Homeworld: A retrospective look at a great game
I could also have titled this: Where did the space RTS games go? And before you start pointing out stuff like Sins of a Solar Empire, I am not talking 4X games here. I don’t want to have to worry about populations, religion, politics, diplomacy, trading, etc. I just want to collect resources, build a fleet, go on a space adventure, and experience a great story.
So welcome, one and all, to a retrospective look at Homeworld, possibly the greatest real-time strategy game ever to be made, and I’ll even throw in some words about its followups; Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld 2.
Billing itself as the first real-time strategy game to feature full 3D movement (for all I know it was), Homeworld got the player off to a great start with the introduction video when you started a new game.
I still love watching this intro, and the Mothership launch is just beautiful.
Even though the graphics are dated since it came out in 1999, I still think it’s a great-looking game. Just that they went to the effort of making space rich and colourful, and not just a vast black expanse sprinkled with stars, made me very happy at the time, and still does, if I’m to be honest. I still go back and replay the game (or the expansion Cataclysm) from time to time, every few years.
The basics of the plot is that your people, the Kushan (it was actually possible to switch and play the campaign as the Taiidan, but I didn’t notice until my third playthrough, so odds are many others didn’t either. However the only change to the campaign was the ship designs and a few ships that were specific to either side), had been living on Kharak for longer than recorded history, until satellite technology allowed you to find something out in the desert. It turns out to be an ancient starship, and inside you find a stone with a galactic map etched into it. On it is also a word, older than all the clans. Hiigara, the old word for home.
This discovery spurs the entire world into action, uniting them with a singular goal. To use the technology of the crashed ship to construct a colony ship capable of reaching home, while they launch an engineering vessel right away to travel in home’s direction to meet up with and fine-tune the colony ship before it proceeds. It takes them 60 years to complete the colony ship, which they helpfully name The Mothership, and one of their scientists volunteers to become permanently embedded in the ship as its living core and computer system. After a successful launch and a quick test of resource management and construction capabilities, they initiate the Hyperspace engine and go to where the engineering ship is supposed to wait for them.
And that’s really all I want to reveal about the plot, so if you came here for spoilers, I’m going to have to disappoint. I know it’s hard to get the games now, but hopefully they’ll be up on Gog.com soon. I couldn’t do the story justice in retelling it anyway, so you’re probably better off.
I’ll happily go into detail on the mechanics though. First off, the full 3D movement. This was actually really neat. When giving a move order, you could set elevation as well as distance, so you could try to go under or over enemy positions, and it also meant you could be attacked from any direction.
I would also like to mention that the game came with a hefty manual, which explained all the technologies and mechanics and even some backstory in exquisite detail. You just don’t get those any longer.
When it came to base building and unit construction, everything came from the Mothership. Resource collectors were constructed there, and went out to collect automatically, then came back and deposited the resources. To speed up resource gathering, you could construct and send along a Resource Controller which could process resources out in the field, and also serve as a refueling craft for fighters and corvettes.
In order to do research, you’d have to construct Research Vessels. These always hovered near the Mothership and had no weapons, but if you built more than one they’d link together, and once you got enough to form a full circle, it would start slowly rotating. After that you couldn’t build any more.
You could also build support vessels like the Repair Corvettes and Support Frigates. The former could be set to follow a group of warships and keep using a repair beam on them when needed. They could only repair one craft at a time, but the AI did a decent, though not great, job of prioritising. Support Frigates could do the same, but also serve as a refuel and repair point for several smaller craft to dock with.
And if you were feeling cheeky, you could construct Salvage Corvettes to capture enemy vessels. This was highly risky, as they weren’t that durable, but if you had an enemy vessel cornered and distracted, you could simply throw a bunch of Salvage Corvettes at it, and they’d drag it to the Mothership to be converted.
The final utility vessels were the various probes. There were the one-shot Probes that you could build cheaply and blast off in any direction to check out the area. There were proximity sensors that would detect any cloaked vessels. And finally sensor arrays that map out a large section around them.
As for the Mothership itself, it could be upgraded in many ways, like larger construction bays and extra life support to accommodate more crew for ships. In the first game, movement was restricted to multiplayer matches, and even then it was slow and ponderous. It was also surprisingly fragile for its size, and best kept far away from actual combat.
