Monday, 13 April 2009

Wertzone Classics: Homeworld

The Kushan people were inhabitants of the desert planet Kharak, located on the outer edge of their galaxy (what we call the Whirlpool Galaxy). After a long dark age they recreated a technological civilisation and explored their world. And what they found was puzzling. Their DNA was not compatible with that of any other creature on the planet. In addition, it seemed unlikely that a humanoid species would evolve naturally on a world with only small habitable regions at the two poles. Eventually, a satellite survey mission discovered a metallic object buried below the great desert. It was an immense spacecraft, over 4,000 years old. Buried deep inside it was a guidestone showing a route across the Galaxy from a world near the core: Hiigara. In the Kushan language, 'Home'. The Kushan realised that they were not native to Kharak and had been exiled more than thirty thousand light-years for reasons unknown.

Best. Game. Ever. Or Top Twenty at least.

The Kushan began construction of an immense spacecraft, known as the Mothership. Equipped with a hyperspace core recovered from the derelict, the Mothership had the ability and range to reach Hiigara and investigate the situation there before reporting back to Kharak. More than half a million colonists volunteered to enter cryo-sleep and accompany the Mothership on its mission. But, whilst the Mothership was engaged in its final hyperspace test on the outskirts of the Kharak system, something went horrendously wrong. A fleet of ships belonging to the enigmatic Taiidan Empire emerged above Kharak. Declaring that the Kushan had violated a four thousand-year-old treaty forbidding them to develop hyperspace technology, the Taiidan launched a devastating nuclear bombardment of the planet. The entire population was annihilated as the populated zones of the planet were destroyed. However, the Taiidan did not account for the Mothership. With nothing left to lose, the Mothership set out with its precious cargo on its original mission. But now it had a new task as well: to avenge the destruction of Kharak as well as finding a way back to their Homeworld.

Homeworld was originally released in September 1999 and was the first release from Relic Entertainment, who are now one of the biggest companies in the real-time strategy genre. Their later games would include the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Homeworld itself is the first in a series and was followed by Homeworld: Cataclysm in 2000 and Homeworld 2 in 2003. Homeworld 3 seemed to be off the cards for a long time since Relic were acquired by THQ whilst the game rights remained with Vivendi, but over a year ago THQ bought the Homeworld property from Vivendi, raising the hope that a new Homeworld game could be on its way soon.

Homeworld is infamous as the first real-time strategy game set in space that utilised full 3D movement. Your 'HQ' in the game is the Kushan Mothership, which starts each level by hyperspacing into a new region of space. Your fleet deploys from the Mothership and you can commence harvesting resources (asteroids and pockets of gas) and expending your forces. Homeworld features a persistent fleet model, so the fleet you leave one mission with is the same force that appears at the start of the next. You also carry researched information and resource units (money, basically) between missions as well, meaning that canny (and extremely patient) players will wait until they've harvested every single possible resource from one level before jumping to the next. Each region or area has a specific objective, whether it's the acquiring of resources, the destruction of an enemy force or investigating a mystery before moving on. In this manner Homeworld is actually fairly reminiscent of a TV series. In fact, those detecting similarities between Homeworld and Battlestar Galactica are on the money: the game started as a concept for a BSG adaption, but when Universal made it clear they weren't interested, an original storyline was developed instead.

Homeworld remains a terrific game. The art direction is absolutely stunning, with both your ships and those of the enemy having a crisp feel very reminiscent of SF book covers from the 1970s, particularly the art of Peter Elson or Chris Fosse. In fact it's worth playing with the Taiidan ship skins because, whilst not the 'canon' ship designs, their bright primary colours and more interesting gun arrangements are a joy to control in battle. Graphically, the game is nowhere near as dated as you'd expect. The models are not as sophisticated or have as many polys as modern games, of course, but the game still looks great and even the cheapest modern laptop should be able to handle the game with everything turned up to maximum. In terms of control the game does not stray far from being a traditional ground-based RTS "but IN SPACE", but it features some innovative touches to allow control of spacecraft in a fully 3D environment, such as the camera 'focus' system and the long-range sensor manager system, both of which are initially a little odd but once mastered allows for instinctive control of the battlespace. The game's music is brilliant. The original soundtrack is fantastic, and its use of classical music at key moments is extremely well-handled. The original song by 1970s prog group Yes that accompanies the closing credits is a bit left-field, but it works nicely as well, tying in the whole retro-sci-fi feel of the game.

The missions are varied, giving a real sense of progress as you move closer to the Homeworld. The excellent between-mission loading screens show your progress so far and how far you have to travel (although modern PCs tend to load the levels in about two seconds, not leaving much time to appreciate the artwork), and visually this is communicated in the missions themselves, with the first few missions taking place on the outer edges of the Galaxy with a night-black sky and the Galactic Core getting noticeably brighter and dominating more and more of the sky with every mission. As the game progresses your fleet becomes larger and more powerful, and more backstory about the reasons for your race's exile are revealed. It's all interesting, well-thought-out stuff, although some explanations for the game universe's deep history have to wait for the sequels.

