not so much a competition as it is a reality check. I still have a hunch that if Elemental had Sid Meier's name on the box and all other things were equal, it would have been given a far more charitable reception. You would have seen a lot of reviews using phrases like "Despite these problems..."
Now that's just burying your head in the sand. The Stardock name has as much clout as Sid Meier in the industry, especially the 4x world. Virtually every review has ended with a conclusion along the lines of "It's in a rather poor state right now, but this is Stardock, so we're going to stick with it because they'll make it better". Major reviewers decided to delay their review for a couple of weeks of patches to come out, just because, like the fans, they wanted to like the game so much. Most reviews start with something along the lines of "When we heard that Stardock were making a spiritual successor to Master of Magic, we were overjoyed" or "We were very excited to try out Stardock's new offering". You can't play the underdog card here. A lot of faith was put in the company by fans and reviewers alike and much of the negative reaction has been due to the shock that a company with such a high reputation would disappoint.
I bought Civ 4 on release and I remember how frustrated I was with the slowdowns mid game as the memory usage ballooned out, having to restart every 2 or 3 hours to get performance back, the long turn times late game where you had to have a novel with you to pass the time. The difference was that, despite all this, the gameplay was solid and highly addictive. They delivered on their promises, plenty of new functionality was there, the strategic depth and a capable AI that gave you the challenge needed to play the game. This means that even when slowdowns or crashes affected you, you would curse, but you'd still be firing it up again, at 3 in the morning, because you so want to get back into it.
As with any game, it had bugs. Civ is a very complicated game so plenty of bugs would creep in that don't even get detected until it's been out for months. They still weren't game breaking - if a building that would have given you 3 extra gold didn't work, you hardly notice when you're making 400 gold a turn.
The difference with Elemental is that, aside from stability issues, the underlying game hasn't come out complete. The gameplay bugs were much less trivial and they were game breaking. I find this strange - Elemental is a much simpler game than Civ, which is fine, they can build on it, but I'd think that would make it much easier to test and verify it. How does QA miss the fact that the elemental shards don't work in a game called Elemental: War of Magic? Or that parties/squads/companies were totally broken? And of course, there's the AI. It provides no challenge even at the hardest difficulty level. You have no sense of achievement while playing the game, because there's no challenge to overcome.
There is no conspiracy or favouritism here. Everyone knows that games these days get released with plenty of bugs and need months of patching before they are solid. Reviews take this into account. What they look for is whether the game offers compelling gameplay right out of the box and whether the bugs are minor enough not to be completely game breaking. Right now, not 6 months from now.
Another good example is any Creative Assembly release. The Total War games come out full of bugs, stability issues and shoddy AI. Even so, they still have such good gameplay you can bear all that. Or most Paradox games - those are usually ridden with bugs on release, yet again, the compelling gameplay makes you forget them. This is why those games get good scores, in spite of their issues.