Etherium's a funny one. You know, when you're reviewing a game, you shouldn't really just say "I don't know how to put into words what it is about this game that I liked", because putting things into words is YOUR BALLY JOB.
On the surface, Etherium's as plain as an RTS gets. It's set in spaaaaaaace, with a lukewarm strategic-map game peppered with interminable, synchronous tactical RTS battles. And I mean synchronous. The maps have that classic multiplayer setup where the mysterious alien planet comprises of exactly symmetrical maps with exactly symmetrical control points. Aside from a few exceptions, each of the three factions has the same units - Anti-tank infantry is anti-tank infantry regardless of whether it's a corporate stooge for the human Consortium or an Intari warrior-prophet. Of course there are a couple of differences here and there, and the units look different, but in the end it's mostly just infantry, tanks, aircraft... the usual. In fact, each side can field a unit with the incredibly imaginative name of 'standard vehicle'.
So it's three normal factions fighting normal RTS warfare on normal planets. Perhaps it’s saved from the dianoga-infested trash compactor of mediocrity by its wonderful, imaginative, hand-drawn graphics that pull you into the world? Well, no. Not at all.
While each unit has a unique graphical style, for the most part you're zoomed out so far that units are identified more by the little unit type icons that float near to them than by their individual appearance. Aside from vegetation and ruins that offer small defensive bonuses to infantry, there's little in the way of cover or interactive scenery. The only really cool touch graphically is that if you spin the camera skywards, you can watch the orbital battlefleets of the opposing forces blazing away at each other up in space. But how often do you want to spend staring at the sky in an RTS? The interplay between these orbital battlefleets and the ground battle below is there, but delivered mostly through special command point abilities not a million miles away from those in Company of Heroes (except perhaps a little less interesting).
Hmm. It's not going all that well, then. I had my concerns from the outset to be quite honest, and while I try to keep an open mind when I'm approaching a new game, there just wasn't all that much that was freshly imaginative to really draw me in.
Until, suddenly, after about two or three hours, I realised that I was kind of having fun.
Not a huge amount of fun, you realise. Not the kind of fun where you spend all of the following day thinking about it, mulling over new strategies and daydreaming about the lore. Just a kind of simple, undemanding, no-frills RTS fun that is weirdly reminiscent of the genre grandfather, Dune 2.
So there are a couple of things that are not exactly standard par for the course in Etherium. Yes, it's a harvesting game where you need to secure resource sites to syphon energy which then acts as your cash, to be spent on new units, turrets and base facilities. But these sites take the form of giant eggs laid by giant mystery beasts in the first few turns of the game, which then lie dormant through the middle game and eventually cause a little ruckus later on. This isn't as much of a massive game-changing idea as perhaps it could have been with a little more imagination, but is an interesting concept nonetheless.
And the music! It doesn't interfere with the game too much, and for the most part it's nothing desperately groundbreaking, but it seems to have taken its inspiration from late eighties / early nineties sci-fi action movies. And how can that not be a good thing, eh?
Outside of the tactical battles is a strategic screen where you purchase new tech, spy on your enemies (everyone has random victory conditions, hidden from one another, so by peeking at your opponents' conditions you may be able to find a way to thwart them while the thwartin's good), move your battle fleets, and play political cards which introduce a couple of new conditions for the coming turn. It's also the only place I could find to save the game in single-player - once you hit that 'end turn' button, you'll need to sit there and play as many as three or four tactical battles before the option comes up again. Easily over an hour's play. I occasionally found myself capitulating battles just so I could save the game and go and do something else.
At the end of the day, there are a few good ideas in what is obviously supposed to be a multiplayer-focused RTS, but there's just a lack of anything really imaginative, anything we've not seen before. Like I said, that's not altogether to say it's not fun to play, just not special in any really appreciable way. Battles in my experience devolved rapidly to tank rushes, units were desperately expendable, thrown endlessly into the breach like DOTA creeps, while you prepared for the next major assault. Each planet has a couple of NPC factions who can be recruited or ignored (in the later game, ignored seems like the best policy. That or destroyed out of hand), bases have a range of facility types (pretty much identical for each faction, for the sake of the almighty balance) weather can slow or damage unit types or create new lines of approach... you know. RTS stuff. It's all RTS stuff. There's something about the recipe that's fun unless really, really screwed up. And Etherium isn't really screwed up. Neither does it set the world on fire, though.
But hey, if harvesting giant space eggs while the sky is full of battleships sounds like fun, Etherium's your go-to RTS.