Speaking of combat, ship management was quite crucial. Ships could of course be grouped on number keys like most RTS games, and such groups could also be set into various formations, and even various aggression settings. I usually found that simply having a formation at all helped, since it kept your ships together, but those with true skill could find the best formation to fit a certain type of ships. As for the aggression settings, they were quite useful, and worth playing around with to find out what works for you. It’s basically trading offence for defence and vice versa. Both formations and aggression could be changed on the fly with simple commands.
Your warships came in four different sizes. Fighters, corvettes, frigates and super capital ships.
Fighters (also referred to as strikecraft) are the smallest and cheapest vessels you can construct. They’re fast and agile, but not especially durable. Their speed often helps them avoid being hit by the guns on big ships though, so they can be ideal for harassing larger vessels. Because of their small size, they can’t support a drive core able to sustain them indefinitely, so they need to go back to the Mothership or other vessels capable of refueling every so often.
Corvettes are notably larger than fighters, but still not able to mount a self-sustaining drive core. They tend to offer more utility and firepower than fighters, at the expense of speed and agility. I believe the first vessel that is able to rotate and fire its guns independently of which direction it’s flying is a corvette.
Frigates are able to mount a self-sustaining drive core that is even capable of hyperspace jumps. Frigates are usually aimed towards either taking down lesser craft, or focusing down other capital ships. Several frigates have guns able to rotate and fire in any direction, though the ion beam frigates need to be facing what they’re shooting at, since they are basically a frigate built around a gun, rather than a frigate with guns built onto it.
Super capital ships are where things start getting really interesting, especially the carriers. Carriers are capable of constructing ships up to frigate size, and also give you some extra life support, I believe. Though maybe that was only implemented in later games. You can also construct destroyers, which live up to their names, providing either several guns and ion beams, or a host of missile batteries dangerous to both small and large vessels. And finally you have the battlecruisers, which are just enormous and expensive. You won’t have many, and they’re as slow as a glacier, but nothing matches them in sheer destructive power.
I’m sure you can extrapolate from there. With its massive maps, interesting ship designs, beautiful backdrops and wonderful story, Homeworld was an experience unlike any other.
A year after Homeworld’s release the stand-alone expansion pack Homeworld: Cataclysm came along. It was only loosely tied to the first game, taking place 15 years after its end, but not tying directly into those events. Instead they came up with a new story, and gave you a new Mothership and new vessels to play around with.
This time you’re placed in charge of a mining vessel forced to adapt and strengthen itself after being drawn into some rather nasty events. It gave you a whole new techtree of ships, and a new upgrade system that could alter ships quite considerably. Like early on you research the ability to have two fighters combine into a corvette, so you could actually combine and separate them to work better in different situations.
Personally I loved Cataclysm. The story is not as epic as the first Homeworld, but it’s engaging and interesting, and the numerous gameplay upgrades were largely an improvement. I especially love how the new Mothership actually physically changes as you construct new mods and additions for it. It’s all those little attentions to detail that sell the game, and I while I won’t spoil the antagonist, I will say I thought it was rather terrifying at the time, and it still sends chills down my spine to hear that voice.
In 2003 Homeworld 2 came out, and with it the last we saw of this series. While it still got critical acclaim, and it honestly was a really good game, it was overshadowed by the greatness of its predecessor. There was no way it could match up to that, and it probably would have been better received if it had tried to tell a new story instead of a continuation, considering how well the first Homeworld wrapped up.
Homeworld 2 still offers a lot of fun, and the new ships are quite interesting to see and play with. Especially the Boarding Frigates that change things up considerably. All in all, I still highly recommend giving it a look, just remember to not judge it too harshly since it had some massive shoes to fill.
And with that I conclude another retrospective. Here’s hoping that Homeworld 3 is actually in the works, since Relic and THQ do own the rights now, and also that the first 3 games will end up on Gog.com soon.
Posted on June 30, 2012, in Games, Having a gander, Retrospective and tagged Homeworld, Homeworld 2, Homeworld Cataclysm, PC, Relic Entertainment, retrospective, RTS, space RTS, spoilerfree, videogames. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.