Homeworld is the first video-game that calls into question the line between art and entertainment. Or to put it more precisely, Homeworld is the first video game that crosses the line from mere entertainment into the world of art. From the incredible visuals and audio of its opening sequence to the very last moments of the climactic battle, the player is transported to a previously unknown and very interesting realm. Obviously, I'm quite taken with the game as a whole. Nevertheless, I will do my best to describe it objectively in the text that follows.
The visuals in Homeworld are particularly stunning. This is the first game that truly greets the player with the lonely majesty of space. I have never previously had the pleasure of playing a game that made the environment of space itself something of such beauty that I often found myself staring slack jawed at the horizon. The sense of perspective is incredible, and it has to be seen to be believed.
As amazing as the environment is, the models are just as good. The enormous mother ship hangs in space like some vast tribute to the ingenuity of those who built it, the smaller craft "buzz" around it like the worker bees they essentially are, and all of the other associated vessels lend to the realism of the scene and sense of scale. All of these models are nicely textured and evince a unity of design that is similarly helpful in the suspension of disbelief. The attention to detail is wonderful. If one zooms in far enough, each individual turret on each ship becomes visible as it swivels independently in order to be brought to bear against the enemy.
The special effects are also simply amazing. I never tired of watching a simple harvester do its job. The visual display accompanying one ship repairing another was just as pretty and no less impressive. Even the explosions are so well done that I repeatedly found myself pausing the game while focused upon an exploding ship simply so that I could observe the explosion from different angles. Truly, Homeworld is a feast for the visual sense.
To continue with well-justified praise, the cut-scenes are also very nicely done. They are positively cinematic in their structure, and only the limitations of current video systems make them anything less than cinema-quality in their rendering. Seriously, when playing Homeworld at a ridiculously high resolution, many of the cut-scenes feel more like a movie than a mere video game.
I have only one complaint with the visuals in the game, and it is a minor one at most. In the mission in which one returns to the Kharak system to find it laid to waste, I could see a strange set of lines across the planet below. It was almost as if the planetary graphics were rendered in sections and, for some reason, were poorly stitched together in that mission. That is the only visual flaw I have been able to detect. Suffice it to say that Homeworld is visually gorgeous.
As if the visuals weren't good enough, Homeworld also excels in the audio department. The music is the most beautiful sound track I have ever heard in a video game to date. The choice of opening the game with a choral arrangement of Barber's "Adagio for Strings" is only the first stroke of genius in a larger mosaic. I have a very low tolerance for so-called New Age music, but I never found myself wishing the music to be different than it was, and that's high praise. I wish I could find somewhere to buy the soundtrack CD as it would be mine in a heartbeat.
The sound effects are also wonderful. All the various weapons systems sound just as one would expect. All of the explosions as an enemy ship is reduced to debris are very satisfying. The audio confirmation messages, the occasional narration, and all of the other speech that appears in the game are of a similarly high level of quality. I have no complaints with the audio in this game, which is pretty rare for somebody as aurally fussy as I am.
In terms of its interface, Homeworld truly goes where no such game has gone before. Other RTS games have provided functional interfaces for a 2D environment, but Homeworld goes one step beyond and provides an equally functional interface within its 3D environment. By pinning the camera focus to a single ship, what would otherwise be confusion is rendered clear and functional. It takes but a few moments using the tutorial to grow accustomed to controlling the camera, and once this skill is mastered the learning curve is essentially complete.
What seems missing from the interface are those elements dealing with more advanced commands. For example, most games in this genre provide some sort of method for setting way points, patrol routes, and so forth. Homeworld provides only the most basic movement commands, however, and the omission of such advanced features is painful at times. Still, everything that is provided works well, and all of the controls are easily learned. Even the graphical menu system is clearly organized, highly detailed, and very useful. Homeworld may not do everything, but what it does it does very well.
The game mechanics are the standard RTS fare with a few innovations. Resource harvesting and protecting the harvesters is simplified somewhat by the use of lightly-armed escort ships with which the actual harvesters can dock. An innovation I particularly like is that one's resources are maintained from mission to mission; i.e., whatever one has "in the bank" at the end of one mission is there at the beginning of the next. This lends a nice sense of continuity that is missing from so many other RTS games.
Of course, it brings its own unique problems as well insofar as one must take care to mine every last unit from the current mission before exiting. This wouldn't be a problem except for the lack of any time compression settings. In one particular mission, I literally got up from the computer and didn't come back for nearly an hour until my harvesters had finished with the map. That was a bit boring. Hopefully, this problem will be fixed in whatever sequels follow. Given that this is the only substantive problem with the game mechanics, however, Homeworld does an otherwise great job.
