Etherium Preview (PC)

With Etherium, developers Tindalos Interactive want to make a game that RTS fans can jump into and have a blast, without the need to spend hours slogging through a linear campaign mode or mastering multiplayer complexities.

The idea here is simplification. Rather than micro-managing individual special abilities for every one of your units, you'll pick five from a pool of race-specific and universal powers. I didn't get to see each faction in much detail, but the corporate Consortium, zealous Council and alien Galaad will all have their own unique tricks. Earn Command Points in-game through kills, point captures and the like, and you'll be able to select one of these abilities from a bar at the bottom of the screen. These can be utilised by any unit under your command. Forced March, for instance, makes the selected unit move faster for the duration. Useful for getting to those capture points first.

Each planet you battle over in Etherium will have its own climate, which will determine the natural hazards you'll have to take into account when planning your strategy. Volcanic planets will suffer violent eruptions that destroy unwary units, while frequent blizzards will plague ice worlds. Not paying close attention to the battlefield will spell disaster if you get caught in the middle of one of these weather surges.

I didn't get to see any special moves used in conjunction with the various weather effects, but the developers assured me that canny commanders will be able to time abilities to take advantage of them. For example, the Council faction have lightly armoured scout vehicles that are unaffected by sandstorms. Playing on a desert planet may give you the opportunity to launch a surprise attack which the enemy is unable to counter. Other elemental events will presumably provide similar tactical options, cover and terrain come into play too. Units shooting from dense forests will have a defensive advantage over those out in the open. Tactical awareness of your surroundings replaces the need for constant micro-management of individual units.

Continuing the theme of simplified combat, in Etherium you'll manage divisions of troops, rather than building each tank or war-suit individually. Each troop choice will count towards a 16-unit total, although to reach that max amount of units you'll have to capture strategic points and build recruitment centres. Every unit counts as one troop point. For example, one division of light scout vehicles will take up the same as each faction's ultimate unit, so you'll have to be picky about how you set up your army.

Your space fleet hangs above the planetary battlefield, not directly entering the combat zone, but acting as a support zone from which you can order in bombardments and recon flights. If you decide that wiping out your opponent's base or capturing those strategic control points is too tricky, you can also achieve victory by completing construction of an orbital cannon to destroy the enemy fleet.

Those strategic points mentioned above typically consist of unclaimed etherium reserves. Etherium is actually a valuable resource siphoned from eggs left behind by mysterious alien entities every thousand years. This desperate scrabble for a limited resource of incredible power forms the narrative backdrop for the game's strategic combat. I don't know exactly what you can do with etherium, but I'm assuming it's used as a power source of some kind. Either that or the eggs make fantastic omelettes. Either way, each faction is desperate to get their hands on as much as they possibly can; the Consortium for wealth, the Council for religious reasons, and the Galaad because they need to consume it to to survive.

I only saw a small selection of the available units, but it seems like RTS fans will have a number of different options to play with, from four-legged walkers and wings of light aircraft to giant mechs that tower over the basic vehicles. There's an attractive Total Annhilation vibe to the visuals that makes each individual unit stand out from a distance. In fact the whole game is nice to look at. Technically it's nothing that will push your PC to the bleeding edge, but Etherium's sci-fi universe has a neat aesthetic and lots of colour and charm, which is sort of refreshing when so many other modern sci-fi games opt for grim browns and greys.

Another feature that I didn't get to see, but the developers insist will be in the final game, is the addition of MOBA-style computer-controlled troops. Each map contains a third army, native to the planet, that can either be farmed for Command Points, or swayed to your side. Desert raiders in the vein of Mad Max, for example, could be tempted by offered tribute to fight for your side, while robotic renegades might require you to research a specific technology before declaring their support.

Solo players will be able to experience all of the above in a non-linear campaign mode, which the developers describe as being kind of like a game of Risk – each playthrough will last you an afternoon or so. Rather than a lengthy but linear campaign, Tindalos want you to be able to dive into a shorter experience that gets you tight into the action without bogging you down with pages of lore and highly scripted levels. You get to choose which planets to invade and which enemies to fight, and every time you play you'll get a slightly different experience.

With a nice mix of classic RTS gameplay and some interesting new ideas, Etherium promises a simplified, streamlined strategy experience that might appeal to those put off by the more complex, time-consuming challenges of games like Starcraft 2 and the Total War series. That Tindalos Interactive are aiming for a lower price upon the game's Spring 2014 release won't hurt either.

Most Anticipated Feature: Building several giant death robots and unleashing them with a cackle of maniacal laughter.

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By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Feb 04, 2014
"... without the need to spend hours slogging through a linear campaign mode..."