The longevity and popularity of any video game is tied directly to the health of the community that plays it. What happens then to a game that does not have a healthy community? Well, it dies, pure and simple. There is no more important asset when it comes to getting people to buy and play your game than word of mouth. Without it, a video game is doomed. Unfortunately this is what happened to Tindalos Interactive’s new RTS Etherium. Only in this case, the game never even had a chance. It launched stillborn; left out all alone in the woods to rot, with nobody but the parents even aware of the tragedy.
Etherium was released on March 25, 2015 to little fanfare. There was no big media push before release. There was no buzz traveling around the RTS crowd. Heck, if gamers were not actively searching for a new RTS to play on Steam, chances are most people had no idea the game even existed. I say this with confidence because I’ve spent the past few weeks searching high and low for somebody, anybody, to play with. There is just nobody (zip, zero) playing online. The official forums are a ghost town. There are no fan sites, or huge Etherium subreddit. As far as I can tell the only people who have been actively playing Etherium are reviewers.
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Now I have a soft spot for RTS games; they are my jam. Etherium is a mid-range $32.99 title developed by a small team. As such I gave it a little bit more wiggle room than I would have had it been a $70 title made by a big name developer. I received my review code almost a week after release, on March 31st. Nobody was playing online when I booted the game up for the first time, but I assumed that was because of bugs. Specifically the one that hard crashes your PC to the desktop at the end of (almost) every battle. Meaning you could not progress in single player since your progress was not properly recognized and you would not get credit for your creative win in multiplayer. Likewise earning achievements was a crap shoot. To date, the only achievement that I have successfully got the game to recognize is the one for completing the first tutorial (10th times the charm!). I have no idea how widespread these issues actually are because there’s not really any crowd of people to ask.
• Developer: Tindalos Interactive
• Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
• Reviewed on: PC
• Release Date: Available Now
Not wanting to dismiss the game outright, I decided to wait for patches to address the games more aggravating bugs. More than two weeks, and several patches later, the game still hard crashes often at the end of battles. There are also enemies that glitch and somehow gain the ability to shoot 10 times as far as they should be able to. Or enemy units that get stuck on one another, moving across the map as some sort of weird robot blob.
Despite these serious flaws, I did my best to give Etherium a shot. But even if you ignore the lack of people to play with and the bugs, Etherium just does not have anything to offer. It lacks a single stand out feature. The story, visuals, mechanics and gameplay are all just average, bland and boring.
Besides turrets there is no base building. Your base is a hub you can build additions (refineries, logistics centres etc.) on and expansion is all about capturing control points and building smaller base hubs to extend your reach and economy. The main economic resource in the game is the titular Etherium, which are basically alien eggs that are laid on certain planets, and the most powerful and useful resource in the galaxy. Too bad resource collection in-game is boring. You just activate an egg within your territory and your refineries automatically begin collecting from it. No strategy, no thinking, just a behind the scenes counter ticking up or down. All the fast paced excitement and constant momentum other point control RTS titles like Warhammer and Company of Heroes have is completely absent from Etherium.
The way matches actually break down is almost always the same. You start by grabbing as many territories as possible from the start. Then you set up three turrets, which are so over powered you’ll abuse them constantly, to hold the border of each key territory. Then you build up a force strong enough to take a new territory. You can use formations and assemble a well balanced attack force if you want, but most of the time you can just charge in like a blind bull and just smash your way through. The AI just gets resources as fast as possible and charges you most of the time. Which can make the game seem challenging at first. But once you realize how dumb the AI is it’s easy to game the system. The enemy AI will (almost) always take the most direct path to attack you, even if a longer, yet undefended avenue for attack exists. Set your defenders up right and the AI will just charge its units in to die over and over again.
The game has three factions; The Consortium, The Intari and the Vectides. Each has their own visual distinctions, specific units and special abilities. There is enough distinction between the three that they don’t look and feel exactly the same. That said your approach to playing the different factions will remain relatively the same. This game is not like Grey Goo or Starcraft, with each faction requiring a totally unique play style and tactics.
The maps, even the big ones, feel cramped. Weather is more gimmick than tactical challenge. The lack of production management and extended hotkeys does the game no favours. The colour pallet is also bizarre. With overly strong oranges, reds, yellows and blues that make the screen look like a 4 year old has messed with your TV settings. It’s distracting and not easy on the eyes long term. I have not been put off by visuals like this since I played the Syndicate FPS reboot with all its crazy lens flare. Players only get little snippets of story, and no real reason to care about any of the factions or ask any pointed questions about Etherium itself.
There is no real story driven campaign in Etherium. Instead players are given the option to complete one of three conquest campaigns, one for each faction. The conquest campaigns have players moving about a turn-based galaxy map, building a fleet, fighting other ships and attacking planets. The turn-based portion of the conquest campaigns is joyless. It feels completely unnecessary. The real time battles on the ground get repetitive quickly, even as the locations change and you get more access to more powerful units.
It seems clear that the main draw here was supposed to be the multiplayer. But since nobody is playing multiplayer, all Etherium has to offer gamers is the lame single player offering. It took me weeks to track down people to play with online, both of whom were reviewers themselves. Unfortunately the game either crashed when we finished a fight or one of us got disconnected. We were never able to successfully complete a multiplayer match from start to finish.
I’m sure something strange must have gone down behind the scenes when it came developing and publishing Etherium. It got very little support in terms of advertising, and I think it unlikely the team over at Tindalos Interactive were super confident in what they had made when it launched. To their credit the game is still getting patches, but at this point, why even bother? Who are you even making those patches for? Once the last of the reviewers is done playing, there won’t be anyone to even notice.
I always feel bad when a little guy stumbles. I wish I could say something like “Etherium 2 has a firm foundation to build on” or “patches will eventually make this game worth playing.” But I can’t. Etherium is total misfire. Other than learning what NOT to do, I don’t see much in Etherium that warrants a second attempt or a second look.