Is it me or are these types of games far too common on the PC? Only walking into my local-ish GAME store, and browsing through the PC section, I found far more adventure games than you could shake a stick at, many of which haven’t even been reviewed on the internet, let alone magazines. The apparent godfather of these games, Diablo 2, has taken the world by storm, but since then almost every title released in the genre has been a below-average clone. Is there really a need for another magical adventure RPG?
Well according to Strategy First, there’s room for at least one, its sequel to Etherlords. The original was given a good reception by fans two years ago, and now comes Etherlords 2, attempting to woo gamers one more time. Categorizing this title hasn’t been easy; a steady blend of Magic: The Gathering and Heroes of Might and Magic has been whisked up in a cocktail jar, thrown in the air and has many whizzy moves performed on by a happy-go-lucky university student doing bar work on an exotic island during his gap year. No, really. A lot of the RPG elements from the original have been taken out, which may horrify some, but this leaves a heavy focus on the battle schemes, of which are fought by games of cards.
Taking place in The World of Lords (crikey, how original is that!), Etherlords 2 has us believe of four suns composed entirely (dun dun dun!) of the primary element Ether. And without making this sound like a science lesson, by composed I mean ‘made of’, not as in composed by some guy waving a stick at guys playing instruments. There are four variants of this Ether, going by Chaos (oooo!), Motion (aaaa!), Vitality (eeee!) and Synthesis (aaawww!) which all made the living organisms of this uniquely and originally named world. If you’re still with me, that is not slumped on the keyboard snoring loudly with a trail of saliva running out of the side of your mouth, there are four lords who live in the four corners of the world. The catch is that each lord was made by only one type of Ether, which seems like a lackluster attempt of explaining each characters abilities and backgrounds. That’s right, no “He was raised by wolves, in a dark forest, with a spear in his hand” voice overs by that deep-voiced guy you hear doing trailers at the movies, just “Yeah he was made from this type of Ether which explains why he acts like he does”. Wow, so interesting, I bet you’re on the edge of your seat and checking out Amazon for a copy right now…
Using these four lords you begin on a quest to rid the world of scary monsters. Of course, the common problem with these types of games is that the linear missions quickly become boring, and the dullness of the story doesn’t help either. I mean, come on guys, the queer affair of going from point A to point B killing everything in your path is really starting to get used more than a hooker. And the disease is catching. Since the objectives for each mission leave barely anything for the imagination, the focus is quickly, and quite rightly, shifted onto the battles.
Each bout is ‘fought’ by a game of cards, more complex than your average pub game of pontoon but not as confusing as a quick mooch through the card tables of Las Vegas. Players are allocated Mana points, for which they can spend on activating cards under the topics of offensive moves, defensive and summoning. New cards are drawn from the inventory each turn, and the twist is if you run out of cards, its game over, as is running short of health points. Attacks on opponents are achieved Pokemon style, in that you select creatures to dish out the dirty work. With each character being from a different portion of Ether, it means decks of cards differ from one another, as are spells and creatures which vary far deeper than the simple fire, water, electric and earth variants of the Japanese “lets make kids go crazy” TV show.
The typical Etherlords 2 battle consists of summoning a few Pok, er, creatures and casting attacking and defensive spells onto them before sending said creatures into battle against your opponents. Because of the different Ether backgrounds of each lord, which seem to have been put in place purely for the card battles than the main story, creatures have different strengths, weaknesses, spells and moves which adds up to a pretty tense battle as they can go Ether way (Ether way! Get it?) Should you or your opponent decide to swat up on each other and utilized each weakness effectively.
Obviously, the more powerful monsters come at a price that is far from obtainable from the beginning of the game, which means you’ll have to make do with the less-effective and less-efficient bottom-of-the-barrel specimens. It pays to have a large collection of these earlier creatures as the lower down the ladder they are, the more rest they need after a turn in battle. Rotating is the name of the game here in the early stages, so you’ll most likely be tinkering away like former Chelsea manager Claudio “The Tinkerman”Ranieri, swapping and sorting monsters to have a good force in battles. As you progress through the ranks, creatures become more efficient and powerful, which means you can have a trimmed down squad. But of course, as you obtain these better monsters tactics begin to play a bigger part, so you’ll have to be on your toes to fully utilize the strengths and weaknesses of both yours and the oppositions battle ranks. Bigger monsters mean bigger Mana allocations, which allow you to get your mitts on those powerful and match-deciding cards that can literally blow opponents away. Or, as this reviewer found out, blow yourself away, as the computer won’t hesitate for a second to open up the exit door and see you on your way back to the drawing board.
