Written by: Stoo

Date posted: February 2, 2002

The big guns let rip - the blue beam is an enemy returning fire.

Any of you readers remember Battlestar Galactica? Well, actually I haven’t watched much of it myself, as most of what have seen is pretty poor (Though it is amusing to see a pre A -Team Dirk Benedict in action). However, the basic idea behind the series – an exiled race trying to make their way their way to a new home through deep space – still has merit, and must have provided at least some of the inspiration for this classic space-based RTS from Relic.

The plot is as follows: a race of people have long lived on the desert world of Kharak, and in fact they can’t remember ever having been anywhere else. However, they one day discover the ruins of an ancient spacecraft beneath the sands. It contains a starmap with directions to another planet on the other side of the galaxy, labeled simply “home”, and also (quite conveniently) plans for hyperspace technology. Deciding that anything has to be better than staring at sand and and throwing things at camels for fun, the people of Kharak pour vast resources into constructing a huge Mothership. Along with a crew it carries several hundred thousand people in suspended animation. The Mothership’s mission is to forge a path across the galaxy to colonise this world, that may in fact be these people’s place of origin.

Unfortunately the path to the Homeworld is a dangerous one; there are pirates preying on travelers, religious fanatics lurking in a nebula, and an obligatory Evil Empire that would much rather your lowly race stays where it was put. The Mothership will therefore have to locate resources during its journey, and construct a fledgling fleet with which to defend itself.

So then, Homeworld is strategy of the real-time kind, involving fleets of warships, fighters and freighters. This has been a crowded genre for many years now, so how did this one manage to stand out?

Well, one of the main selling points of Homeworld originally was that it basks in the 3D glory of full spinny-rotating viewing and motion. Of course, we have generally come to expect 3D as about par for the course in strategy these days. However, to this day Homeworld is one of the few games to really make good use of this to enhance gameplay, rather than being merely aesthetically pleasing.

The bane of 3D strategy can be a clumsy control system, but HW is incredibly slick and effective in this area. Instead of letting you freely pann your point-of-view across the map, it is instead always locked to a ship (or group of ships). You can then rotate the POV around this ship; imagine being on the surface of a sphere, looking inwards with the ship at the centre. You can move north-south or east-west on this sphere, or re-size it to zoom in our out. Trust me, it’s simple in practice, and you can easily click on another ship to select and lock your view to it. If you want to quickly see what a ship on the other side of the level is up to, just flick to the map and select it from there.

There are a few limitations to the 3D-freedom; ships are generally forced to orient themselves to the same “right way up”, and don’t have all rotational degrees of freedom available. In essence, a common sense of “horizontal and vertical” is stamped on the action, when such concepts are largely meaningless in outer space. However, it would be tricky to explain further without drawing diagrams and turning this into a lesson in vectors. For now, suffice to say a few sacrifices are made for the sake of ease and avoiding a mind-twisting set of controls. Be assured though that ships can move and fire in all directions, which is the most important factor here. I certainly haven’t seen any similar games show anything closer to “absolute” 3d freedom.

Corvette on a strafing run.

What’s good is that you can move your view in in for a dramatic view of your destroyer crashing into enemy lines, or zoom right out far enough to get a good view of the the whole battle, and hand out orders. I have to say that in many 3D strategy games I keep the view directly overhead at the maximum distance, because it gets too confusing trying to repeatedly alter the POV, and I don’t want to be stuck in a visually impressive but tactically useless view. In Homeworld, however, I can easily flick from one view to another, and get the best of both being in the middle of the action, and precisely directing the ships. I suppose that being in space itself can’t hurt in this aspect, as there is an obvious lack of ground to get in the way.

What also helps is the entirely uncluttered interface; it takes up virtually nothing of the screen you can accomplish just about anything in a couple of clicks. Although, the flip side of that is that you must leave the action and go to separate screens to control manufacturing and launching of fighters.

In terms of graphical quality, Homeworld is starting to show its age in these days of the super-turbocharged Geforce4, and the ships are a little chunky in their design. Still, your fleet in action remains an impressive sight. Fighters hurtle across space, dodging and weaving with amazing agility, Destroyers meanwhile lumber around, their turrets tracking enemy ships in a menacing fashion until within firing range, at which point they let loose with a hail of shells. Even more fun are the ion cannons carried by larger vessels, which scythe across hulls of enemy ships with devastating results. At times it almost feels like you’re commanding your forces in an episode of Babylon 5; the game engine can throw plenty of ships around, so when two large fleets engage each other it’s amazing just to watch the battle progress. Even when things get really chaotic you don’t get frustrated but rather lost in the moment, trying to regroup the fighters whilst pulling a damaged cruiser out of the action and at the same time bring in reinforcement corvettes.

Salvage Corvettes let you steal almost any kind of enemy ship. They're actually a bit overpowered.