One more item bears mentioning, I think, and that's the degree to which the rock-paper-scissors model clearly dominates the gameplay. Corvettes chew up fighters; capital ships chew up corvettes; fighters chew up capital ships. This is a tried-and-true system for ensuring balance, and Homeworld makes good use of it. My complaint with it is that corvettes really lose their utility as the game progresses, for while it's true that they chew through fighters like nothing else, fighters perform tolerably well against other fighters. As such, one typically sees only capital ships and fighter craft by the end of the game. That's not such a bad thing, I suppose, but I really wished I could make better use of the multi-gun corvettes. I like them. (grin)
The story, like pretty much everything else about Homeworld, is top notch. The people of Kharak one day unearth an artifact that demonstrates conclusively they are not where they belong. Their home world, Higara, is a long way off. This motivates them to construct an enormous mother-ship so that a large contingent of their people can go home. That's a pretty compelling tale, if you ask me. What follows is nothing less than the annihilation of the population that remains behind, entanglements with other races along the way, and ultimately a final, triumphant battle to reclaim what is theirs. The story is so well done and is accompanied by such amazing visuals and excellent voice acting that it really tugs at the heart of the player, rising above the typical dreck one gets from the other entries in the RTS genre.
The content is both interesting and varied. There are numerous different sorts of ships and weapon systems. Because of this, there are many different sorts of tactics one might use. The addition of the third dimension greatly enhances the tactical possibilities as well. One more than one occasion I've been able to engage an enemy force from two sides, drawing their capital ships into firing on my fighters below while my own capital ships nail the big boys from above as they struggle to turn.
Although the number of missions in the single-player game seems rather short, they are quite nicely varied. To be more specific, the missions range from the typical harvest/research/build/destroy model to the heretofore unseen keep-your-mother-ship-safe-from-the-asteroids-or-die mission. Seriously, that one kept the adrenaline pumping all the way to the end, and I had to reload a few times to get through it.
The AI is also particularly noteworthy insofar as ships move intelligently based on their current status. That is, they retain formation and fire at their targets for longer or shorter attack runs depending upon the selection of tactics. The various options available to the player actually make a difference, and the AI is good enough to set and forget for basic functions. It's really quite impressive to see a squadron of fighters make a run past a target in tight formation, scatter as necessary to engage enemy fighters and come back together for the next pass, just as one would expect. Formations really matter in Homeworld, unlike so many other games that include them.
My only gripe against the content of the game, really, is that playing as the Taidan or Kushan is essentially the same. Though each side does have some unique technologies and weapons, the story remains the same no matter which side one plays. This really diminishes the overall replay value of the game. Once I finished as the Kushan, I was really looking forward to playing through as the Taidan, only to discover that there was essentially no point. I was rather expecting to play from the other side; i.e., opposing the Kushan from reclaiming Higara. It's a pity that both sides share the one campaign.
The multi-player features of the game are just as fabulous as one would expect. There are a variety of different game options, particularly where the infusion or harvesting of resources is concerned. Better still, because the mother ships are so big and tough typical peon-rushing tactics are essentially useless. It does one absolutely no good, for example, to rush the enemy mother ship with a mere dozen fighters or so; the enemy will be able to repel the attack simply by building fighters if necessary. The mother ship is tough enough to withstand the bombardment until then.
The ability of capital ships to enter hyperspace also provides a big, new variable in the gameplay. In what I thought was going to be one of my best on-line victories, for example, I had moved my striking force roughly halfway across what was a rather large map to the enemy's mother ship. I was expecting to come upon him unaware because I had found his fleet elsewhere, and I figured I would easily be able to destroy his mother-ship before he could get back to protect it. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of the hyperspace capability of capital ships. Just as I was about to start gloating, his fleet appeared out of the blue (literally!) right next to my mother ship. Ironically, because I had left an inadequate defensive force behind, my own mother-ship was destroyed before my fleet could reach the enemy or get home. Oops. At any rate, hyperspace is a thrilling addition to the multi-player game and really lends itself well to such surprises.
My only complaint against the multi-player portion of the game is that it was too hard to find opponents. Homeworld uses the WON gaming service to help players hook up, but all too often I couldn't find anyone who wanted to play. I'm not sure why, either. The game seems to have sold relatively well, and I think it a great value. Perhaps I'm simply logging on at the wrong time? I don't know. I wish I could have played it more often against other people, but I just didn't get the chance.
If it's not clear by now, let me state for the record that I think Homeworld is one of the best RTS games made to date. All elements of its presentation are simply fabulous. Its game mechanics are as powerful and interesting as they are simple with a little bit of practice. The single-player campaign is a blast to play through, and the multi-player aspect, once one finds an opponent or two, is just as worthwhile. I've played a lot of Homeworld, and I look forward to playing it a lot more in the future. I am also eagerly awaiting any sequels. If you like RTS games or are looking for something new in space-based games, go buy Homeworld and enjoy it.
Reviewed by Phileosophos