A resourceful introduction
Etherium opens with a brief cutscene: on a far off planet, welders from the “Consortium” faction mine the shell of an extra-dimensional egg. It’s one of the only overt scenes of exposition in the game, and it immediately centres our attention on what this sci-fi strategy game is all about – the resource itself: “Etherium”. It’s not interested in bombastic action-film plotting or sub-television quality character drama. It jettisons all of this in favour of focussing upon its equivalent of Vespene gas and Tiberium.
The grand space layer
Instead of a traditional singleplayer campaign, Etherium has what it calls “Conquest” mode – a grand conflict where you control one of three factions waging war across a star system. It’s a turn-based strategic layer built atop the bread and butter battles which play out planet-side and in real-time. There isn’t an awful lot to this board-gameish space layer, but it neatly strings together all of the battles and gives you something to play for long-term by randomly allocating you objectives. Have one fleet more than the other players, conquer the surface of Mars, unlock the Titan technology – the objectives drive your campaign towards specific goals. Meeting the objectives will give you victory points, which ultimately you’ll need the most of if you want to win when the last turn comes around.
The objectives of the other factions are hidden from you initially, but you can spend espionage points to reveal them. This makes for an interesting strategic dynamic. You could win the most points by blindly forging ahead, but the other factions could do the same and with a better dealt hand. A smart player will want to keep an eye on the enemy’s objectives and actively work to block them. Similarly, each faction possesses a tech tree, along with the option to spy on who’s developing what. If an enemy faction’s goal is to develop titan technology, it’d be wise to assume that eventually they’ll be fielding the behemoths on the ground, and you’ll want to counter that with your own tech-choice.
In the grand space layer the bulk of the action taking place is with the fleets. In order to attack a planet’s territory you’ll have to move your fleet there. It’s also wise to clear the orbit of enemy ships so that your ground invasion will be more effective. You can do this by using your fleet to attack an enemy, or by choosing to play an appropriate “political card”. The political cards spice things up strategically, giving you limited powers to make your turns that tiny bit more effective.
Whilst the Conquest mode keeps you invested over an epic sequence of planetary battles, you can forego the grand pretension and fire into the real-time skirmishes at any point. There are six planets to fight on, each with their own tinge and disruptive weather effect. There are also several layouts for each planet – more open terrain that offers natural expansion, or ones where there are smaller pockets of land enclosed by mountain ranges and crevasses. The maps all look pretty good, and there are even some interesting/funky camera angles that add a unique perspective beyond your regular top-down view. The planet-fall scenes at the beginning of each skirmish are also pretty spectacular to watch, as are the victories that reward you with the destruction of the fleet hovering above.
There’s no messy, SimCity style base-building in Etherium. Its tactical flow is similar in style to Relic’s Dawn of War. There are a limited number of spots to expand to and set down resource extractors, and holding on to these points will be critical. The maps are all symmetrical and cut up into geometric zones, each with a central hub that you can capture and build upon. The building is streamlined. A captured zone with an Etherium extractor might only have a single build-slot, and so naturally you’ll want to plop down a refinery. However, you’ll also want to contest and control larger hubs on the map – perhaps despite a lack of Etherium – just so you have enough space for the more tactical buildings. To build more units you’ll have to construct supply depots, to reinforce away from home you’ll need a spaceport, and to produce more advanced tech units you’ll need a research centre. It never feels as though you have enough slots for everything, and so you’ll need to make decisions on the fly, adapting as you go.
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