Well, once more into the breach, with a review of Relic Entertainment's Homeworld 2.
When I was a young, strapping lad, I had a thing for the origional Homeworld. Sierra did something magical with that game. It put you in control of a fleet of starships and strike craft in a fully 3d environment. Not only was it pretty groundbreaking from a technical standpoint, but the game had a fully fleshed out, well told story. I found myself progressing through the campaigns not just to get
to the next level, but because I really cared about the plight of the plucky Kushaan refugees that I was
trying to shepherd to their new home. Pretty much everything gelled with the origional Homeworld, and
made it a game that was more than the sum if it's (still very impressive) parts. Eventually, Sierra and Relic entertainment got around to releasing a sequel to the much beloved Homeworld. Anyway, on to the
info on Homeworld 2:
Plot and Characters: (Here be spoilers!) Homeworld 2 picks up a while after the Kushaani have reached Hiigara, their promised homeworld from the first game. The industrious Kushaan have built a tidy little empire spanning a portion of the former Taiidani empire that they toppled during their journey to Hiigara. (The double vowels take some getting used to, don't they folks?) However, all is not well with the Hiigaran empire. A loose empire of
bandits and barbarians known as the Vagyr (Think Ghengis Khan in space) have stumbled upon an ancient Hyperspace Core. The core is a semi-mystical remnant of ancient technology that allows a ship equipped with it to make huge leaps through the galaxy in hyperspace. The Hiigarans posess another of these cores, and a third is unaccounted for. According to legend, anyone who unites the three cores will be undefeatable. Predictably, the Vagyr start getting all rowdy, and stomping on the Hiigaran empire every chance they get. This is where the player comes in; as somebody has to saddle up the ol' Mothership
and commence with the deep-space asswhomping.
Overall, I'll give the plot a 7 out of 10. It's a pretty well fleshed out story, but it lacks the depth and mystery that the first game had. Where Homeworld was a Frank Herbert style creation of a full-fledged universe, complete with detailed cultures and mythologies, Homeworld 2 seems content to rest on the laurels of it's predecessor and does a poor job at expanding
the Homeworld universe.
Graphics and Sound: This department is where Homeworld 2 really shines. This game is just downright pretty, no ifs ands or buts about it. Homeworld was graphically impressive, and Homeworld 2 really raises the bar on graphical quality. Smaller ships (Strike craft and resourcers) have plenty of nice little graphical touches, while capital ships are suitably large and menacing.
Everything is well rendered, and there's plenty of detail to go around. Environments are very picturesque, with loads of engaging set pieces strewn around that really enhance the feel of fighting on battleplanes that have been contested for centuries. Both the Hiigaran and Vagyr ships have very unique looks and personalities, and the looks of the ships reflect well on each race's overall 'feel' in the game. (Vagyr ships tend to be either very sleek or very boxy and clunky looking, and really give off a feel of something that
was designed for a quick, vicious assault, or something that favors function over form, respectively. Hiigaran ships are more ovoid and substantial, which reflects on the Hiigaran tendency for adaptability and survivability.) Weapon effects are very nice, with a good mix of projectiles, missiles, and beam weapons hurling around the battle and causing some very visually impressive mayhem. Damage effects do not dissappoint either, with strike craft being swatted and vanishing in fireballs of debris, and capital ships gouting smoke through holes blasted in their hulls.
Sound is also very well done. The music tends toward a very threatening techno-ambient feel, which enhances the whole 'alone in the cosmos' vibe of the game. Sound effects are also high quality. Strike craft move with a nice swooshing effect that gives a good idea of their speed, while capital ships rumble ominously through the battleplane. GUI events are handled well, with a good
set of aural cues (chirps and blips, etc.) as well as status reports being relayed through a cool feminine monotone. Weapon and explosion effects are top notch, with projectiles and beams sizzling past the camera, and the very satisfying sound of tortured metal and destruction as the bulkheads on a large ship finally give up the ghost and the ship tears itself apart in an orgy of destruction.
