Etherium [official site] is fast-paced and energetic but it won't leave you suffering from a sugar crash. It can pack a punch but it doesn't burn like a slug of bouron. Etherium is, in fact, like a glass of water. It's not much to look at and while you're drinking it, you might envy those whose refreshments have been invigorated by the addition of sugar, hops, caffeine or brewed leaves. You probably wouldn't want to drink it all the time but you'd rarely turn a glass down – and sometimes it's exactly what you need.
I've played enough of Tindalos' game to know that it's capable of satisfying me but will most likely never excite me. Aside from the bland graphics (the gap between promo shots and in-game shots is ridiculous), which are sometimes too muddy to be immediately legible, Etherium doesn't really put a foot wrong. It is, however, holding its position on solid ground and doesn't care to venture toward trickier and (potentally) richer territories. It's very solidity risks becoming a form of flimsiness.
None of that is to say that Etherium doesn't exercise some ideas of its own. It's base-building and unit-rushing components are tempered by some clever aspects of the overarching design, most notably the compact nature of each conflict. Etherium's maps are spread across six planets each with their own palette and randomly occurring natural disaster.
Rather than being a slab of land with rapidly expanding bases in opposite corners, and bridges and bottlenecks placed in key areas, these maps are separated into discrete territories. Each of these territories can become a new staging point for your forces, which are dropped in from an orbital fleet, and can provide research and production boosts. The trick, as elsewhere in the game, is to work within strict limits. Rather than building everything as quickly as possible and then keeping construction queues full while simultaneously directing military operations, Etherium provides a number of slots per territory, tasking you with choosing what to build and what NOT to build.
Each battle is brief – 30-40 minutes – and you might be barrel-to-barrel with the enemy within a few minutes of making planetfall. From there, there are several basic decisions to make. You'll always need to harvest the titular MacGuffin so that you can pursue your goals, but you might aim to destroy the enemy's ground base with a huge cluster of tanks or to destroy their orbital fleet.
Both approaches involve building, filling up those precious empty spaces in your captured territories, and the game quickly falls into patterns of construction, expansion and combat. The skirmishes, when they occur, are surprisingly passive. Hotspots of action erupt around the territories you've conquered and as long as you maintain a steady flow of reinforcements and position defensive turrets correctly, there will be an almost constant level of background noise as enemies arrive, assault and then retreat.
The balance of power at the borders of any given territory is expressed as low-level combat rather than a quiet tension. The competitive and convincingly varied AI teases at your defenses, waiting for a moment of weakness, pulling its units back when their health is running low. At first, I thought I'd have to micromanage every territory to make sure it didn't fall but the rattle of firearms doesn't require your attention at all times. To succeed, you'll need to set up your defenses and then move on to the next task, whatever that might be, rather than concentrating on the minutiae.
And that's the key to Etherium's strange appeal. It's an RTS in which the combat is a secondary concern. The strategies that unfold are about control, picking the right territories to develop and defend at the right times, and the right course of attack as you expand. Move too slowly, attempting to build a steamroller of an army, and you'll find yourself left behind in the rapid tech race that simmers in the background of each battle. That doesn't just lead to disadvantages in terms of special abilities and unit types, it also means you're likely to see your fleet destroyed before you have a chance to turn the tide in your favour.
Stripped back, Etherium is, like many RTS games, about filling bars. Produce enough units and you'll be unstoppable; complete the research tree and you'll gain an automatic victory; charge up the right abilities and you'll be able to demolish the enemy with a few clever clicks. That flow is effective and engaging in the short bursts within which Etherium delivers its action. The ability to woo minor factions – again, through construction, with the caveat that you must effectively sacrifice your buildings – adds a sidequest of sorts, and the UI does a good job communicating the various competitive tracks. Seeing your opponent chipping away at your fleet when you're ready to launch an all-out assault on the ground can divert your attention and create a new power struggle.
Throw in the weather conditions on each planet, which also serve to disrupt plans, and there are just about enough spanners in the works to force reactive play rather than a grind toward victory.
I even like the Conquest mode, which is the game's singleplayer campaign structure. Rather than throwing a stream of story-based missions at you, Etherium presents a boardgame-like planning phase, in which the three factions struggle for control of the six planets. As with the rest of the game, it's mechanically sound and it's an enjoyable and challenging framework.
Multiplayer supports up to four players but I've struggled to find a single willing opponent. There's no multiplayer support for Conquest mode so even if the playerbase does expand overnight, you're stuck with team-based short-form rapid-fire strategy. Nowt wrong with that but the AI is more than capable of entertaining across a Conquest campaign and the single battles, separated from any wider context, are unlikely to keep my attention for long.
A glass of water then. A pitcher, perhaps. There's just enough variety in the factions and planetary effects to introduce shocks and twists in the fairly simple strategies that involve and, while I'm unlikely to be playing when summer finally rolls into town, I've enjoyed unpicking the game's processes.
Etherium is unlikely to work its way into anyone's list of strategy favourites but if you're a fan of traditional RTS games, its short bursts of action might be as welcome as a cool pint of H20 during a drought.