E3 2014: Etherium is a Mashup of the Best of PC Real-time Strategy Preview

The real-time strategy genre used to be one of the PC’s most prolific. Check out any sale day on Good Old Games and you’ll be stunned by the number of RTS games from every era, depicting every army size, and with a boggling number of unique twists. But the genre seems to have stagnated. StarCraft II remains an esports juggernaut, whilst Relic’s focus in Company of Heroes and Dawn of War has shifted to smaller, tactical battles. Let’s not even talk about Command & Conquer 4. Etherium is the RTS that seeks to do something different, by picking and choosing the best elements from the genre’s past heavyweights and crafting a new skeleton from them.

The wars fought within resemble a science fiction gold rush for a powerful substance called etherium. This is your currency for standard RTS purchases like base buildings and units. The three-race interplay results in factions that all need etherium for different reasons, and all use it in surprisingly different ways. One of the most impressive of these concerned a race that was able to use it to control climactic weather events–volcanic eruptions, sandstorms, and more. These weather events occur naturally depending upon the current map climate, but I’ve seen few strategy games where a race is dedicated to harnessing the power of the environment itself. If you’re more old-school and just want to rush the enemy base with a line of tanks, Etherium lets you do that, too. Developer Tindalos Interactive doesn’t want to preclude you from pursuing the playstyle you find most fun, despite the different abilities each race has access to.

These abilities appear on a bar at the bottom of the screen, and can be called in from the epic space battle that rages overhead. I’ve never seen a strategy game that gives you a reason to pan the camera skyward, away from the map itself, but Etherium attempts to unify the presence of off-map abilities with the action on the ground. Buying more tanks sees a dropship fly down from an orbital carrier to deposit them in a deployment zone. Calling in an orbital bombardment allows you to see the massive shells literally being fired from orbit. You don’t control the battleships overhead, but they add an impressive sense of scale to the fight–and occasionally shoot at each other, too.

Buying more tanks sees a dropship fly down from an orbital carrier to deposit them in a deployment zone.

Back on land, the map itself is divided into territories, much like the Company of Heroes series. Capturing a monolith within that territory allows you to build in it. You’re not limited to forward deployment zones, either–you can build your most important buildings at the front, if you choose. Units themselves come linked as squads, so you don’t need to micromanage hundreds of individual soldiers and vehicles. Tindalos hopes this will make the RTS more accessible.

The single-player campaign does not follow a story–it plays out more like a board game, with planets to attack and territory on them to conquer. It’s reminiscent of the single-player campaign that was introduced in Dawn of War’s expansion pack, Dark Crusade, and continued into Dawn of War II. Personally, this is what I prefer from a single-player RTS campaign; other strategy games that attempt to tell a story seem to leave the actual warfare by the wayside. So, if you’re a fan of any of the RTS greats I name-dropped here, Etherium could be your next, long-awaited strategy hit.

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