Do not adjust your system clocks. We haven't actually travelled back in time to the golden age of PC gaming. However, it certainly feels that way thanks to the release of a certain old-school RPG tomorrow and today's launch of Etherium: a proper, no-messin' real-time strategy game with three factions, tech trees, build queues, base expansion and the kind of hectic tactical mayhem we've rarely seen since the fall of Westwood.
I've been getting stuck into the pre-release build over this last week, but in all honesty I don't feel that I can write a full review yet. Like many RTS titles, Etherium's value lies with its multiplayer, and we'll need a few days if not weeks to work out how well balanced and featured it is for long-term competitive play.
What I can do, however, is tell you how the game is shaping up at launch. Which, I'm delighted to report, is rather well. Here are our launch impressions thus far.
The setting is very cool
Generic settings can often let down strategy games, but Etherium has managed to completely capture my imagination.
Every few hundred years, mysterious extra-dimensional aliens shift into our reality to breed and lay their eggs before heading off to realms unknown. Hailing from a completely different plane, these massive embryos are the only known source of Etherium, a rare and highly-prized power source that draws sentient races into conflict wherever they appear.
The human Consortium plans to sell Etherium for massive profits or use it to develop powerful new hardware, bringing them into the gunsights of the Intar: religious alien zealous with hyper-advanced tech. To throw the spanner into the works, the implacable Vectide Empire also has designs on the eggs, seeing as they've cybernetically corrupted their entire race into war machines powered by Etherium. The result, a brutal Sci-Fi scramble across several unique worlds.
Yes, we've seen similar setups before, but what makes Etherium work is how well the premise is borne out through visuals and gameplay, not just sitting in the manual or cutscenes. Every match begins with your colony base unit plummeting through the atmosphere as a vicious fleet battle rages in the atmosphere above, while maps are constantly abuzz with the flit of cargo and worker ships as they descend from orbit. All armies can call on their fleets for fire and logistical support. It creates a sense of participating in a massive persistent war, not just a skirmish, and it helps that the art design lends each faction a uniquely colourful and characterful mechanical look.
Gameplay is fast and streamlined
As mentioned, Etherium is very much a traditional RTS and almost all the elements you'd expect are present and correct. Base building. Resource extraction and harvesting. Build queues, infantry, tanks and massive collossal war machines that can punch through entire formations if you're able to build one. Your choice of faction determines some of the unique units you'll use and high level late-match strategies you'll favour, but it's fairly easy to find your feet so long as you've got a little genre experience. Build armies, create groups, set waypoints and crush the enemy before they return the favour.
However, Etherium is much more streamlined than most in an effort to do away with some of the tedious clicktime that often creeps into the genre, and to make the learning curve less daunting for more casual players.
Commands, icons and shortcuts are friendly and universal. Unit caps, options and tech trees are robust yet compact enough to avoid becoming overwhelming, focusing on big picture decisions rather than micromanagement. Resources are few and simple, Etherium and replenishing command points to exchange for fleet support, the former of which can be found dotted across the map in the form of those extraplanar eggs.
Interestingly, maps are split into territories that have to be captured and connected in order to harvest any Etherium within them, meaning that matches tend to flow quickly and organically as players spread out from their bases while sending out raiding runs to harrass foes, deny territory or even break their supply lines. Each race can summon air transport for most units, too, allowing you to quickly organise flanking manoeuvres or hit the enemy where it hurts. As such, Etherium proves to be fast without being ridiculously confusing in larger-scale battles. Naturally we'll need to assess whether it also provides a canvas for versatile competitive strategies, metagame and a high skill ceiling over the coming weeks.
Secondary factions & weather bring the flavour
Etherium's Sci-Fi setting isn't just for show, as mentioned. Each of the six planets you'll encounter look pleasingly unique and also pose unique challenges to mitigate or exploit to your advantage. Sandstorms shut down visibility and batter your forces, tornadoes deny your fleet reinforcements and lakes freeze over to suddenly present temporary new avenues for assault. Just for starters. Dynamic and random, these weather effects can turn the tide of battle and add a welcome extra layer of unpredictability to counter.
Secondary factions are also a unique little inclusion, reminiscent of a 4X game rather than an RTS. Most maps feature neutral indigenous races boasting their own base and units who'll annoy all players equally, but can also be converted to your side by fulfilling some costly and time-consuming criteria. Do you devote time and resources to recruiting a potentially useful ally, or move quickly to wipe them out and remove a wildcard from the deck? It's an exciting decision that remains relevant game to game, especially when multiple players may be attempting to court or destroy the same faction.
Conquests, not campaigns
Etherium offers a tweakable multiplayer suite and an entertaining skirmish mode, but its setting and lore would have made for a compelling set of campaigns. Unfortunately this just hasn't materialised, likely due to the small developer focusing on mechanics and multiplayer as their priorities.
What we have instead are Conquests, a non-linear semi-randomised campaign that throws you into a full-scale battle for the six planets. You'll lead fleets between worlds on a holographic battle map, deploy your forces into small scale skirmishes, develop your tech and engage in some turn-based space battles to finally emerge victorious.
It's a great idea, but in practice Conquest feels somewhat watered-down. Space battles are a simplistic afterthought, many of the early battles are unsatisfying in terms of scale and tech, and the whole thing could use a few memorable characters and big personalities to tie it together. In fairness, though, it's more than many rival RTS games bother to bring to the table, absolutely crushes Planetary Annihilation and is highly replayable to boot, so a fairly impressive offering for a game that costs only £24.99 at full retail.