16th Oct 2003 | 10:18
The original Homeworld was a game of stunning playability and originality. As well as those cute little glowing trails behind the spacecraft, it took space strategy games to a whole new level by immersing the player in a 3D environment where you could move on both x and y axes. It was a groundbreaking concept that won countless awards, including one for bravery for rescuing a six-year-old boy out of a well. Actually, we could be wrong about that last part.
The plot of Homeworld 2 continues pretty much where events left off in HW. After the Taiidan were defeated, the Hiigarans returned to their homeworld with the hyperspace core. There, they began to build a new mothership and, as luck would have it, it's a project they complete just as a new threat known as the Vaygr attacks.
It's at this point the action kicks in with you assuming control of the mothership and whisking it away to safety. From here on in it's off into the big black yonder to find out what the Vaygr want and to then utterly destroy them regardless.
Same Again Please
Emulating the success of HW was never going to be easy. So, in taking the safe option, Relic has decided to keep the gameplay pretty much as it was. The linear, mission-driven plot puts the onus on massive battles against hundreds of whirling fighters and giant dreadnoughts.
In some sense this qualifies HW2 for admission in the 'is this just a glorified expansion pack?' debate. That said, the level of thought and detail that's gone into HW2 is imperious. And we're not just talking about the paint jobs on the fighters or a few rib-shaking explosions - it's the inner workings of the engine that moves the HW universe forward.
HW2 presents a tactical twist on the space combat genre by having spaceships comprise of various destructible sections. Essentially, the larger a spacecraft, the more destructible components it is made up from.
Take the carriers, for example. Straight out of the factory, they consist of engines at the rear, with the main bulk of the craft up front. But when upgraded, additional nodes like fighter and frigate manufacturing facilities, resource collection modules and more can be bolted on to the shell. The impressive thing about this is that ships do take on individual characteristics both visually and in their attack role. This lets you hone your fleet extensively. You can have two capital class ships - one specialising in marine frigate deployment (handy for taking control of enemy vessels) and the other for resource collection and repairs.Such attention to detail does have its drawbacks though. Destroying larger craft like the carriers is a tough and complex assignment. Launching bombers and gunships at it until there are so many plasma trails around they merge into one big glowing ball of string is not always the best idea. The most effective method is to target the most important areas first (such as the engines and ship production facilities) and then take the bloody thing to pieces bit by bit. For a seasoned pro this can be a highly rewarding experience, especially when it does finally - and spectacularly - disintegrate and explode in an orgy of pyrotechnical theatre.
If you're not so keen on getting down and dirty with such combat intricacies, things can get confusing and frustrating - not too mention downright bloody irritating. When you've just restarted the mission for the 10th time, and you're still not sure why that Vaygr carrier keeps mysteriously launching fighters at you despite the fact you've just blown away its fighter facility, it's not so easy to go all gooey-eyed over a few fireworks.
HW2 is certainly not for novice strategists. OK, it does feature a tutorial covering all aspects of interface and control, but it never elaborates too much. The lack of a difficulty setting doesn't help either. Like it or not, your choice is hard, hard or hard.
The skirmish mode is slightly more generous. There are three settings from which to choose here, with around 10 maps to try out. And take it from us, the most effective tutorial you can give yourself is to stick around here for a few hours playing on the easy setting. At least you get more time to work things out and see what goodies you can produce - oh, and it's good practice for multiplayer too.
Back in the campaign, free time is unheard of. The AI is cunning and rarely employs rush tactics. Instead, it wears defences down with wave after wave of measured assault. Defensive tactics are just as calculated; it will not hesitate to throw down half a dozen or so heavy gun platforms just to protect its resource collectors.
Individual ship AI is none too ropey either. On the whole your fleet respond well to situations. Fighters know exactly when to break off an attack on a frigate to engage an incoming fighter threat, and most units will automatically pursue targets if they are close enough. Equally, a destroyer set on defensive stance will not speed towards a lone approaching enemy fighter.
The AI does get a bit bilious when you start targeting individual sections of a ship. On one occasion our squadron of bombers eliminated a carrier's fighter facility and flew straight back to base without attacking the rest of the ship. OK, so their mission was to destroy that particular target, but smarter pilots would have tucked into the engines for good measure.
Unit selection and movement is also unpredictable at times. Moving ships into unoccupied space (and there's a lot of it) can sometimes send them shooting off in the weirdest directions. Using the right mouse button is especially problematic with the developer somehow contriving to place the commands 'rotate camera' and 'move' on the same button. Luckily, if you enter 'sensor' mode, you can zoom out to get a better view of the play area and partially avoid that problem.
One thing you can't avoid is cut-scenes interrupting you when you're in the middle of dragging a movement arrow through space. It wouldn't be so bad if the narrator of these cut-scenes (and the hand-drawn movies between each mission) didn't sound so suicidal. Thank god for the Esc key.
We Just Click
Despite getting occasionally tangled up with itself, HW2 still possesses that most crucial of 'Just One More Go' gameplay qualities. Eventually, there even comes a time when everything clicks into place. You discover it actually takes surprisingly few bombers to take down a carrier - they just need plenty of fighter escorts; the importance of mobile refineries; understanding the movement interface... Suddenly it all makes sense.
If you can reach that point, then HW2 becomes one of the most thrilling and absorbing strategy games on the PC. Of course, some will dismiss its gameplay as too similar to its predecessor's and we probably wouldn't argue. On the whole though, HW2 has enough ideas, detail and challenging qualities to keep even the deadliest space strategist entertained for a long, long time.