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Etherium

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By zethalee09-06-2015
Etherium

The Defence

Developer:
Tindalos Interactive
Publisher:
Focus Home Interactive
Genre:
Strategy
Release Date:
25-03-2020

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce GTX 560
AMD Radeon HD 5850
RAM:
4 GB
HDD:
5 GB
DirectX:
9.0c

The Case

Previously developing the “MOBA but with space battleships” title Stellar Impact, Tindalos Interactive have returned with a different try at the space-themed game, this time in the form of an RTS. Published jointly with Focus Home Interactive, known for their array of budget titles, it's another try at the futuristic RTS game, after the unfortunate disappointment that Ancient Space turned out to be. So then, does Etherium to contend with some of the greats, or has it been colony-dropped onto an inhospitable wasteland?

The Trial

Make no mistake, it is quite clear where Etherium derives its inspirations from. Three major factions, all with their own distinct color scheme fighting on otherwise uncharted worlds, each for their own reasons. While it's nothing new as far as the RTS genre is concerned, what Etherium does try differently is the base-building aspects, in addition to resource management. Good base-building can turn an otherwise mediocre game into an engaging one, and a lack of crafting your own fortress sour the opinions on other areas of the game.

The beginnings of war.

The beginnings of war.

Etherium, thankfully, got enough right that doesn't make each game a slog, at least, while you're playing it. In lieu of building grand outposts on uncharted worlds, instead, you're limited to a singular “pillar” that serves as a base or outpost, and then attach structures to said pillar. Each base allows for one, three, or six additional structures, each with their own added effects of increasing your population cap, creating a deployment zone around the base, or advancing your technology.

The map itself is divided into “zones” which allow for an outpost and up to three turrets. You absolutely must build your bases together, as a sort of logistical supply-line linking one end of your empire to the other. There is a structure that allows for a remote supply-line connection, but all of the other options far outweigh building that option. The maps aren't particularly large, but it will be some time before you're able to engage your opponent in any major battles. Certainly, you have the option to drop units behind enemy lines via dropship, but it's far more efficient to build up your empire in a linear pattern.

All units are produced via a singular resource, Etherium, collected from spheres which may or may not be within your zones. This need to expand quickly and mass Etherium quickly further advances the speed of the game, which has advantages and drawbacks. Certainly, some might argue that there wasn't much fun in scouting enemy bases every game in StarCraft 2, and then waiting for a game-deciding engagement around the 20 minute mark, but at the same time, the push for faster games means that I usually only got to the second technological level before easily obliterating the enemy base. Trailers for the game advertised race-specific colossi, but I never let the game go on for that long, as there was simply no need to.

Preparing the front.

Preparing the front.

Units themselves usually serve as singular counters to one another, too. Gone are the days when investing into armored tanks or bugs might end up coming back to bite you, no, as the units between factions are virtually identical, save for the visuals, games themselves play out very similarly every time. Basic infantry lead into anti-infantry infantry, followed by interspersing these forces with tanks, bypassing aircraft or light vehicles entirely. After this point, the game was typically over, and again, you see the problem with the choice to constantly accelerate the game. Certainly, I would have liked to experiment with air superiority or a combined force, but, again, there was simply no need to let the game progress that far.

Furthermore, units are produced in a singular “group,” and take up one population unit, no matter how large or powerful, as far as I can tell. There is the option to arrange your lines of infantry and armor tactically, but micromanagement is almost impossible and unnecessary, as you can't move individual infantry around, only their parent divisions.

I can understand why this is the case, as the population cap is quite low, so making a division of infantry spawn instead of just one unit circumvents this problem. In opposition, the tactical depth suffers because of it. Part of the joy of playing StarCraft (particularly as a former Zerg player) was learning to position and use your units effectively, making the most of their costs. Smart play and tactical genius could defeat forces of overwhelming power, especially at high-level play. Again, this depth seems to have been eschewed in the wake of making the game friendlier to new players, but not every game needs to be as complex and as demanding as StarCraft, as much as I laud its praises.

