Helium-3 is an RTS with an educational slant from the folks at Discovery.com. It is the year 2035. The energy crisis of the 90s and new millennium has led to a global energy crash. Fossil fuels are being depleted at an alarming rate, and renewable energy sources have not been able to keep up with global demand. The world is on the brink of a complete shut-down, unless a new source of energy can be found. Luckily, one already has been located.
During the Apollo space program, numerous samples were retrieved from the moon and brought back to Earth for study. Among other things, scientists found an element originally discovered back in 1934 called helium-3 (3He). This non-radioactive isotope is sought after for use in nuclear fusion reactions. And it is this element that will save the human race. The decision is made to mine the moon for helium-3 and start using it to power helium-helium fusion reactors. 100 tonnes of the element can power the Earth for a year, and there is thought to be over a million tonnes just in the first few meters of lunar soil.
Of course, as with any opportunity like this, people are going to try and profit from it. Thus begins a rash of claim-staking the likes of which hasn't been seen since the early 19th century. At over $4 million per kilo, there is a lot of money to be made. As they say, everyone remembers the first person to the moon, but no one remembers who was second. Don't be second.
Each game consists of a competition between four rival miners on a section of the moon containing various amounts of helium-3. During each ten-minute battle there are two goals: be the one with the most money at the end, and/or be the last one with operational mining vehicles, or X-TRACT vehicles. These multi-purpose devices are your key to fame and fortune on the moon. In addition to mining the moon's surface for helium-3, they also contain offensive and defensive capabilities. The vehicles can fire either pulse-lasers in a line-of-sight fashion at other X-TRACT vehicles, or can launch guided missiles to take out opposing mining vehicles. They can also put up a shield to protect themselves from attack. And, in a last-ditch effort to save your bacon, they can self-destruct, taking out surrounding vehicles.
You start each round with five X-TRACT vehicles. Gameplay takes place in timed turns. You have the time given for the other three players' turns, plus the time of your own turn (approximately 5 seconds) to decide what to do with two of your five vehicles. You can either move the vehicle, order it to mine a surrounding location, arm one of its weapons, or order it to fire an already-armed weapon. Strategy comes into play when trying to decide whether to defend, go on the offensive, or mine for money. You also need to try and guess what your opponents are up to. Do you need to move your vehicles out of range of a well-planned attack or can you jump in an mine one more square before the time is up?
You can compete in practice battles against computer opponents at three difficulty levels, but the only way to earn money and upgrades for your X-TRACT vehicles is to compete in matches against human opponents. The moon in Helium-3 has been divided into over 10 million gamespaces, each containing an amount of helium-3 to mine. Once the game locates three other available players, you will be transported to one of these gamespaces. Earning money during the game will increase your level, and will slowly unlock upgrades to your X-TRACT vehicles. Upgrades will increase the range of your weapons, movement, and mining operations, and each of your five units can be upgraded independently, allowing you to decide which upgrades you want to perform to each unit. No matter your strategy, the future of our planet is in your hands.
Analysis: To call Helium-3 a true RTS is somewhat of a misnomer. Command decisions are made in real-time, but limiting of unit movement and fire to a number of squares, as well as limiting the number of units to be moved, puts it more in line with classic turn-based strategy games. There is also no resource management in the game, something that has become a staple of the RTS-genre. Of course, this allows the player to focus on the strategy of winning the round.
One of the game mechanics that really adds a new element of strategy to the game is the fact that you have to make a decision whether to mine or prepare for attack with each vehicle. Mining can happen immediately, but if you want to try and take out an opponent's vehicle, you must first prepare the weapon to be fired. You can move your unit into position on the same turn, but you must wait to fire the weapon until the next turn. By then, your quarry may have moved. This isn't as much of a problem with the missile, since it is a ranged weapon. As long as the target is still in range, you can still take it out. But the laser, which has the ability to take out multiple targets that happen to be within its line-of-sight, can only fire along lines of sight (which can be increased with upgrades). If your targets move out of those lines, you need to reposition, re-activate, and try again.
The computer AI is remarkably competent during practice rounds, and you can have quite a bit of fun with that alone. I was only able to compete in a couple of "live" rounds, since most of the time the matching service failed to locate three other players within a reasonable amount of time. I'm not sure how long others wait around for matches, but hopefully more players will move into the neighborhood. One interesting feature of the game is the fact that you can explore the surface of the moon in Helium-3 and zoom in on each gamespace that has been set up. If a battle has been played on that gamespace, you can actually watch a replay of it. Creates a very interesting, persistent environment.
The graphics are nice, if simple. Your units are denoted by color, since the are all based on the same models. Everything moves nice an smoothly. The gamespace is only the size of the game screen, so there is no scrolling to deal with. Sound consists of sound effects during the game, with no music. Time to launch iTunes and find some music suitable for mining and mayhem.
This game is a lot of fun, perfect for short spurts of casual gameplay, and has an impressively researched back-story rooted in real science, including science facts about helium-3, and a timeline that goes from 1959 to 2037. The future posited in this game is, in fact, a very real possibility. Who knows, playing Helium-3 may be training you to be the next millionaire miner of the future?