There’s hardly been a lot of RTS games in the last few years but with Legacy of the Void fast approaching for Starcraft 2, there definitely seems to be a surge in interest, bolstered by the release of Grey Goo, the rerelease of Homeworld and now another new challenger in the arena, Etherium. With three races, solid campaign and multiplayer options and a mixture of base building and unit creation, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is another Starcraft-style clone vying for the same fanbase. In reality there are enough differences to make this a very different game. It’s like a combination of some of the best ideas from Company of Heroes, Starcraft, and even Galactic Civilisations all rolled into one game. So how does it fare?
In terms of basic gameplay, a 1v1 skirmish will see you picking one of three races and starting with a base already made in the opposite corner from your opponent. The map is split into territories, each with a beacon in the centre. Resources are gained by controlling (and building on) little blue orbs which appear in some of the areas. To gain control of an area (and be allowed to build in it) you need to send out a special unit to capture it, these units are weak but are able to be built from the get go, leading to a landrush of sorts at the start of games while you decide how far you’re willing to expand. Around the map are two zones with different colours in. These are controlled by massively powerful NPC races that will mostly stay to their own lands. Some are self-healing flying insect swarms, others are all powerful regenerating black cubes. Their interesting designs, but all serve the same function. You can dedicate a building to winning over their favour, and if you’re the first side to fill in a progress bar on the left of your screen, you gain control of these exceptionally powerful units. Buildings are managed through hubs. Each area when captured comes with a hub that allows you to build a certain number of modules. Some increase your income, some allow you to spawn units further out, some increase your tech level and so on. Each area also allows you to build three turrets, which could be ant infantry, armour or air. Or they could be watchtowers that give you a vastly increased viewing range and the ability to spot stealthed units.
Games quickly become a kind of war of attrition, where you fortify your bases (very easily done as the turrets are quite powerful) and then try to claim land where possible from your opponent, by either spotting weaknesses in his defenses (like an area that doesn’t have the ability to spawn units) or by simply teching up in a way that gives you a significant advantage (like setting up watchtowers and heavy duty artillery to bombard them from afar). You might play the long game and give your buildings over to the npc faction to win their favour and suddenly strike from a new angle with their immensely powerful super-units. Every strategy has a counter and every counter has a defence.
Unfortunately these counters and defences don’t seem to lead to particularly thrilling games. If you find a weakness in your opponent you can destroy their forward bases, claim some more territory and then they have essentially lost. However, unless they are the noble type who are willing to GG out when they see they’ve lost, the game can easily drag on for tens of minutes more while you slowly whittle down their defences. They won’t have the income to actually attack you back, but they could produce units just from one base to at least slow you down to a crawl. You can only have so many squads of units at a time (upgradeable through a special building slot) so your armies are never really vastly more powerful, they’re just more easily replaced.
To get around this there is a secondary victory condition, you can built orbital cannons that attack the enemies fleet above (which makes little sense in some of the campaign missions) but this isn’t an exciting way to win. You’re just watching a meter decrease and hoping you finish of theirs before they finish yours. Sometimes you’ll see the enemy has built an orbital cannon and realise there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it because it will take too long to fight through their defences to go and destroy it. If you’re playing against a real player of course they might have left their base undefended so you can swoop in and destroy it, but players who aren’t brand new to the game won’t let that happen.
This slow push towards victory rather than an exciting sweep becomes even more noticeable in the single player, which is played out like a grander turn-based strategy game. In this you build fleets and take over planets, only resorting to the main RTS when you want to take part in a ground battle. If you’re smart in the turn-based section you’ll have no end of advantages when it comes to the land battles, but winning becomes a protracted game of slowly abusing some fairly safe strategies to push forwards while protecting your own bases from counterattacks. There are some nifty ways for you to strike at the heart of your enemy’s operations (such as lifting all your units into the air and dropping them somewhere else) but the AI seems incapable of this kind of quick thinking. Instead you’ll slowly beat back wave after wave while your forces push inevitably onwards. It’s rarely exciting or spectacular, it’s simply slow.
Graphically the game is functional but never impressive. Units look much how you’d expect them to, damage is a simple bar with little feedback on the units themselves, weapons are simple particle effects and even the command powers tend to just change the colour of something, rather than putting on some exciting visual display. In the campaign cut scenes are handled with still images and static texts while the opening animations for each battle show something going on in the sky that has zero relevance to what you’re actually doing. It all smacks of function over style, which is a shame as the mechanics just aren’t exciting enough to make this a memorable game.
In conclusion, this is something a little different. If you’re bored of the current crop of RTS games you might find something to enjoy here, particularly when playing multiplayer against other people of the same skill level as you. But be aware that while there is a great deal of strategy in this game, victory isn’t going to come quickly.