The war machine rests at a volcanic resort.

The war machine rests at a volcanic resort.

As far as the story is concerned, there are three major factions, the Consortium, the human faction motivated by greed for the titular resource; the Intari, a devout group of religious fanatics who use Etherium to see the future, and the Vectides, an aggressively brutal race which seems to subsist entirely on Etherium itself. That's approximately as far as the game goes in the single-player direction, and I cannot defend this absolute lack of content. While there's the option to engage the AI in battles of protracted galactic conquest, the AI is far too simplistic to provide any real challenge to anyone who's spent any time playing RTS games.

Game after game, the enemy AI would go through a somewhat logical pattern to its battles. The opening few minutes were always marked by at least one drop of the basic infantry on your “capital,” easily countered by a pair of anti-infantry turrets. Then came small incursions into your territory, usually a scout vehicle or maybe a group of basic infantry, before larger engagements. By this point, you've likely found a base disconnected from the rest of their empire, and destroyed it. A short while after, they've sent a sizable force after one of your bases, but you're already outnumbering them, as long as you're playing smart. Predictability leads quickly to boredom, and even in the galactic conquest campaigns, I found it difficult to maintain my interest in the game.

Perhaps the most egregious of the game's faults is the fact that Tindalos relied so heavily on competitive multiplayer being able to carry the game's population. As I mentioned above, there is almost no story to speak of, and nothing is expanded upon in-game, either. I wouldn't mind this so much in a game that had the ability to sustain itself, but here, deliberately leaving out storylines for the empires feels almost like a slap in the face, after everything else that's lacking. Certainly, this is clearly an RTS developed on a budget, but the game doesn't simply feel complete.

And so, the fight continues on to another day.

And so, the fight continues on to another day.

Clever readers will have noticed that I mentioned almost nothing of human opponents in multiplayer, and there's a very good reason for this. Even now, as I write this review, there's been a stunning ten people playing Etherium at the same point today, and three people playing right now. The next competitive RTS title this is not, but surely Tindalos could have foreseen this coming. After their last game died because of a lack of people playing online, they would have learned not to put all of their eggs in the multiplayer basket, but apparently that lesson hasn't been learned.

The Verdict

It's a bit of a shame that Etherium falls short of the mark. Clever ideas and ways to introduce people to the RTS genre without bogging them down in tactics and mindgames ultimately mean nothing without a community to stand on, and it seems that Etherium's playerbase has all but vanished. Though it may sacrifice some tactical depth for the sake of making the game more accessible, other changes to a tried-and-tested formula are far less defensible. Hopefully Tindalos has learned that relying solely on multiplayer doesn't always work, particularly when you sacrifice other content for it.

Case Review

  • What a Twist!: Interesting approach to resource management and base-building.
  • The Water is Warm: Not overly complex for fans of the genre or otherwise.
  • But Not Deep: For better or worse, the game lacks tactical depth.
  • Army of Clones: The three factions play very similarly.
  • Ghost Town: Multiplayer is all but dead less than three months after release.
  • Lifeless Planets: Endless matches against the AI gets boring quickly.
2.5
Score: 2.5/5
New ideas unfortunately co-opted by boring gameplay.

Appeal

“It’s good, but it didn’t grab me.” That’s about how I would describe my playtime with Etherium. It’s a good game but there were enough things to make it not give me that “one more play” feeling. This is a budget RTS. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it shows this immediately and my goodness it keeps showing this and won’t stop showing it. From the opening video’s voice acting, to the somewhat clunky UI when you get into a game, to the OK visuals, to the unfocused tutorial, it shows that this game was created on a small budget. So all of that said, what does it do differently from other RTS games on the market to really grab your attention?

Not much. It borrows several elements from other successful games and does a good job of melding them together into a cohesive whole but if you’re looking for that one thing Etherium does that no other game does, you likely won’t find it here. If you’re looking for that one thing Etherium does better than most other games, you will not find it here. What you will find is a good RTS game that borrows heavily from other RTS games, as well as non RTS games, to create something interesting if not particularly compelling.

