Taking the long way home.
It has been four long years since I first led the desperate, hunted Kushans across the galaxy to their homeworld, Hiigara, where they tried to live in peace. However, the new Hiigarans only managed a century of relative calm before the galaxy came knocking on their door once again. They are confronted with a new fearsome enemy, the Vaygr, led by the legendary reincarnation of the Saajuk-Kahr.
Strange things are afoot in the universe, the time of prophecy is at hand, and if you wish to fulfill your destiny or even just survive the dreaded Vaygr, you must build a new mothership and follow the mysterious clues left by the Progenitors in Vivendi and Relic's new Homeworld 2.
Your new mothership looks just like your old one, a massive boomerang of a capitol ship, and is the center of your battle fleet. Many of the ships are also the same as before; veteran commanders will be familiar with the all the fighters, bombers, ion frigates, destroyers and others at your command.
In fact, almost every aspect of Homeworld 2 is identical to the fantastic Homeworld. This is both a good and a bad thing because Homeworld was a great game. But I was really hoping for a little more innovation.
Despite an entirely updated game engine, the gameplay is mostly the same as before. For those of you new to the series, Homeworld 2 is a real-time strategy game that takes place in real 3D space. You mine asteroids and destroyed ships for useful resources, which the game simplifies into a single "resource unit," and you use those resources to build more spaceships for your fleet. Then you order your little ships around and get them to destroy the enemy.
It's that "real 3D space" part that's going to throw off a lot of novice gamers, and is the first indicator of Homeworld 2's high level of difficulty. Issuing move commands in a 3D environment it tricky to learn. The controls work as well as anyone could expect them to, but right off the bat you will be confronted with a learning curve steep enough to drive away most casual gamers. Homeworld 2 does make it a little easier than its predecessor by putting most objects and targets on a single plane, but it's still daunting.
There are two main changes in the gameplay, and neither one is very thrilling. The first is that you can now target certain areas of capital ships (to disable the engines or the fighter bay, for instance). This is a neat idea but isn't particularly useful, since if you can destroy a ship's engines, you can probably blow up the whole ship anyway. It also turns the capital ships into a mess of multiple status bars cluttering the screen. Again, this is a good idea that could just be implemented a little better.
The second is a restructuring of ship formations. Homeworld 2 divides the system into three AI stances: Passive, Neutral and Aggressive. You now have the ability to group multiple classes of ships into three types of battle groups that will move only as fast as the slowest ship in the group. It's a great idea on paper as it solves the classic RTS problem of quicker units reaching their destination long before the slower ones. Unfortunately, these changes have made the game less tactical, especially since the ships now tend to break formation and fly "every man for himself" as soon as combat begins.
Homeworld's graphics were innovative and impressive. The graphics in Homeworld 2, while solid, are also surprisingly similar to the original. They're certainly improved, with new lighting effects and a higher level of detail, but the ship models are noticeably blocky and some textures are strangely low-res when you get in close. The fighters are oddly larger than before, especially in comparison to the capital ships, which makes them easier to see but has the effect of making those behemoth starships less impressive than before despite the increased detail. [Author's Note: One of the HW2 developers wrote in to explain this. Apparently, you can shrink the fighters down to their proper size by turning off the 'NLIPS' option in the menu. This stands for Non-Linear Inverse Perspective Scaling and basically makes the fighters bigger so they are easier to see.]
Ship for ship, Homeworld 2 just can't compare with recent graphical space marvels like EVE Online, but then again, no current game on the planet features anywhere near as many ships simultaneously engaged in combat. This, of course, is the best-looking part of Homeworld 2: the massive, chaotic, glorious space battles, full of scrambling fighters, blasting turrets, tracking missiles and searing ion beams. And when one of those ships goes down, the explosions are impressive indeed.
The sound is equally stellar. The minimalist score fits the game perfectly, and the voice acting both in-game and in the cut-scenes is top notch. But the real sonic winner is once again the combat, with screaming ship engines, whooshing torpedoes and blasting guns bringing the game to life. There is a palpable sense of anticipation every time you hear your big progenitor ion cannon charging up. You just can't wait for that thing to go off and wreak havoc on an enemy battleship.
Like the original Homeworld, it's the plot that really carries the game forward through the series of very difficult linear missions. The Vaygr are truly menacing and I really became attached to my ragtag fleet of scrappy underdogs, just like I did the first time I saw Battlestar Galactica.
Despite losing the story, the multiplayer holds up nicely and supports up to 6 people. With similar ship types on both sides of the conflict, however, the game often comes down to a war of efficiency and resources rather than one of strategic deployment.
The original Homeworld was a hard game, and the same can be said for this sequel. Homeworld 2 is certainly one of the harder games you'll play all year, and amateur gamers should beware of this title. But if you do not frustrate easily, you are assured many hours of gameplay ahead of you.
It's nice to have some Homeworld back on my computer and a treat to have a whole new series of missions to play through, but I do wish there had been a bit more after four years of waiting. It's like rediscovering a long lost friend, and while he's still the same lovable guy, it turns out he hasn't matured much or traveled around Europe in the intervening years. He simply never left home.