Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Wertzone Classics: Homeworld Cataclysm

Fifteen years have passed since the Exiles returned from their four-millennia sojourn on the desert world of Kharak and reclaimed their homeworld, Hiigara. Their return sparked the fall of the decadent and corrupt Taiidani Empire and the death of the immortal Emperor, plunging the Galaxy into a time of strife and chaos it is only now, and rather shakily, recovering from. A new Taiidani Republic, allied to the Hiigarans, has arisen to replace the old empire. Meanwhile, the Exiles have split into their former political and familial groupings, the Kiith. Kiith Somtaaw are among the smallest of the clans, specialised in mining operations. After a time of political controversy amidst the Kiith, Somtaaw has become a mobile group based around two large, modular mining ships, the Kuun-Lan and the Faal-Corum.

When an Imperialist Taiidani strike group breaks through the defensive lines around Hiigara, the Hiigarans scramble a response. The Kuun-Lan plays a key role in defeating the Taiidan force but, as usual, the Somtaaw go unthanked for their efforts. Whilst helping in the recovery of a warship on the outer edges of the system, the miners stumble across an ancient beacon of some kind, more than a million years old. Attempts to analyse the beacon soon become problematic when the organic residue coating the beacon suddenly spreads and overruns the lower decks of the Kuun-Lan, which are jettisoned. Kiith Somtaaw has inadvertently unleashed a bio-mechanical virus which subverts both technology and organic beings into a rapacious and growing threat, code-named 'The Beast', a threat which cows even the powerful Bentusi. Spreading at an exponential rate, the Beast will overrun and destroy civilised space in a matter of months. With little choice, Somtaaw rebuilds the Kuun-Lan as a warship and takes the fight to the enemy.

Cataclysm started life as an expansion for Homeworld that got bigger and more ambitious, and eventually became a 'stand-alone expansion', although that's doing it a disservice. It's actually bigger and longer than Homeworld itself with two brand-new factions sporting new fleets and units (although the Beast fleet consists mainly of altered ship models already existing from Homeworld), not to mention significant improvements to the game interface. The result is a game which successfully improves upon the existing, winning formula. This is all the more impressive given that the game was created by Barking Dog Studios rather than the original team at Relic, although Relic did provide assistance and advice.

The first and most notable difference is how your mothership operates. Your new command ship, the Kuun-Lan, is a versatile and powerful ship in its own right which can now, thankfully, move around the map (the Homeworld Mothership, somewhat daftly, couldn't). As the game progresses you can upgrade the command ship with new modules, research posts, weapons and defences, so by the final mission the vessel sports forcefields, repair drones and some pretty lethal weaponry. In most other respects the game operates in a similar way to the original, but a lot of the micro-managing elements have been streamlined or removed. Ships are now more versatile: the Somtaaw destroyers have both beam and missile weapons, whilst in Homeworld you had to choose between building beam destroyers or missile ones, whilst the new resourcers can also carry out repair and salvage operations, whilst again the first game had separate repair, salvage and resource ships. The interface has also seen the vital addition of a time-skip facility, which is both vital when your fleet has to cover vast distances around the map and also for the end-of-mission harvesting-every-thing-on-the-map-before-moving-on phase. The absence of this feature from the original game, even after patches, is the sole reason I docked it half a star.

Cataclysm, as the title suggests, is considerably more violent than the first game. Missions are usually more action-packed and feature rapidly shifting and changing objectives that require readjustment of tactics on the fly, at least considerably more than was required in Homeworld itself. The game is also more frugal with the more powerful units, holding back on the ion cannon warships until mission seven or eight, whilst in the original game you got them on the fifth mission. This makes the game tougher than the original. The fact that the enemy you are facing has the supremely annoying ability to take over your vessels and turn them against you if you aren't careful also contributes to this more challenging difficulty level.

The story is excellent, tense and well-depicted in between-mission cut scenes and in-game cinematics. Although sporting some similarities to the Borg, the Beast is a formidable and threatening foe that is considerably more daunting than the Taiidani of the original game. The fact that Kith Somtaaw is a mining family lacking heavy weaponry during the early stages of the game adds to the desperate feel of the game. However, the narrative is slightly incongruous when compared to the mythology-heavy stories of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, and given the sheer scale of the war against the Beast its complete lack of referencing in Homeworld 2 is unusual. Also, part of Homeworld's success was down to its slower, less frantic pace, with its majestic depiction of space travel and combat. Cataclysm does away with this in favour of more epic, intense battles. Cataclysm's soundtrack is also less satisfying than Homeworld's, and doesn't replicate the original game's excellent use of classical music at appropriate moments.

Homeworld: Cataclysm (****½) is a superior RTS that is a more than worthy follow-up to the original Homeworld. It fixes a number of issues with the first game's interface and is more tactically challenging, making for a slightly superior gaming experience. However, the writing, music and generally more epic 'feel' of the first game is still more impressive. As a result the two games come out even. Both are excellent, both will run on even the lowliest modern laptop, and both are available, with some difficulties, in both the UK and USA. Check them out if you haven't already.

Next up, Homeworld 2, which isn't quite as great as its forebears but still worth a look.

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