Developers, take note please. Stop doing tutorials like this where the bare minimum of concepts are covered in a focused fashion and then everything else is shown to the player only when they attempt to use something. In a game this complex it makes an already steep learning curve even more daunting to all but the most devoted core gamers. If you have a game with rich mechanics like this one, then have a rich tutorial to go with them.

3.5
Score: 3.5/5

Appeal

It strikes me that Tindalous love their strategy games, and they love to be inventive. True to form, Etherium is not a run of the mill RTS; it is not another C&C wannabe, the closest game I can think of to Etherium is “Z Steel Soldiers.” Sadly, while the devs behind Etherium don’t lack for passion in their wares, they haven’t managed to infuse the game with much in the way of character or humor (two things that really carried the “Z” series). As with “Z Steel Soldiers”, Etherium has maps that are split up into a variety of zones, each zone will allow you to build one building at the centre. Some zones allow larger buildings and resource points to be constructed. Each building has at least one slot, which gives you the option of adding various “upgrades”. Capturing zones is also essential for maintaining a “supply line”. The combination of zone capturing and building upgrade choices allow you to experiment with a wide variety of strategies.

The combat in Etherium allows for a variety of units largely limited by a system of hardcounters - so pretty standard for modern strategy games; a nice addition here though is the inclusion of different Titan Units for each race. The initial units available in a match are generally weak but versatile, so you can still defeat more advanced armies if you have the numerical or other tactical advantage. The one exception to this however, is air units. Air units cannot be countered by any initial units. This to me is a glaring error that compromises a good system and means you must always invest in research at the beginning, thus effectively cutting out a variety of other viable tactics. Tindalous have also given you a selection of abilities to work with, these are limited by “command points” which accumulate over time. You can increase the maximum command point limit by investing in Comm Sat upgrades. Another essential strategy in Etherium, is the intelligent use of turrets. You will never have enough units to protect every zone when you are on the offensive, so turrets play an important role in stopping sneak attacks behind your lines. Turrets are very powerful but they are balanced by having limited numbers per zone, and of course investment in turrets slows your development of an effective strike force. On the whole I found the AI in Etherium to be challenging, even on normal. The AI definitely makes use of a variety of tactics to gain the upper hand, from using the terrain and weather as cover, to landing dropships behind your lines in order to break the supply chain. As well as having a variety of tactical and strategic options, you also have the option of playing for one of three different races. Although the races lack some distinction, they do provide an additional level of variety. On top of that, there are three further minor factions that you can bribe to join your cause, giving you even more unit variety, an option I haven’t seen in RTS games since DUNE 2000. But the devs weren’t finished there. They decided to add one more layer. There is also a Meta game! Available for the campaign mode, the meta game allows you to conquer a whole solar system (reminiscent of DoW II). Into the meta game, they’ve added unique win conditions (like Risk cards), political cards to pick and play each turn, and even a simple space combat element.

Tindalous just kept adding more and more features; layers and layers of strategy. From a strategy enthusiast’s standpoint, this is heaven. But from a pure gamer’s standpoint, this is a mess. There are many basics that would have helped Etherium far more than adding a meta game: more tooltips, a full tutorial, or even some other quality of life touches, like more diverse sound effects for the weapons, or a less cluttered UI. When you have a game that is this complex, you just can’t skimp on these areas. Etherium’s tutorial has more holes in it than a Michael Bay’s movies. Bottom line, Etherium has some inspired ideas, a vast array of strategy options and a great amount of variety and depth. But it’s not for the faint hearted: the learning curve is annoyingly difficult, coupled with some critical balance issues, and a lack of any real multiplayer community, make this game hard to recommend to most gamers. Tindalous take note, I love what you’re trying to do, but please spend more time getting the basics in, and polishing a game before release. The more complex a game is, the more these things matter.

3
Score: 3/5
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