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Etherlords Review

publisher: Fishtank Interactive
developer: Nival Interactive
genre: Strategy

PII-300, 64MB RAM, 8MB 3D accelerator
ESRB rating: T

release date: Nov 12, 01
» All About Etherlords on ActionTrip

December 12, 2001
Dusan "Lynx" Katilovic

I guess many of you are familiar with collectible card games - CCGs. This interesting and less than cheap hobby usually proves to be a lot of fun. The fun in these games lies in three main elements - the passion for collecting cards, devising a strategy using the cards you own and the fact that you still have to rely on luck...

Etherlords continues the CCGs tradition bringing us all these elements, well apart from the card collecting bit... but you certainly cannot say it lacks tension and dynamics. Etherlords and its 3D fantasy world are capable of holding players glued to the screen for hours...

The gameplay model is practically identical to the one used in Magic: The Gathering. The heroes gain experience by participating in battles and each of them has a certain number of spells he can cast in the turn-based combat mode. In the first round of battle, your hero will be able to use five randomly selected spells from your spell deck. When you cast a spell, the card which represents it will be returned to the deck and leave one open place. Every new turn, your hero will gain a new spell from the deck. The rest of the gameplay concepts are also pretty much similar to Magic: The Gathering - the mana (or rather ether), attack blocks, protective walls, summoning disease, first attack, regeneration... Still, Etherlords introduced a couple of novelties too: damage in a battle is not simultaneous, and hence the unit that was attacked first, will only be able to attack if it survived the first strike. This makes strong attackers less vulnerable, and decreases the chances for a draw.

Gameplay has two basic phases - strategic and tactical. The strategic map represents the entire 3D world, and you can navigate it either by scrolling through it or by using the mini-map. It is practically crammed with various interactive items: your main castle, heroes, enemy castles and heroes and neutral creatures and masters used for gaining additional experience points.

And this is not all! Roaming around the map, you can gather resources, take hold of resource production facilities, enter spell-shops, and so on. The scenarios in the game offer little choice. The number of locations you can visit will be relatively small at first, but when your hero gathers sufficient experience to be able to destroy a monster guarding a crucial location or crossroads this number will increase. The best tactics would be to fully build-up one hero and then use him to reach the goal. Unfortunately, heroes are unable to transfer their experience and items from one mission to another within the campaign...

Mandrake and black lotus are the two basic resources in the game. There is also ether, which is used by heroes and for castle maintenance. Each off the four races has a special rare jewel, and if you are lucky, you may even happen to find the rarest of resources - frozen rose. All resources are used for purchasing spells and upgrading buildings.

You will also have to buy runes. Each time you use a card in battle, a rune gets used up. A hero can carry up to five runes per card. Runes are actually something like ammo - they can easily be spent, so you better think twice about wasting a rune in a wrong place.

Once you find yourself face to face with another hero (or monster), the game changes to its tactical phase. The heroes will face each other on a beautifully designed terrain, the outlook of which will depend on the type of location where the battle takes place. The heroes will never fight directly; they only cast creature summoning spells, enchantments and sorceries. A duel can last for several minutes and has a time limit.

The interface is the biggest downside of the game. It is totally unintuitive, and you will find much crucial information lacking from time to time. First things first, you do not even have a decent overview of runes or turns on screen (though you will be able to summon the stats by pressing the '~' key. There is practically no way to find out a hero's specialties and skills. I think some well designed tooltips would solve most of these problems.

One of the basic rules of engagement in CCGs: cast the right spell at the right time; should also be obeyed in Etherlords. Picking the wrong combination of cards or issuing a wrong order can cost you the entire battle. I would therefore recommend you to frequently save your position in the game, at least until you completely got the hang of it... which can also take some time, especially if you were not familiar with these gameplay concepts from before. This is one hard game! You are only sure to win if you fight a far less experienced opponent; the rest is a gamble, and the computer will use all your mistakes to its advantage.

In the single player campaign, which is based on the eternal story of fight between forces of life and forces of death, you have to choose one of the two sides and fight for victory. The campaign is composed out of huge, exceedingly long and difficult missions, but the game has something that will make you go on and on.... The AI of your allies that will join you later in game is moronic, so that you can count on fighting several computer opponents alone... regardless of this, Etherlords is so involving that you are likely to spend the entire weekend at it.

Apart from the single player, the game also features the so-called Duel mode, in which two players can play a quick customizable hot-seat skirmish game.

Finally, a few words about the graphics. Unlike board CCGs and their computer versions, Etherlords does not use mere pictures as virtual card; it displays all characters in perfectly animated full 3D surroundings. The creatures will run, attack, defend, bleed, scream... Spell casting looks fantastic and highly detailed, and heroes cheer at each success. Nival Interactive sure did a swell job here...

Etherlords is a conceptually and technically a modern adaptation of an old game. Still, besides all the remarks I mentioned about its interface, difficulty, and length, I can recommend it to anyone who has a lot of time to spare.


8.5   Very Good

An appealing and catchy game; beautiful graphics;

Interface; difficulty; time consuming.



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