Your new Home is calling...tell your other games not to expect you for a while.
I vividly remember the first thing I thought when I saw the holographic representations of the invasion plans for Endor in Return of the Jedi. Watching the admirals and generals map out their interstellar strategies in 3D, I thought, "Wow! Something like that would make a really cool arcade game." (We didn’t talk about "PC" gaming back then. Pass the Geritol.)
It took fifteen years, but Sierra has more than proven me right. Their new title Homeworld places you in the Admiral’s chair (no, not Admiral Akbar’s nifty go-in-any-direction chair - it’s a metaphor) of your own fleet for a groundbreaking real-time strategy game that sets a new standard for the genre. Part Battlestar Gallactica, part Star Wars, and part 2001: A Space Odyssey; Homeworld is as much an interactive saga as a space fleet combat simulation.
First and foremost, however, it is a real time strategy game; and in a RTS game there is one thing that matters more than anything else: the interface. If you cannot easily find, move, and command your units, then all of the work on a clever AI and a beautiful graphics engine will simply mean that you will be pulverized all the more quickly (and with all the more rendered explosions). This is doubly, perhaps triply, so with an interstellar RTS game. In space, your flanks are in every direction, and there is no way to view the entire battlefield from one perspective. Without an ingenious interface, you would be little more than star skeet for your opponents.
Fortunately, Homeworld is up to the challenge. If you are willing to take the time to go through the excellent tutorial (willing you are, or dead you will be), you will find that the interface becomes second nature very quickly. That does not mean that the game will be easy, but you will at least have no problem finding the battle that will lead to your ultimate demise.
Indeed, Homeworld will provide you with many opportunities to witness your destruction at your opponents' hands. I found that I had to unlearn a lot of tricks that I had picked up in two-dimensional combat. There are no mountains to place at your back in space. There is no high ground. There is, however, a vertiginous variety of ways to flank and be outflanked; to form-up and to retreat; to triumph and to die. Since the challenges of the game go far beyond the complexities of three-dimensional combat, expect to do a lot of the latter.
Your fleet from each mission carries over into the next, so if you lose a capital ship this time, you may find the next round unwinnable. Add to this the unforgiving AI and your frequently inferior strategic position, and you are in for one tough fight.
The storyline should lead you to expect nothing less. You are in command of a mothership, the first interstellar vessel which your race has ever built, which is capable of producing and repairing ships of every kind. The ship's self-sufficiency is important, since your Homeworld and your docking facilities are completely obliterated very early in the game.
The situation, however, is not quite as bleak as it seems. As your race has already discovered, the world where your people lived for thousands of years (which has since been reduced to a thick cloud of fine dust particles which will puzzle astronomers in nearby solar systems for centuries; and which will be the source of a particularly unpleasant myth on a particularly unpleasant world), is not your true home. It seems that you are descended from a spacefaring civilization that became stranded on your foster home thousands of years ago. Your true Homeworld is somewhere on the other end of the galaxy. Since you have nowhere else to go, that becomes your destination.
Unfortunately, it seems that a few other sovereign powers remember what it was like the first time your people traveled the stars, and they are none too keen on giving you a second chance. Genocide is a mild term for what they intend. Did I mention that they have well-established fleets and generations of experience, and you only have whatever ships you can research and then cobble together before your next battle? Getting home has not been this difficult since that bully from the third grade used to waylay you as you ran home from the bus stop.
Believe it or not, you will want to get home. Sierra uses artful cutscenes (sometimes using the 3-D engine and sometimes using surprisingly effective, black and white animations) to draw you into a rich and sympathetic story. In addition, the beautiful scenery, meticulously rendered ships, and appropriate use of ship radio traffic all create a sense of immersion that will lure you deeply into the game's storyline. Likewise, Homeworld's hauntingly beautiful musical scores are a perfect compliment to the immense arena in which the game takes place.
That arena is large enough to accommodate more than the single-player storyline. Homeworld includes a well-integrated multiplayer option that has seduced many players away from the single-player game. I had no trouble connecting to Sierra’s WON network, finding opponents, and setting up a game. The options available for that game are well thought-out and thorough. If there is a type of game you want to play, odds are the options will be there to create it. Be forewarned, however, that playing multiplayer over slow connections or on a slow PC is ill-advised.
So, is Homeworld the perfect space RTS game? It comes close, but does not quite make it across the finish line. My largest frustration with the game came from trying to get my units to behave logically. My repair ships (which are crucial for refueling fighters) often seemed to forget whom they were supporting. My combat ships, likewise, had a nasty habit of stopping for smoke breaks while their squadron mates were being turned into light shows for the nearby planets.
Beyond the AI issues, I did also have some minor design quibbles. Sierra’s decision to not let you view the health of your opponents’ ships is particularly frustrating. If a twit like Lando Calrissian can know when the enemy’s shields are down, why can’t I? Finally, the lack of a difficulty setting for the AI means that you will either learn to play the game very well or you will learn to enjoy the (admittedly beautiful) scenery as you die - over and over again.
These are, however, all minor complaints. Homeworld provides everything that a good gaming experience should offer. The interface is nothing short of brilliant. The story is well-developed and engrossing. The gameplay is challenging but well-balanced. The graphics and sound are breathtaking. Finally, it is simply a heck of a lot of fun. When all is said and done, the question remains: "If a pizza is delivered while I’m playing, will it turn into a cold, uneaten slab while I try to win ‘just one more battle?’" If you are even a casual real-time gamer, odds are the answer is a resounding "Yes!"
P.S. Do yourself a favor and get the Homeworld Unit Viewer from the Homeworld download area. It makes unit recognition much more pleasant. Riva TNT users running Windows '98 should also get the 1.03 Patch here.