The range of ships available is not huge, but there’s a fairly comprehensive selection available. Fighters come in several types such as defenders and bombers, and along with the corvettes they come under the category of Strike craft – cheap, small and fast. They carry a limited supply of fuel, which adds an extra concern to your tactics as you may need some kind of support vessel handy to give them a refill. Capital ships meanwhile range from the fairly unexciting but reliable frigates to the massive cruisers. They generally wield impressive firepower but you can only field so many of them at once. They also tend to have difficulty hitting fast targets, so can be harassed and worn down with waves of fighters. There are even carriers which essentially function as mini-motherships, capable of building ships of up to frigate size, and can thus provide the big guns with a ready supply of escorts.

The traditional base-building of RTS games is stripped to a bare minimum here, as the mothership itself essentially is your base, apart from the research ships. Building more of these reduces the time needed to gain access to new technologies, and they link together in a nifty way to form a single vessel. The one thing that remains largely unchanged from the RTS template is gathering resources – you send out a harvesters to gather minerals. Another change from the norm with regards to the campaign is that at the end of each level you take your entire fleet through to the next mission, rather than building from scratch each time. Indeed, there aren’t enough resources on any one level to do so. This means that you have to be careful when deploying the powerful but expensive destroyers and cruisers. Even if you win the current battle, losing a couple of these heavyweights in the process could leave you at a disadvantage on later stages.

While it’s tempting to sit back and enjoy the fireworks, it helps to manage your forces with some degree of precision. For example a couple of frigates are heavily outgunned by a destroyer and pretty unlikely to win an encounter with one. However, they will survive longer and inflict more damage if you keep them manoeuvring to stay out of its forward firing arc, while support vessels hover nearby, ready to begin repairs but trying to ensure they aren’t attacked themselves. To add to your options in battle, you can set formations for groups of ships; a tight sphere or wall might be better for frigates, while the claw formation suits fighters. You can also adjust their attitudes to neutral, aggressive or evasive, which determines how far they balance getting shots in on the enemy with evading incoming fire. Let’s also reiterate that their motion is in full 3D – why attack an enemy cruiser head on when you can come in from beneath?

What makes battle that little bit more enjoyable is the fact that a face-off between roughly equal forces of capital ships will actually last a decent amount of time. In other words, this isn’t one of those games where one side or the other gets blown apart in the first few volleys. This means you do actually have time to manage your forces in battle once the firing starts: coordinating reinforcements, tying up enemy ships and so on.

The only real problem with the the execution of this game is in some of the balancing between various unit types. Later in the game fighters and corvettes are simply too weak. Part of of this is down to them lacking the firepower to seriously dent something like a cruiser, but they are also swiftly murdered quickly by the specialised missile destroyer. Ideally what I might like to see in a game like this is using fighters to carry out surgical strikes on various parts of capital ships, i.e. taking out gun turrets or engines (update: since I first wrote this, the sequel implemented exactly that). For now, alas, you’ll find that in the last few missions they are useful for little more than distracting the enemy. The exception to this is the Salvage corvette, which you can use to steal enemy ships. It’s a good idea on paper, but these ships are perhaps too powerful. With practice, you can learn the trick of walking off with huge portions of the enemy fleet, vastly swelling your own numbers beyond the normal building limits.

Fleet in formation - that banana shaped thing at the back is the Mothership.

Anyhow, details aside there are two main races that you can play as; however the campaign is exactly the same for both, bar a couple of ship types unique to each side. Basically the one you pick takes the role of “exiled race finding their way home” and the other is then the “evil empire standing in their way”. Still, I won’t complain too hard as over the span of about 17 missions the campaign tells quite an epic story, from the first launch of the Mothership through to the final battle for the homeworld. There’s a few twists along the way, and without giving too much away some very tragic circumstances in the early stages lend poignancy to the exiles’ quest. It’s impressive that the story really does draw you in, despite there being little in the way of individual characters.

Aside from the few complaints so far outlined, only other aspect of the game that’s not great is the musical score, which is for the most part pretty forgettable. There are however two interesting pieces used under license. One is a classic piece by Barber called Agnus Dei, which fits the mood of the game very well (especially in the opening sequences) but is maybe a little over-used. The other is a song specially written and recorded by veteran rock band Yes. Now, a lot of reviewers sneered at their old-fashioned style (such people probably think games should be full of chronic bleepy dance music) but again it really does suit the theme behind Homeworld. The sound effects meanwhile are more than adequate, and your units gain a little extra character from the radio chatter as they go about their business on a bombing run, or returning from a mining trip with a hold full of ore.

So there you have it. Homeworld is quite possibly my favourite RTS to date; the interface is great, the tactical gamplay utterly absorbing and it still looks quite respectable. Although some very good RTS games have come out since, within the space-based subset its only superiors are probably its own sequels. As it’s out on budget, there really is therefore very little excuse for not owning this. Go on! Fleets of warships under your command in massive space battles! I’m surprised anyone could resist such a thing…