Homeworld (PC) review
"The many skirmishes of Homeworld are punctuated by long periods of cold, dead silence, with the gentle hum of your shipsí engines contributing to it rather than breaking it. There is no sound in vacuum space, of course, and while Homeworld does break this rule, few other games are this adept at conveying such an appropriately quiet atmosphere. For as action-packed as the campaign often is, itís the frequent stillness that stays with you. "
The many skirmishes of Homeworld are punctuated by long periods of cold, dead silence, with the gentle hum of your shipsí engines contributing to it rather than breaking it. There is no sound in vacuum space, of course, and while Homeworld does break this rule, few other games are this adept at conveying such an appropriately quiet atmosphere. For as action-packed as the campaign often is, itís the frequent stillness that stays with you.
Even after youíve conversed with a few friendly trade ships and engaged in hundreds of intense battles with enemy fleets, itís hard to shake the feeling that youíre alone out here in the dark depths of space, and that you could travel billions of miles without encountering a single life form. Less than an hour into the campaign, you return from a simple rescue mission to discover that your homeworld has been all but annihilated in your absence. As the planet burns, the only viable course of action is to recover what few citizens remain and set off to a new, unknown destination. Youíre wandering through space with no home and no friends, and you are now a member of an endangered species. Itís lonely, and thatís exactly how outer space should feel.
Itís a lot of pressure knowing that an entire race stands directly in front of you, and that a single tactical fault could mean the difference between survival and extinction. A relentlessly challenging campaign ensures that youíre aware of the stakes, as Homeworldís mission to bring the realm of real-time strategy into space presents an entirely new angle from which we must approach these games. Enemy units can now come from any direction Ė even above or below you Ė and sneak attacks can be virtually impossible to predict, since your opposition could be a miles and miles away. And when they do come, there are no barricades, bunkers or trenches from which to defend yourself. Itís just you and the enemy, suspended in a vacuum, relying on pure wits to best one another.
The very reason youíre on the run is because your species unknowingly broke a 4,000-year-old treaty in which they agreed not to develop hyperspace technology. Your flagships are equipped with hyperdrives, and each jump conveniently bookends a chapter. It also, however, presents a fascinating and potentially terrifying twist: continuity. The fleet that exits a hyperspace jump is the same fleet that entered a few seconds prior. Your ships carry from one mission to the next, you see, and when you lose one, itís gone for good. Obviously, collecting resources, fabricating units and researching new technology are all actions that figure significantly into the design, but the odds are rarely in your favor, and Homeworld, more than most games, dares you to accomplish major tasks with very little at your disposal.
The realization quickly sets in that a single error could hamper your progress for the remainder of the game, and may even force you to replay entire segments of the campaign. Thatís because Homeworld, above all else, strives to make you a better player. Itís not enough to win; your prospects need to look pretty sunny, too. Assembling an assault force and going straight for the enemy mothership at the outset can be an extremely effective strategy, as long as you hit it early and focus all of your firepower on the target until it falls. But heavy defenses will bring down several of your capital ships and most of your fighters and corvettes, leaving you with much less to work with when the next (presumably harder) mission rolls around. And what if all of your resource collectors are shot down in the thick of battle, and you donít have enough resources to build another one? Then youíll find yourself at a devastating dead end. Recklessness can be fun, but thereís no place for it in an environment where a slip-up can be so costly.
At the center of it all is your own mothership, which serves as your base of operations and the heart of your fleet. The very first shot of the campaign has the camera sweeping over its exterior, and itís a humbling sight; even with an outdated graphics engine, itís not difficult to marvel at its intricate beauty. Yet despite dwarfing everything else around it, your mothership is one of the few weaponless units in the game. As such, you feel obligated to protect it, and when its safety is threatened, Homeworldís already considerable level of pressure kicks into high gear. An early scenario has your fleet traveling through an asteroid field and struggling to destroy any space rocks on a collision course with your mothership, and itís an intense assignment in the subtlest, most restrained of ways. Living threats are even worse: An early situation has an enemy carrier, reinforcing a seemingly never-ending squadron of fighters, going straight for your base while your armada is still underdeveloped. Battling in space can give you a lot of breathing room, and Homeworld often does, but itís amazing to see developer Relic Entertainment pull a switcheroo like that and make such an encounter feel tight, tense, and claustrophobic.
Taking into account the high stakes, the penalty of death and the unpredictable design, Homeworld is really a strategy game in the purest sense, because everything matters, and everything must be taken into consideration. The game is less about the battles themselves and more about the thought processes that lead to them. If your opponents are camped near an asteroid belt, youíd be smart to seek out and destroy their resource collectors, not just to limit their own production, but to save more resources for yourself. And then, when all enemies are cleared of the area, do you launch the hyperdrive sequence immediately, or do you hold off on it for a while and collect the unclaimed dust clouds and nebulas still floating around, lest you leave this level permanently and be that much shorter on resources in the future?
The brilliance of Homeworld is that, for all of its complexities, its minimalistic interface could not possibly be simpler to operate. All major actions are performed with a single rollover taskbar, and aside from that, itís just you and outer space, unobstructed and clean of any distractions. And thatís what itís about, isnít it? Here, you have command over an entire starship armada, and a limitless array of options lies in front of you, yet the means to carry them out could be learned in only a few minutes. All of Homeworldís innovations Ė it is an RTS in space, after all Ė would be lost if they werenít made presentable, and thatís exactly what makes it a modern model for the genre. A decade later, the gaming world is still trying to catch up.
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