Perhaps the real beauty of the card battle scheme is that there seems to be no sure-fire way to obtain victory, which means either the developers spent time tweaking the difficulty level of the engine or had lengthy bouts of Pro Evolution Soccer 3 during their lunch break. The sheer number of cards from which you can play with is most probably a demanding factor, which leads to all kinds of unique and entertaining strategies. There are also a ton of bonuses and special artifacts to collect and activate using Mana points plus rare spells, all of which your opponent can also use, which can make things a bit hot under the collar. Speaking of the computer AI, which, bless it, tries so hard to act intelligent and efficient, can sometimes make a right royal cock up of things by throwing in a useless move here and a careless mistake there which can prove crucial to swinging a tie round in your favour. Even after the latest patch was installed on my game, the computer continued to put its foot in things when it didn’t need to. However, I can conclude that to spot these mistakes you’ll often have to be right in the thick of the action to even spot a smidgen of a mistake by opponents, and more often than not I just stumbled across my foe making a mistake, sat back in amazement and then set about plotting my course of action. In any case, you’ll most likely be on the floor praying to god that the computer makes a mistake to let you back into a battle, so maybe these little instances are a nice addition rather than an annoying niggle.
Once past the linear and ultimately dire one player mode things do certainly take a turn for the better. A multiplayer mode which allows you and a few mates to battle over a network is a neat addition and will lead to a few good nights, but lets be honest here, the Online Battles drops its trousers and douses the other two modes with large amounts of urine when it comes to sheer addictiveness and playability. This is when you realize the one player mode was a mere tutorial to familiarize yourself with the game and a chance to learn a few tricks in the battles. Nothing beats playing online against players from around the world in addictive card battles. It sounds strange, and is something I waved off at first, but I was hooked for a good few weeks. And then some.
You have to have got pretty far in the one player mode before venturing online, as basic knowledge of card decks does pay dividends. Getting your booty kicked without knowing why is a painful experience and one I familiarize myself with, so bear with the one player game for a while, as it’ll all be worth it in the end. Even then I was learning from my mistakes from playing online, and whilst I wasn’t the world’s most prolific monster card battler, I did win my fair share of bouts. And that’s coming from someone who demands action from games rather than doodling through forests with wizards, magic and the like. This is addictive stuff.
The online mode uses a matching system complete with rankings and experience levels to set up games, so you can play against someone better, worse or of equal standard as yourself, so no worries there. And whilst gameplay is turn based, a timer has been added to stop players going on marathon tactical thinking sprees; or getting a beer from the fridge. There also seems to be a healthy amount of fans online at most hours too, meaning you’ll almost certainly be given a game no matter what time you’re up during the night, thirsty for a card game. After a few bouts and a couple of wins, you’ll neglect the wife and kids for more carding action, the online chat lobby becoming your second home.
Despite the graphics not changing much from the original Etherlords game, some areas have been ‘spruced up’ to bring the title in line. Admittedly, roaming around the lands does looks bland, average and uninspiring, not to mention disproportional, and a camera fixed at one angle doesn’t help matters. The battle mode (damn; is it me or are the card battles the only good thing about this game?) looks very nice though, and a lot of attention has gone into the characters and backgrounds here. Heroes move smoothly during sequences, spells really look convincing and locations have plenty of detail and the lushness that the roaming side of things seems to leave behind.
On battling foes you have the freedom to choose from a selection of camera angles, or create your own if the developer’s views don’t suffice, and the amount of options available to tweak with will please gamers at both ends of the specs table. Music is used to really capture your imagination and whisk you away to this dreamy world of magic cards, and many times during play I would suddenly ‘wake up’ and feel surprised that I was back in my own room- surely a sign of an addictive title. Unintrusive and soft sounds echo around whilst exploring, with more upbeat tempo’s blazing out during tense battle scenes which will set the heart racing. There’s also an abundance of background effects to listen out for over the course of gameplay, and you’ll be guaranteed to never hear the same sound for quite a while. The same of which can’t be said for the voiceovers, which boom out over your speakers. You can read conversations a lot quicker by the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, and the small variety of comments your character makes during the game can become frustrating, tedious and plain annoying. Best to leave them off then.
To be honest, Etherlords 2 is a game whose core has blown through the thin layer that is the plot, and quickly taken over the situation in terms of importance. Once you discover the battles you won’t want to travel anymore, and will leave to go to the online mode to enjoy bouts against the rest of the world in a care-free environment. All very well then, but what exactly is the point in putting gamers off the scent at the beginning with a predictable and boring story, with the same old shenanigans, only to leave the small percentage of us that actually stuck with the game to reap the rewards of a fantastic battle system? The first thing I thought about the game when I first played it wouldn’t be allowed to be published, so why the hell have I had to force myself against all the irritations and complete nonsense of the one player mode? And what do other people think of it?
It’s early impressions that Etherlords 2 fails massively in, a bit like turning up to a big job interview in a chicken suit, but underneath the feathers and make up is a really good guy with all the grades and sense of humour needed to get the job. Unfortunately, in this day and age gamers won’t stick around if they get bored, which might explain why this title wasn’t a huge hit on the PC sales charts. However, I urge anyone interested in the magic genre to hunt this title down, because under all the layers of irritating pish is an addictive and fun card battle system.
I’ll see you online…
Seven out of ten