Life has never been better for fans of the role-playing strategy genre. The Heroes of Might & Magic series is looking to end its run of second-rate cash-ins with a true sequel featuring improved graphics and gameplay tweaks, and a second Age of Wonders is in the works over at the Gathering of Developers.
Pipping them both to the post this winter though should be an all-new entry to the genre from Russian developer Nival Interactive, the brains behind innovative 3D role-playing game Evil Islands. We took an early beta version of Etherlords for a test drive to find out more...
Turn, Turn, Turn
Just like Heroes of Might & Magic, Etherlords centers around guiding your characters across a turn-based map of the world, gathering up resources and artifacts, fighting monsters to gain experience, and battling rival factions for control over mines, farms and other vital buildings.
The most obvious difference is that in Etherlords this map and the characters which roam over it are all rendered in real-time 3D, using what appears to be a modified version of the excellent home-grown graphics engine used by Evil Islands. It's a colourful, highly detailed and fully animated polygonal world with carts bringing gems to the surface from the mines, buildings puffing out little clouds of smoke and steam, plants swaying in the breeze and eagles flying overhead.
This level of detail also carries over into the battles which take place when one of your heroes meets a monster or an enemy character. The arenas are a mixture of static backdrops with real-time 3D scenery and characters in the foreground, and the animations, spell effects and dramatic camera angles are already looking fairly impressive.
It's A Kind Of Magic
The way in which these battles are fought is one of the major changes to the Heroes formula which Nival have made. Normally this kind of game has chess-like battles, with armies of creatures advancing across a map to pummel each other while their masters watch from the sidelines. Etherlords uses a spell-based system more akin to Magic : The Gathering though, with heroes starting each new fight alone and right in the thick of the action.
Each character has a deck of fifteen spell cards, with new spells available to buy from the sorcerors and summoners whose huts are scattered around the map. The more powerful spells also use up components each time that you cast them, and you can restock these at stone portals, paying with the resources you have earned in the strategic part of the game.
When a battle starts six of these cards are dealt to you at random, and each turn you get another card from your deck; the oldest card is removed to make way for the new one if your hand is still full. You also start each battle with just one or two of the mana points which are needed to actually cast the spells, and as the battle continues the maximum number of mana points you can have and the rate at which you earn more of them both increase, allowing you to cast more powerful spells or to pull off multiple castings in a single turn.
At the heart of every battle are the summoning spells, conjuring up creatures that can then be used to either attack the enemy leader or to block an attack against you. Because each creature can only perform one action per turn, you will need to know when to attack and when to hold back creatures to block the enemy. They also have different offensive and defensive capabilities, and as injured creatures are all auto-healed at the end of each turn you will need to decide which creatures to sacrifice to block more powerful monsters from attacking your hero, and which enemies you can safely eliminate with one or more of your own creatures.
There are well over a hundred creatures spread amongst the game's four playable races, many of them with special powers ranging from unblockable attacks to regeneration. Some can even create new creatures themselves, costing you mana but not requiring you to play a card, while others provide stats bonuses and extra abilities for any similar creatures in your force, meaning that by the end of the game the tactical possibilities are virtually endless.
You also have access to going on for two hundred other spells which can be cast on existing creatures or heroes. There are the now traditional healing and buffing spells, fireballs and lightning strikes, as well as spells which give you extra mana or exchange some of your current mana for an increase in the rate at which you earn more of it. Some spells even allow you to combine two creatures, sacrificing one to increase the power of the other.
The result is a novel system which is easy to get to grips with but hard to master, offering a bewildering array of tactics for you to explore. It needs some tweaking though, and in the build we played the outcome of combat was far too random for my tastes. A poor opening hand is often enough to put you on the back foot for the rest of the battle, constantly fending off attacks and never able to gather powerful enough creatures to fight back effectively.
The other main issues which still need addressing are mission design and game balance, with the campaign structure not in place yet and most of the single missions simply too hard to complete. We can look forward to two full campaigns in the final game though, each following a pair of allied races and ending in a showdown over a lost city and ancient tomb. Extensive multiplayer options are also being promised, including support for co-operative games and an internet ranking system of some kind.
Playing Etherlords is a rather frustrating experience at the moment, but at the same time it's easy to see that there is a lot of potential there. The beta code which we have been playing is a few weeks old now, which leaves Nival about four months to tweak the gameplay, balance the spell system and complete the single player campaigns and multiplayer support before the game's scheduled release in November.
Hopefully we will get a better idea of how things are shaping up at ECTS next month, with publisher FishTank expected to be showing the latest build of the game to the European press. But with a little more polish, Nival could be on to another winner.