Overall, I'll give Graphics and Sound a 9 out of 10. All other shortcomings aside, this game looks and sounds top notch. The downside is that it requires a lot of muscle to run those impressive graphics, but if your machine's up to the task, you will be well
Gameplay: Homeworld 2's gameplay is sort of like my favorite Spaghetti Western; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Everything is handled through a full 3d interface, with a camera capable of pan, zoom, and rotation. A heads-up display in the main window will display vital information about selected ships, and in general feed you with the bare-bones information you need to know about the status of your fleets. Other, more specialized information is presented through a seperate interface and a series of overlays. For a larger picture of the battle, one can call up a long-range sensor manager that will act pretty much
like a long-range radar screen, displaying pretty much everything as small blips on a representation of the map. Other functions,such as managing production and research, are handled with an overlay integrated into the normal interface. Remember my little allusion to a Leone film above? Here it is a bit more in-depth:
The Good Most of the changes made to the interface are for the better. Integration of build, docking, and research managers onto the main screen streamlines the presentation of a lot of much needed data to the player. It's nice to be able to handle production in the rear areas of the battle without having to take my eye off a strike group headed into harm's way. The sensors manager is still plenty useful, and the overall interface is more streamlined and unified than it's predecessor. Much more depth has been added with the ability to build standalone subsystems on larger ships, which have the ability to influence their roles in combat.
The Bad With the dearth of overlays and information, it's easy to suffer from informational overload and priority problems.You could be over playing with that oh-so-handy build manager, even though the battlegroup right in front of your face could benefit from some micromanagement. The learning curve is actually a bit steeper with all this information at te tips of your fingers,because it's easy to focus on one portion of what's going on, and totally ignore another aspect of managing and fighting your fleet. The added depth from subsystems and such steepens the learning curve a lot, and can lead to some very costly mistakes with build and research capabilities if the player makes poor choices on subsystems.
The Ugly The main window can get downright cluttered. It's possible to have overlays and data taking up the majority of your screen, and that makes it really easy to lose track of ships onscreen, or simply click on the wrong icon and do something you didn't mean
All this really boils down to the fact that the basic gameplay mechanics are solid overall, but with a hefty learning curve. It takes a lot of getting used to (and more than a little frustration) to get the knack of bouncing around the different overlays to get the information you need without getting bogged down by the 10,000 other things that are onscreen at any given time.
Aside from the basic mechanics of the game, the way the singleplayer campaign is handled also requires mention.
In Homeworld, it was possible for a savvy player to accumulate an overwhelming fleet by the time the later missions rolled around, and simply steamroll the opposition through sheer weight of numbers. This was obviously a major flaw in the first game's campaign, and Relic took steps to prevent this sort of shenanigans from happening in Homeworld 2. The problem is that in this case, the cure was worse than the disease. The size of the enemy fleets you face scale along with the size of your fleet. If you were
badly mauled in a previous mission, and your fleet arrives as a shadow of it's former self, you are only given light opposition, so that it's possible to survive through the campaign even while taking heavy losses. This way, the game is more balanced, as both players who have taken a beating, or those who have vanquished all comers with nary a scratch will still be facing the same odds on any given mission. All this sounds well and good, but Relic forgot one crucial detail: Production capability tends to scale with fleet size. This means that if the CPU starts with a fleet five times larger than normal,odds are it's going to have a similarly massive production capability. This essentially forces the player into one of two tactics:
Scuttling a large portion of their fleet at the end of a mission so that they are not mobbed at the start of the next mission, or making a berserk rush right at the beginning of a mission in hopes of damaging the CPU enough to take away it's production advantage. This is a very annoying way to 'balance' the game, and really does nothing except limit a player's options.
Overall, I'll give gameplay an 8 out of 10. There are a lot of changes made to Homeworld, and not all of them for the better. However, most of the core gameplay that made Homeworld so enjoyable is back in Homeworld 2. A few new flaws have been added, but the improvements just about offset the flaws, and overall leave Homeworld 2 to be an enjoyable, if sometimes frustrating game. Once you look past the flawed balance system and oft-times underhanded AI, you still see a rock-solid core of Homeworld goodness.
Overall Impression: Overall, I'd rate Homeworld 2 as a pretty good game. It doesn't quite live up to it's predecessor in many areas, but outshines it in enough other areas that it is still a worthy addition to the Homeworld series. The learning curve is steep in a lot of places, and some of the new changes will leave Homeworld grognards groaning at Relic, but overall, most of the magic
that made Homeworld is still there. I'd give Homeworld 2 an 8 out of 10 It's a worthy heir to the crown, but one with a few personality flaws.
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