Reviewed on PC
It's gonna be a hard fight ether way.
Real time strategy remains a stalwart PC genre, yet lately the well of rapid click-based destruction has run a tad dry, and when a new entry is released it is generally received with great interest, tempered with a healthy dose of cynicism. Does Etherium have what it takes to stand out in an esteemed lineage littered with such fondly remembered names?
As is often the case with these games, it’s deep space, and there’s something worth fighting over; namely the titular macguffin which is also the only collectable resource. Although the idea of a mysterious alien substance that can be harnessed for creative or destructive power that happens to end in ‘erium’ is not quite an original notion, an interesting backstory is laid out for its origin and the recurring battle for its ultimate possession waged by three factions: the ruthlessly corporate human Consortium, the noble warrior clerics the Intari, and the enigmatic Vectides. All three play more or less the same, which has to be commented on given that asymmetry of otherwise balanced factions is something that we expect in a post-Starcraft world.
Tower of power.
Although the scene-setting and three-faction dynamic borrow much from hallowed staples of the genre like the aforementioned Starcraft and Command & Conquer, the game mechanics are based around the nodal area control ideas of later entries like Company Of Heroes and Dawn Of War. Each map is divided into sections governed by a monolith on which a team of squaddies can erect an outpost. Harvesting an etherium sphere is dependent on having control of the section it resides in, so commanders should aim to secure them quickly. New territory must be claimed in order to expand; turtling is not an option here, as each outpost can only host a handful of facilities. Limited space means on most maps you can’t have everything, and must choose effectively to contain the ebb and flow of battle. Outpost operation is predicated on there being an unbroken supply chain all the way back to the command centre; isolated nodes can be resupplied by air, but this requires a free slot and extra resources. Effective management of troop movement is crucial, and having a spaceport near the front line ready to supply new units or some last minute orbital drop reinforcements can be the difference between claiming victory or being driven off that particular ball of rock back to your fleet. The day is won by either destroying your opponent’s base, or by the slightly more tactical option of building orbital cannons which fire up at their fleet until it is forced to abandon them. Whichever path you choose, there are a decent selection of soldiers available to help you do it, from lowly infantry right up to the obligatory giant mech-walker super-units at the top of the tech tree.
He's so happy he's just beaming.
Said rock-balls can be quite varied, with sandy, snowy and molten lava-y variants on show, each with an appropriately themed natural disaster which can randomly befall your army on the move. If that wasn’t inhospitable enough, secondary factions such as Mad Max-esque raiders or robot guardians also roam the area. These interlopers provide an interesting opportunity for shrewd leaders; instead of ignoring or fighting them, they can be won over to your cause through donating certain buildings to them. Each structure given causes a bar to fill faster and once it is full, they are yours to command. Snagging these alliances early can again make the critical difference between winning and losing, especially if your opponent is courting them simultaneously. The AI has a oddly distinct sense of self-preservation, regularly drawing its forces back to safe haven when they’re outnumbered or outgunned. While the maps are small enough that individual matches rarely exceed the half hour mark, the nodal design leads to most instances being a war of attrition, with little option for bold sneak attacks or other more immediately decisive maneuvers. Occasionally this can frustrate when you’ve clearly done enough damage to emerge triumphant overall, but are compelled to play out what is almost definitely a foregone conclusion.
For such a world-building initial cut scene, the lack of a structured single-player story campaign to explore it seems a trifle odd. Instead there is Conquest mode, a turn-based planetary metagame to manage the conflict, reminiscent of Star Wars: Empire At War. Players have a certain number of action points which they can spend moving their fleet, invading planets, or activating special political cards which convey a unique advantage for that turn. Random victory goals are preselected for each faction, although you can use spies to discern what the other side's’ chances are. Annoyingly there is no way to save mid-skirmish; commanders who have to leave in a hurry must forfeit the battle and save on the next turn. It’s an interesting framing device, but the lack of a cohesive narrative to drive things forward is noticeable when other recent efforts like Grey Goo spoil us with impeccably rendered and acted cutscenes galore.
In space, no-one can hear you tactically plan.
Etherium doesn’t exactly nail any one particular aspect, but it has to be applauded for cramming so much variety into the experience, and trying to genuinely shake up a genre in which even minute balancing changes can result in massive uproar in the player community (hello Blizzard). The interface is a little cluttered and unintuitive to readily identify all the options at your disposal, you cannot set rally points for buildings, and no keyboard shortcuts seem to be available. The graphics, while colourful and original, look a bit dated and unclear at the maximum zoom level. The score and audio design have the usual sci-fi bombast but feel a little perfunctory. The multiplayer lobbies are sparse right now, which is slightly concerning for a game type so reliant on it, but hopefully numbers will swell in coming weeks. It might not scale the lofty heights of its illustrious predecessors, but it’s got some fresh ideas and is certainly worth a look if bossing units around is your bread and butter.