Command a fleet of space vessels on a journey across the galaxy, to confront its people's greatest threat and resolve their most ancient mysteries. This sequel to 1999's universally acclaimed 3D real-time strategy is designed to offer the engrossing gameplay and captivating presentation of the original, with several gentle refinements and new possibilities. Again, the game is played in enormous, three-dimensional space, but the interface has been enhanced to provide simpler control, especially for gamers familiar with more conventional real-time strategy.
Unlike the first game, Homeworld 2 involves warfare between two very different factions, each with its own ships, technology, and tactics. Players remain with the Hiigarans, but face an unfamiliar enemy fleet with unknown strengths and weaknesses. The Mothership is still central to the Hiigaran fleet, but other capital ships can also be equipped for management and production capabilities. Units range in size and power from the tiniest recon scouts to structures that dwarf even the largest vessels of the original game. Larger ships now support customizable subsystems, suggesting new defensive and offensive tactics. The game is designed such that ships of all sizes serve a purpose, at all levels of research and production throughout the campaign.
Following countless generations of exile, and the epic journey that was the story of the original game, the Hiigarans have returned to reclaim their homeworld. Yet true peace eludes the beleaguered race. A new enemy, the Vaygr, now threatens Hiigara. Coming from the distant Inner Rim in the oldest parts of the galaxy, the Vaygr threat may offer clues to why the Hiigarans were banished from their world in the first place -- if it doesn't destroy them first. The Hiigaran Mothership and its fleet prepare for another journey, to confront the Vaygr aggression at its source, and perhaps rediscover the deepest secrets of their own history.
The setting: somewhere in deep space, in a sweeping star field with the odd dust cloud and clump of asteroids floating aimlessly about. Suddenly, a glowing blue line appears and widens into a flat pane. Now a cosmic rectangle, it moves slowly and deliberately, revealing an impossibly massive crescent of a spaceship.
From a bay in the massive ship's side, squadron after squadron of tiny fighter class starships appear. More shimmering, blue hyperspace gates appear, and frigates and capitol ships slip quietly through them, waiting for orders. Resource mining craft beeline toward the nearest cluster of asteroids to retrieve precious metals.
Moments later, a collective of ominous red blips appear on the radar. The enemy is near. The mothership orders the smaller ships, the fighters and bombers, to intercept the alien craft and inflict whatever damage they can while they assess the threat. The friendly frigates stand at the ready. The fighters and bombers close to firing range, and immediately they're swarming around enemy fighters, making broad passes during which they unleash torrents of weaponry. There's bad news: not only are the mothership's fighters outnumbered, but there is a formidable group of capital ships closing on the mothership's location. This is going to be an ugly battle.
So begins a typical mission in Homeworld2, the long awaited follow-up to Relic Entertainment's award winning real-time strategy epic. The original Homeworld hit the shelves in 1999 and knocked the RTS genre onto its ear, daring to use a fully 3D environment and replace the omnipresent tanks and infantry with star fighters, corvettes, and frigates. It was followed by the awe-inspiring Homeworld Cataclysm, although Cataclysm was more of a mission pack than a progressive step forward.
Though Homeworld2 may technically be a sequel, it too doesn't distance itself very far from the original, and in some ways feels like a mission pack itself. However, that doesn't stop it from being a completely addictive -- if sometimes incredibly difficult -- addition to the Homeworld universe.
The Hiigaran, descendants of the Kushan whose home you helped reclaim in the original Homeworld, now face a new test. It just may be the coming of the End Time, characterized by the appearance of the Sajuuk-Khar, a sort of second coming of a demigod Sajuuk. A member of the warlike race of the Vaygr believes he is the Sajuuk-Khar. Now, using the hyperspace core from the original mothership, the Hiigaran build a new mothership to take on the Vaygr, to defend their home, to find out what really lies in the shaded past of its race.
The plot is advanced through the use of black and white video -- just as it was in the original Homeworld -- and the similarities don't end there. The Hiigaran mothership in Homeworld2 is identical to the Kushan mothership from Homeworld. The graphics, though filled with more detail, higher polygon models, and newfangled lighting effects, look almost identical to the untrained eye. Ships still leave funky trails behind them as they zip through the galaxy. Space combat still consists of your and the enemy's ships making passes at each other unleashing torrents of lasers, missiles, photon beams, and other beams and projectiles at each other.
Homeworld2 employs the same resource management model as the original. There's only one resource to collect, imaginatively called resource units, or RUs, which are mined from asteroids by your resource collectors. Homeworld2 is, at its heart, an RTS, so you use those resources to build offensive, defensive, and utility units. The offensive units consist of a number of ships, from tiny scouts and fighters to massive destroyers and battlecruisers. Defensive units are weapons platforms. Utility units are things like resource collectors, mobile refineries for processing resources, probes, sensors, and so on. Though all of your ships are mobile, there's still some Command and Conquer style base building; you'll rarely move your mothership, so it, your carriers, your shipyard, and your defensive weapon platforms are, functionally, a base.
