Publisher: Strategy First
Release Date : September 30, 2003
Buy 'ETHERLORDS II': PC
"Hey! You got your card game in my role playing game", was my first thought on playing this strategy/card game hybrid. Etherlords 2 is based on elements from Magic: The Gathering and RPG games, which adds a unique level of strategy not usually found in RPG type games.
The game has 3 modes: campaign, a single player RPG; duels ,where you battle against the computer; and multiplayer, where you can play on the internet. The single player game takes place in the World of the Lords, where all living things are bound by Ether, similar to the Force in Star Wars. There are four factions there: the Kinets; Synthets; Vitals and Chaots, who as legend would have it, hate each other. They’ve been involved in skirmishes since their fore-fathers wore short pants, but now there’s a greater evil afoot. Yeah, I know, they really cranked up the originality valve. The campaigns, of which there are five, allow you to play each of the four factions. Each campaign revolves around the same event, but is told from the viewpoint of that faction’s hero. After you finish one campaign, another one is unlocked. Which brings me to my first gripe about the game: just about the time you get your hero to a high enough level to be really kickin’, the campaign ends and you’re a newbie again.
The plot is strictly b-movie fare. The first protagonist I played, Eileen, ventures forth into battle with her trusty staff and a top that would make a Hooters™ girl blush. If you're looking for a deep engaging story similar to Baldur's Gate, you're not going to find it here. The plot is very linear and just leads you from one mandatory battle to the next. Most of the encounters seem to be there simply to impede your progress and add hours to the game play and do not add anything to the plot. Most of the monsters I fought their only transgression was to be in my way. Since many fights take ten minutes at least to finish, incidental encounters just add hours to the game. I can handle a bad plot, but having to fight ten minute battles several times over just to get down a path got old fast. The only loot in the game is spells and artifacts; you won’t find the Holy Hand Grenade of Smiting, or a neat set of armor, although there are subtle changes to your hero’s appearance as you level. You don’t need any items other than spells though, and looting a great spell is its own reward.
The voice acting is way over the top, and is frequently overacted. You'll come across Irish, Scottish, and Eastern European accents, as well as an accent I couldn't quite place, other than to say it sounds just like Watto from Star Wars: Episode 1. The dialogue is of the "Look at the puny person who dares challenge me" and This puny person is the last person you'll ever see" school. Your journal saves the text of each conversation for reference if need be, and in many cases I found the voice work to be so overacted that I was skipping through the acted scenes and just reading the text in the journal. The single player campaign is the weakest of the game types, and would have been better served up as tournament ladder like Unreal Tournament, which would have lead nicely into the multiplayer game, which is Etherlords 2 strongest area.
Where the game shines is when combat occurs. The combination of luck and strategy adds an interesting twist to the game. It’s a blast to be in a close battle, and have the right spells hit your hand and you’re able to unleash a swath of destruction upon your opponent. The combat is turn based, and contains two phases: attack and block. The attack phase is where you cast all your spells, including any direct damage, and tell your creatures to attack. During the block phase, your opponent can use their creatures to block yours. There is no hand-to-hand combat; all combat uses your deck of spells. While the combat borrows heavily from (read: pretty much rips off) Magic: The Gathering, thankfully it's a toned-down version sparing you from some of Magic’s restrictions on when you can perform actions.
At the start of each duel, your deck is shuffled, five spells are dealt and you draw one more each turn. Each spell has an ether (their version of mana) cost. The more ether you have, obviously the more spells you can cast. Each turn you gain an extra ether channel which affects your ether gain, and there are spells that add ether to your. Your ether pool doesn't carry over to the next turn, so any unused ether is wasted. Your spells, which are unique to each faction, fall into the following categories: direct combat spells, support spells, and summoning spells. The Vitals are a Druidic race, so their spells are based in Nature. The cybotic Synthets are the polar opposite, and their spells are biomechanical.
As in Magic: The Gathering, your summoned creatures can do damage either to summoned creatures, or the opposing player, and each creature has an attack and defense rating. When a summoned creature blocks another creature, the attack and health ratings of each creature are compared and higher number wins the fight. Naturally, you’ll want to find ways to bypass the creatures and attack the opposing caster quickly, since once their health is reduced to zero you win the match. The big challenge to the game is learning what spells are the most effective, and tweaking your deck accordingly. You’ll need to build balanced decks that both inflict damage as well as defend against attacks. There are enough spell varieties for you to build decks that suit your play style, be it a quick attack deck, or a defensive deck designed to wear down your opponent over time. You cannot save the decks for easy recall later, so you’ll need to remember what spells are in your favorite decks, and swap them out one by one. Spells used in combat just go back into your sideboard and are available for use in the next battle.
The uel and multiplayer modes is where the game really makes up for the lackluster single player experience, and is easily worth the box price alone. The single player game is good for learning how the spells of the different factions work, since the multiplayer version lets you choose what faction’s deck you are going to use. There are three modes of multiplayer play: LAN, hot-seat, and internet. Internet play is hosted on Nival’s servers, where your win/loss stats are also stored. In theory when you look for an internet based game, the server attempts to find a player whose level is close to yours. In reality, you will often find yourself going up against a higher leveled player who promptly cleans your clock. It’s a good learning experience though, since you’ll get to see what decks are the most effective. Internet play is a little buggy though and I had a hard time getting a connection to a player; it would often take multiple attempts. Also, there is a bug where occasionally it incorrectly detects the presence of a cheat program and dumps you back to the lobby.
The graphics are obviously influenced by WarCraft 3, with exaggerated, cartooney buildings, but are nicely done and very attractive. One thing that did look odd was the boats on the water; I never got the feeling the boats were in the water, they looked more like they were slightly above it. The graphics are also hard locked at 1024x768, which is a tough sell when today’s standards allow for higher resolutions. The textures and models are well done, and I found the landscapes in the final campaign especially well done. The models for the heroes look fantastic, although the female hero’s outfits borrow heavily from the Chicks in Chainmail theme. The sound effects are standard fare for RPG games; they sound great but aren’t going to make you want to crank the volume up.
So, what’s the bottom line? As I said earlier, if you’re looking for a rich single player experience you can play through more than once, and have zero interest in multiplayer games, you’ll may not find much here unless you are looking for something different. The collectible card game basis of the game isn’t for everyone, and the hack-n-slash crowd may feel put out by the game. If you’re a fan of Magic: The Gathering, you’ll like this game. It’s not as deep as Magic, which may come as a relief for people who felt Magic was too complicated. It will also appeal to people who enjoy competing on the internet, but dislike the twitch based FPS games. The matches are fairly fast, so if you want to run a quick 8 person ladder, or just have an hour or so to play online, you’ll have ample time to get a lot of matches in. While I’ll most likely never play the single player version again, I enjoyed the internet play and will definitely keep playing that aspect of the game.
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