Even though it's being marketed by Strategy First as an Adventure / RPG, classifying Etherlords 2 wouldn't be an easy task. Imagine mixing together Magic: The Gathering and a bit of Heroes of Might and Magic; Etherlords 2 would be the final product. The original Etherlords came out two years ago, to a rather good reception of the public. Two years later Etherlords 2 comes back with a vengeance, taking out a lot of the RPG elements its prequel had, and betting on the real core of the game: cards.
The game takes place in World of Lords – a world with four suns, composed entirely of Ether, a primary element, out of which all living organisms of this world were created as well. There are four types of Ether: Ether of Chaos, Ether of Motion, Ether of Vitality, and Ether of Synthesis. Four races of intelligent inhabitants (Lords) that live in four corners of this world, all created out of different types of ether, thus they can also use their own type of Ether for magical purposes. All of that essentially means that there are four main campaigns, as well as a bonus one that will be unlocked after the main four are done with.
The problem with the campaigns is that they're too linear, and the accompanying storyline appeared to be (at least to me) rather dull. The storyline mostly consists out of "go towards your objective with your hero while eliminating enemies that will block your way and collecting resources on the map in pseudo-HOMM manner". Since the objectives are pretty much the same for each mission in each of the campaigns, little is left for imagination. But here's where the core of the game is revealed - all fighting in this world is done by playing cards, very much like in Magic: The Gathering, or Pokemon. And it's the progressively harder cards game that keeps you coming back for more – not curiosity as to what will happen to your Synthet hero in his campaign. But then again, for this cards game you'll probably forgive the developers their over simplification of the adventuring component of Etherlords 2 – that's how drawing it is.
The cards game is played in the following manner: each turn the player gets a number of mana points, that he can "spend" on activating various summoning, defensive, offensive, and other cards – while new cards are being drawn each turn from the player's inventory (while there are still cards remaining in there – you can, theoretically, run out of cards by the end of the game). Each of the players has a number of health points, and when that number drops to 0 the battle is won – for his opponent. The attacks are performed only through each other's summoned creatures – that's what the aforementioned summoning spells are for. There are of course four races and a mysterious other one in the game - each one having its own deck with unique cards, and hence creatures and spells.
A typical battle would start with summoning a few creatures, possibly casting some defensive spells on them, and sending them to attack the enemy hero. Obviously the different creatures you summon have different stats when it comes to health points, attack and defense abilities, as well as any other special abilities they might have – as well as cost of summoning in number of mana points to the player. Hence at the beginning stages of the battle the player might not have enough mana points to purchase the more expensive creatures (at the beginning of each turn the player's mana is replenished to the maximum allowed – the maximum being the number of Ether Channels, more on this later). The weaker creatures will need to rest after being summoned, and hence won't be able to attack by the end of the turn. That's where the turn passes to your opponent, who is likely to do the same thing as you did, or cast some offensive spell on your newly summoned creatures, such as for example permanently lower the amount of damage they can inflict by a point or two. The aforementioned Ether Channels are basically the number of mana points that you get at the beginning of each turn – every turn this number grows, eventually allowing you to unleash the more powerful and devastating cards that you have in your hand. There are certain bonuses or specializations skills that allow you to increase the starting number of Ether Channels – and obviously it is increased automatically as your hero gains another level in single player or multi player (more on this later).
Basically, there's not one way to win a cards game in Etherlords 2, and not only because there are so many cards to play (and potentially strategies to dominate your opponent) for every playable race, but also because there are many bonuses and special artifacts that you can activate, and some very evil rare spells that you, or your opponent can use. Speaking of the computer AI – while it does try to behave intelligently most of the time, it still makes some mistakes or useless moves, even after the latest patch at the time of writing this (v1.02). Although it certainly does simplify the life for the player from time to time.
As it is, the single player campaign mode seems nothing more than a big tutorial, a school that prepares you for the real purpose of the game – online card battles, for which you'll need to know each race's decks and spells - if you ever want to be a challenge for your opponent. Etherlords 2 uses its own online matching system, complete with rankings / levels and more, where the players can create instant games. The gameplay is turn based like in single player mode, with one slight addition – each player has a timer, ensuring that he won't take too long thinking about his next turn. Although there are still some noticeable bugs and issues in multiplayer, it's good to see that Nival keeps fixing them, as this mode is really the game's heart and soul, and it's what should keep you coming back for more after single player loses its charm. There is usually a decent amount of people playing online at all times, and once you got to know some of the regulars (and whooped their ass a few times), the main online game chat lobby will become your second home.
Graphically speaking, even though Etherlords 2 still uses (a modified version of) the graphics engine of its prequel, it looks really damn good, especially during the card battles. While in overhead view in adventuring mode the graphics look alright, although albeit disproportional, and the fixed camera doesn't help much, but it's during card battles that they really shine – a lot of care and attention was given to every hero, creature, spell and background in the game. The heroes and creatures move rather smoothly; there's a huge amount of different locations where the battles take place, from snowy plains to green forests, to bridges mounted across rivers – each of the locations is rather detailed in its looks, and local environmental effects, like snow, rain, sun rays, and more, look very good. And since you obviously have a large amount of spells to use, there's a lot of different effects that demonstrate their destructive powers. It must also be said that during battles you can either choose your own camera angle or use one of the preset ones – although it's highly recommended to set it on your own, all you'll need in order to do that is check the appropriate setting in the options menu. And speaking of options settings – there's quite a lot of them, and they should please owners of both low and high end PCs alike.
The background music really does a great job of immersing you into this fantasy world – it's rather unintrusive and dreamy, changing to a more upbeat tempo while in battle. There's an abundance of sound effects and background sounds in the game, they're all of very high quality, and there's a large variety of them. Finally, there's a lot of voice-overs in the game, usually reading out loud the same thing that's being scrolled across the monitor – while most of them are good and the voice talents are obviously trying hard, others have some ridiculous accents, and some of the comments your hero makes while traveling the land are repeated a tad too much.
Etherlords 2 is a perfect example of what happens when the core of the game overweights the plot, and quickly takes over it in importance. Although the game is missing a small but vital spark, it's still highly playable and enjoyable. Etherlords 2 features an addictive cards game, a rather boring single player mode, and an even more addictive multiplayer mode. The graphics and sound are far above average quality, and the recent release of the Map Editor really boosts up the replayability value of this title. Recommended for cards players everywhere, Etherlords 2 is a solid game – once you get over the monotonicity of its single player campaign.