The mechanics of moving ships around, issuing attack orders, and other necessities is another carryover from the original. Space is three-dimensional, so you not only move your units forward, backward, left and right, but also up and down. This aspect of the original Homeworld offered a new dimension (pun intended) of strategy to the RTS genre: now you could flank not only from left or right, but from above and below. It's easier than it sounds to navigate 3D space: simply hold the shift key when you're issuing a move order to jump off of the 2D plane and raise or lower the reticle.
Not everything about Homeworld2 is identical to the original. Relic tackled one of the original's points of contention -- mind-numbing micromanagement -- with a multifold strategy that achieves mixed results. For one thing, when you order your mothership or carrier to build small ships, such as fighters and corvette class ships, they actually build squadrons, not individual ships. You never directly control a single interceptor or bomber or other small vessel; you issue commands to a squadron of three or five.
Secondly, Relic has meshed squadron behavior and formation management. You no longer assign squads of ships into a formation of your choosing; instead, you tell them how you want them to handle it when the enemy approaches, passive, aggressive, or defensive. Each tactics setting has its own formation. This is a disappointment; selecting an appropriate formation for the missions we had in mind was one of the micromanagement details we liked in the original.
Happily, Relic made it possible to combine groups of dissimilar ships into strike groups. This goes above and beyond the standard RTS grouping system in which you band-box a clump of units and hit control-plus-a-number to form groups that are quickly selectable. All of the ships in a strike group travel as fast as the slowest vessel so that they stay together -- this makes it easier to coordinate an attack with different ships that move different speeds.
Another new twist is a ship called the marine frigate. It's used not to destroy enemy ships, but to board and capture them. You control captured spaceships as if they were your own. Unfortunately, it's tough to use marine frigates: they're weak and lightly armored so they can't take much damage. We didn't use them at all in multiplayer matches or skirmishes. There are instances in the single-player campaign which require you to utilize a marine frigate to accomplish a mission goal.
Finally, warships can now target specific systems on the larger vessels. For instance, rather than focus a general blast of firepower on whatever bit of hull is nearest, you can target, say, a capital ship's engines, or a carrier's ship making facilities. This comes in pretty handy; to prevent an enemy carrier from spamming you with fighters, you can take out its fighter facility much faster than you can destroy the entire ship.
The single-player campaign of Homeworld2 consists of about fifteen missions, most of which contain a wide number of objectives and phases that not only carry you from one point in the mission to another, but also move the game's plot along while you play. That's what makes playing Homeworld2 an addictive experience: you'll want to hang around for just one more phase, until the next nugget of the delicious plot is revealed, before you save the game and get some sleep. The campaign is totally linear, so you can't choose your next mission, nor can you advance to a new mission before you've completed the preceding one.
The gameplay from one Homeworld game to the next may be similar, but the difficulty is not. The single-player campaign in Homeworld2 doesn't have a difficulty setting -- if it did, we'd think it was stuck on REALLY FREAKING HARD. Starting with the third mission, the enemy sends out wave after wave of a seemingly endless supply of ships to assault you, and defending your fleet consumes so much of your energy that it's tough to squeeze in the actual mission objectives. You'll need to build a few carriers, which, like your mothership, can produce new spaceships. You'll need a flotilla of resource collectors to keep your ship factories running at full capacity.
(One gem of knowledge we discovered: build a lot of different kinds of ships in every single mission, whether you need them or not. Your fleet carries over from one mission to the next, and the more ships and squadrons you have to defend you at the start of a mission, the greater your chance is of surviving that mission.)
Skirmishes against the computer are as difficult as single-player missions, even against AI opponents set on easy. Even as we were building up our fleet, deploying resource collectors, cranking out fighters and gunships, the enemy was already attacking and spewing forth vessels that we didn't yet have the technology to build. Far be it for us to accuse our PC of cheating, but it's building up quite a case against its good name.
Multiplayer matches against real humans are much more satisfying. Homeworld2 supports LAN play for up to six players. Players can simply battle for supremacy, or use diplomatic options to team up and wipe out mutual enemies. Battles start out slowly, with players building up resources, forming fleets, and setting up defenses. Gradually, it transforms into a frenetic struggle to build, form squads, and attack, while simultaneously protecting your all-important mothership.
We've spent a lot of time harping on Homeworld2 for being too similar to Homeworld, and it's a fair comparison. It's also true, however, that the original Homeworld was a brilliant game, a genre-busting RTS that brought a whole new meaning to the idea of space opera, and Homeworld2 preserves the good things we found in the original: the moody, ominous music, thrilling space combat, and the feeling of being a part of a sweeping epic.
If you're expecting something more than the original Homeworld offered, you're not going to find it in Homeworld2. Save for a few tweaks to the interface and mechanics, a fabulous storyline, and improved graphics, there's not much new here. However, if you were addicted to the original Homeworld, then Homeworld2 is a must for you, and if you're totally new to the Homeworld experience, Homeworld 2 is a terrific, challenging and engrossing way to jump aboard the saga.
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