1st Aug 2003 | 15:55
After four years in a black hole, the sequel to Canada's space masterpiece is about to dock... Veteran pilot Richie Shoemaker plots a course for prog rock heaven
Faux prog rock crackles through my headphones and vapour trails claw across the starfield spread before me. I have sent hundreds of small fighter craft to attack a vast defenceless mothership, laser fire pouring from their cannons, the whole scene reminiscent of some computerised re-enactment of human fertilisation. Sperm flock towards egg, tails flick wildly behind - all to the strains of what sounds like an Ozric Tentacles number. Far out, man.
Before you ask, no I haven't been smoking banana skins. I've been playing Homeworld 2, sequel to Relic's groundbreaking 3D RTS, for longer than common sense deems prudent. And though the version sitting on my hard drive is far from complete, there's enough to give a very good idea of what to expect from the sequel to one of the finest strategy games ever devised.
True to plan, the aim of the game is to lead your race from the besieged home planet you fought so hard to find in the original game to salvation among the stars. It's obvious, even after a few minutes play, that Relic has put some considerable effort into telling a good story, as opposed to just ripping it from the opening titles of Battlestar Galactica. Again, the developers have opted to narrate the linear quest with their trademark sketchy cut-scenes, now overlaid with in-engine cinematics that complement the epic tale. It's far from spectacular by today's standards, but atmospheric and unhurried nonetheless.
Best Fleet Forward
But it is of course the battles that made Homeworld what it was, and in Homeworld 2 they're just as epic. Hundreds of years have passed since the original tale, so the ships are of course all new, though fulfilling much the same functions. Fighters, bombers, corvettes, frigates, destroyers and capital ships make up the bulk of your fleet, and though there are a few new additions, the general lack of new and unique ships may come as a slight disappointment. Certainly, some of the new craft are quite cool, like the Marine Frigate that allows you to board and capture enemy carriers, but there's nothing on the scale of the bio-mechanical menace that was introduced in Homeworld: Cataclysm. Let's hope this changes before release.
Where the developer seems to have concentrated most of its attention is on the graphics and user interface. The crude and empty backdrops that characterised the original game are now replaced by a universe of bright stars, distant planets and ominous gas clouds. The wrecks of long-dead ships litter the galaxy, each offering vital materials to recycle, and often a squadron of enemy interceptors ready to pounce on an unguarded Resource Collector drone.
Ships offer an impressive amount of detail - the larger craft especially - but it's the sheer numbers of them that's more impressive. Watching hundreds of fighters escorting wings of bombers as they flit about an enemy Carrier, missiles streaming into the unguarded hull - well, it's probably the most impressive sight in sci-fi gaming today. Group your ships into a Strike Fleet and they can progress at the speed of the slowest ship, yet click on an enemy ship and the fastest among them will peel away, while the Missile Cruisers and Ion Frigates will pound away from a distance.
The point is that unlike the original game, you can at last appreciate the scale of the destruction you're inflicting on the enemy, rather than having to master the over-complicated controls and miss the action as a result. Sweeping your view to get a good squint is masterfully simple and though the tactical options are fewer (there's no longer the same wealth of formation options, for instance) the effects are much more pleasing. Getting into the action is far quicker too. Smaller ships are ready-built into pre-organised wings, so 50 fighters can be built in a matter of minutes, making it far easier to assemble a hasty defence if you see a fleet of frigates approaching your Mothership at speed.
On present form, it looks very much like Relic has succeeded in fixing all that was wrong with the original title, while building on the game's obvious strengths. The interface is indescribably better and more streamlined, and while perhaps not offering the wealth of tactical minutiae of Homeworld, it should ultimately make this version all the more enjoyable for veterans, as well as newcomers.
On the downside, there's not all that much in the way of innovation on display - the ships stick to the established template, the resource management seems hardly changed and the research options offer very much the same upgrades as before. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a return of Homeworld's supply system and a multi-map system as seen in Conquest: Frontier Wars, but these are minor quibbles at best.
Ultimately, it's difficult to see many veteran Homeworld fans being upset at the state of this epic sequel. It's lavish in detail, rich in gameplay and hugely atmospheric. And the space battles are among the most magnificent we've ever seen. If, as we suspect, Relic still has a few novel surprises up its sleeve, Homeworld 2 could meet every one of our lofty expectations.