There are some flaws, as you may expect with a game that's ten years old. First off, there's no ability to skip time in the game. This means that you often complete a mission and then have time to go off, make a cup of tea and watch half an hour of TV whilst your collectors finish mopping up the resources on any given level. Towards the end of the game, when you've maxed out your supply limit and have more money than God, you can ignore this tactic, but for the first two-thirds of the game or so it's absolutely essential. The persistent fleet tactic also means it's possible, particularly on second through fifth levels or so, to build a fleet that's completely ill-suited to the next mission, forcing you to reload the previous level just to finish it with a more balanced fleet. However, this happens extremely rarely and usually maintaining a sensible attitude, such as keeping back some money for the start of the next mission to see what the challenge is, will prevent this from occurring. Towards the end of the game there is also the argument that tactics go out the window as your vast fleet simply concentrates all its fire on one enemy ship at a time and massacres its way through the enemy without too much trouble. This argument is rebutted by the grand finale, however, where pursuing this tactic is extremely ill-advised. The final complaint is that the Mothership not being able to move is daft (although explained by the ship's sublight engines not being finished before it had to do the hyperspace tests at the start of the game) and a bit of an artificial and cheesy game limitation. However, I don't think it's a particularly major flaw (especially as the later games sensibly dispense with it). Finally, Relic have shut down the game's multiplayer lobby and it's unclear when it will be back up, making multiplayer matches a bit tricky to organise.

Homeworld (****½) is a genuinely classic game that has withstood the test of time superbly. With a rich, involving atmosphere that genuinely evokes the vast emptiness of space, a gripping story and excellent controls and units, it is a game that every SF and strategy fan should play. It is available now in the UK for ridiculously little money. If you are in the USA, you are less lucky as the game is currently not available, not even on budget. Second-hand markets or eBay might be your best bet, as the prices are pretty steep.

Encyclopedia Hiigara (Homeworld Wiki)
History of Hiigara PDF (spoilers for Homeworld 2)
Homeworld introduction movie


Thadlerian said...

For a SF/F review site, I think you should have made some comments on the story as well.

To me, the story is the only weak point of the game, whereas most reviewers I've read praise it to the skies.

Longasc said...

Does it work on Vista? I played it on Windows XP, but did not test it on Vista so far.

It worked very well on XP, but the sequel "Cataclysm" did not, for some odd reason.

Adam Whitehead said...

I thought the story was good, and I think I mentioned it. Given the events of HW2 and the size of the Taiidani Empire as revealed in some of the auxillary material, plus the fact that Hiigara was the Taiidan capital world, I thought it a stretch that your one fleet could bring the whole thing teetering down, but the approbation of the Council and the Bentusi plus the internal rebellion led by Elson did help explain that.

Cataclysm worked fine for me on XP. In fact, I think Cataclysm came out after XP launched, so it would have had to work. Have you tried running the game patched it up to the latest version? Or in 'compatibility mode' for Windows 98 if that doesn't work?

I believe there are some issues getting the game to work with Vista, one of many reasons I haven't upgraded yet. I think HW2 is fine, but both HW1 and Cataclysm have issues and CTDs with Vista.

Longasc said...

I do not really remember, but I could play Cataclysm only once on my old system... on all of the following computers it had issues.

And now with Vista I do not even dare to try it. You are right, Vista does not run a lot of games that run in XP. Not even in compatibility mode.

But there is "Sins of a Solar Empire", after all. Some call it the successor to Homeworld, and deplore the fact that it is not, actually. Despite winning quite a lot of awards, the single-player mode cannot compare to Master of Orion or Homeworld. It does not have a campaign nor a story and has very repetitive gameplay. It is still a nice game in its own way.

Adam Whitehead said...

There's also Haegemonia: Legions of Iron which is closer to Sins of a Solar Empire in make-up, but the combat is a little bit more reminiscent of Homeworld. It doesn't have the same feel as Homeworld, though. Nothing really does to be honest.

Anonymous said...

I loved this game - it was the first computer game I ever played (and there have been damn few since) that gave me a sense of awe. I used to spend ages just watching my fleet from different angles, enjoying the music and graphics that have still not dated too badly. Plus, the voice-acting was top notch.

John said...

I would say Homeworld was one of the classics; it unquestionably changed the genre forever.


Not so much. It's a good game, and I enjoyed it, but I remember swearing and vast frustration when i had to recapture a planet I had just finished fortifying, because the script dictated that it belongs to the enemy in the next mission - despite allowing it to conveniently keep the fortifications I built, while reducing some of my carefully developed colonies practically back to the Stone Age.

Homeworld had none of this; if anything, the single flaw demonstrated by Homeworld was the really incredible length of time necessary at the end of a mission for your harvesters to collect everything in the map before your departure.

Cataclysm, frankly, was stronger storywise (heresy) although with less voice acting talent. (And, I will note, I have never had any trouble getting it to run at all.)

Homeworld 2, honestly, was a mess.

In real life, a fleet suffering heavy losses - such as what happens to the Vaygr several times through the course of the story - cannot simply replace them endlessly; at some point the rate of reinforcement starts to slow.

In Homeworld 2, in several missions the "difficulty" is ratcheted up by simply adding infinite enemy spawn points that unleash a neverending flood of enemies on you... what relation does THIS have to reality?

Yes, you can kill my battlecruisers with ease, if you can simply replace your battlecruisers with an endless stream of new ones.

Also, there are several missions in which the enemies are indestructible for some length of time, allowing them to ravage your fleet at will, and the ships lost to their ire are essentially a matter of luck; this isn't "difficult," so much as "ghetto."

The original was vastly superior.