At the bottom of the screen are your faction abilities. These can turn the tide of the game. Most factions have an orbital strike of some kind, as well as a unit buff. The corporate-capitalist “Consortium” can do things like rush buildings or increase economic productivity, whilst the drone-like Vectide can call in repair bots or set off EMP bombs. Other than these abilities and aesthetic differences, the three factions play similarly. This could be a disappointment for many – after all, post-Starcraft, asymmetry in strategy games has been a mainstay. However, it’s also difficult to pull off, and Etherium strikes me as a game that is looking to have things fought exactly and on equal footing. A little variance comes in the form of “secondary factions”, whom you can rally to your side. There’s a race of flying insectoids and a group of barbaric Mad-Max style “raiders”.
Etherium’s symmetrical simplicity serves to accentuate all of the strategic elements. The old days of building up giant tank armies whilst cowering behind base defences won’t fly here. From planet-fall you’re encouraged to get out there and start contesting points across the map. If the enemy controls a large swathe of land early on, you can predict they won’t have every base covered. You’re encouraged to use the terrain and the manoeuvrability of your units to harass, cut off supply lines and generally pull the enemy to pieces. Etherium is clever in that it makes multi-tasking easy by stripping back the more macro-orientated base building and even the specific unit-control. Your units clump together in squads, and even when you’ve maxed out on supply depots you can only control sixteen at a time. It’s the anti-Zerg strategy game.
The end zone
Whilst I admire Etherium for its stripped-back strategic purity, I do think it displays a lack of character, particularly in the Conquest mode. The fact the three factions are so similar means things can become dry extremely quickly. Whilst Relic managed to strip back so many needless idiosyncrasies from classic macro-orientated strategy games, they also managed to produce compelling campaigns packed with sci-fi flavour. Etherium, on the other hand, left me a little cold.
Etherium could have shone brightest in multiplayer, with Conquest playing out like a grand board game between friends. Unfortunately, the multiplayer servers aren’t up yet, and my suspicion is that the Conquest mode will be singleplayer only. It would be a real shame, although we’d still be left with the symmetric skirmishes – those ultra-condensed, competitive bouts of tug-of-war. Etherium isn’t the complete package. It doesn’t have much of a story or a big sprawling singleplayer campaign with characters, but then neither does Chess or Draughts, and they’re still fairly solid strategy games!
Conquest mode is like a good strategic board game, stripped back and streamlined mechanics that allow you time to think and focus on tactics, no “turtling” – it plays fast and you’re thrown straight into the fray, pretty cool to look at
No storied campaign, not enough variety between the three playable factions, the ultra-symmetry renders things a little flat and dry