Featuring a mixture of role-playing style character development, strategic gameplay and spell-based combat similar to that found in collectible card games like Magic : The Gathering, Etherlords is one of the most promising turn-based strategy games due for release this year.
Last week we talked to Russian developers Nival Interactive about the influences behind the game and the graphics engine that powers it. This week we dig deeper to learn more about the game's single player campaign and multiplayer options.
At the heart of the game is a pair of story-led campaigns, each featuring two allied races. It's not as clear-cut as good against evil though, and Nival's Alex Dmitrevsky told us that the races "all have their drawbacks and advantages, and all four are ready to betray their allies in order to reach the final goal - the absolute power of the White Ether magic".
Throughout each of these campaigns you will alternate between controlling the two allied races, giving you a wider range of heroes to develop and spells to learn. But unlike most other games in the genre, these characters and their abilities won't carry over from one mission to the next. "In fact, a player is not supposed to associate himself with a hero, but with the Lord of the race", Alex explained when we questioned him about this.
In games like Heroes of Might & Magic developing your characters over the course of a campaign is a vital part of the game, but in Etherlords the heroes themselves are less important than the overall strategy. "As a Lord you can summon as many heroes as you like, provided that you can afford their upkeep ether payment every turn. Losing a hero will not mean a lot for a player; as you gather more resources and conquer new lands and strategically important buildings, it is easy to develop a new hero up to the desired level and upgrade his spellbook within your empire."
It's not all about single player though. "Strong multiplayer support was also one of the key elements of the game design from the very start", according to Alex. To get around the potential tedium of multiplayer turn-based games, in Etherlords "moves are first assigned and than executed simultaneously, which means that you won't have to wait until your partner's day runs out" before making your own move.
When the game is released in November there will only be one main multiplayer mode - what Nival are currently calling Duel. "Here you can go straight to one-on-one tactical battles with enemy heroes via the internet or a LAN. You and your opponent agree upon the number of resources available to both of you before you start the game, and then you can use these resources to buy new spells for your spellbook, choosing from all the spells available in the campaign. You can also buy levels, special abilities, and skills for your hero."
To keep things simple there are five preset resource levels that you can choose from. "If you choose the fifth resource level, it means that you will get the maximum resource amount and be able to buy the most costly spells, but this will also mean a maximum level of difficulty for the fight. The duel mode also includes a large number of ready-to-use spellbooks. This is very useful for novice players, as it gives them an understanding of a properly balanced spellbook before they are able to comprise one themselves."
Turn, Turn, Turn
The real fun should begin in January, with the release of a patch which will add a host of new multiplayer options, including a whole new co-operative mode which will allow players to gang up on the AI. And rather than simply rehashing the single player game, Alex revealed that Nival "are developing a campaign with maps specially designed for the multiplayer game".
Deathmatch options are also being planned, and "each player will be able to choose one of the races to play for and fight against other empires" online, or in the comfort of their own home. Because "the patch will also include a hot-seat multiplayer mode", allowing you to take it in turns to battle it out with your friends on a single PC. It's a feature which has been strangely lacking from many recent turn-based games, and should prove welcome for fans of the genre.
Also being planned for the January patch is some kind of online ranking system for Etherlords, although the exact form which this will take is still very much up in the air. "We have not yet taken a decision on the final structure of the rating system", Alex admitted, "so we should probably go deeper into details next time".
While plans are already underway for additional multiplayer support, the game itself is still being completed at Nival's offices in Russia, with the second beta version arriving on our doormat just a few days ago. This latest build marks a big step forward from the last version we played, but there is still some last minute tweaking to be done.
"We are currently finalizing work on strategic and combat AI", Alex told us, adding that there's also "still work to do on the sound, mission design and balance". And of course work on the multiplayer options will continue even after the game's initial release, which appears to be on track for November in the UK.
Nival have a number of other projects in the pipeline as well, and Alex told us that "we are also considering an opportunity to make an add-on for Etherlords" if the game proves popular. In addition to Etherlords, and beyond the January multiplayer patch and a possible add-on pack, there are two other titles in development at Nival at the moment. "We have recently announced a new real-time strategy / wargame project under the codename of Blitzkrieg, and we have one more game in development which will be published by Fishtank Interactive and announced this autumn".
Nival are certainly keeping themselves busy, and with games like Etherlords and the innovative 3D role-playing game Evil Islands under their belts they are rapidly emerging as one of Russia's top developers.