Acclaimed by the developers and most press members as being the best space sim of its time, Homeworld, originally released in 1999, really set the benchmark for the genre. With the vast array of features, and never before seen visuals at the time, it is hard to argue the "best 3D space sim in the universe" claim of the developers, because it was that damn good. However the genre has changed since 1999, we've seen a few new entries into the market, and while the classic Homeworld gameplay still challenges the new comers, the dated graphics and general age has made is somewhat redundant. Luckily, fans of the series can enjoy space RTS action designed for today's market with Homeworld 2. Can this much anticipated space sim put the series back on track as the "universe's best"? I'm whilling to bet a planet on it!
With every good game comes a good storyline, and Homeworld 2 is no exception. Without going into lengthy detail, you take control of the Hiigarans, who have a vivid history of freedom fighting and what not. As they return to their homeland Hiigara, these exiles expected a peaceful and problem free future, however as fate would have it, their real problems have just begun with a new and hateful enemy. Combined with real-time events and story twists, Homeworld 2 offers a reasonably compelling and interesting story, for the first time in a while in a game, I actually enjoyed the creatively rendered storyline cut-scenes.
Even if I am familiar with a particular game, I tend to load the tutorial up incase I miss any handy features. The tutorial included in Homeworld 2 is not overly detailed, but that is ok, because it covers the bare essentials and some advanced functions very easily and painlessly. The tutorial runs very smoothly between each task, so you'll be familiarized with the game in no time.
Once in-game, Homeworld 2 really puts the mind to work without delay. Before you can say "you sunk my battleship", the action arrives right at your door step with a well organised attack on your docked mothership and respective fleet. This initial battle is quite intense, and while the outcome (presuming you are successful) lends itself to the storyline, I really don't think such difficulty should be initiated so soon into the game. Nevertheless, I only had very little experience with the original Homeworld and was not forced to restart the mission, however I only just barely made it through. Fans of the series, on the other hand, probably won't have any dramas, but it is certainly a weird part of the game to force the player into advanced combat, being the first mission and all.
However, while the initial gameplay is indeed challenging, the execution of commands and orders is implemented in great fashion, and this helps to ease things up a little. If there is one thing that I hate in a space RTS, it is clunky multiple menu's, each with their own functions with no direct flow between them. Fortunately, Homeworld 2 does not suffer from this, infact it is quite the opposite, it excels in this area. Almost every single function, whether it be the build orders to the creation of strike teams, can be accessed by the ingame menu, always found at the bottom of the screen. Pretty much everything you'll ever need in the game is located here, and the design and accessibility of this menu is exceptional. This feature defines the cliche of "simplicity and complexity", wrapped up into one. It is spectacular to see well designed menu systems making a return to this genre.
So, how does the actual action stack up? Seeing as building and research is generally as expected, the only component I'll comment on is the combat action, and to put it as simply as possible - wow! Ok, I'll be the first to admit I'm no hardcore space RTS fan, so my perspective may be based on relatively primitive knowledge, but I can honestly say this is one of the most impressive RTS combat subsystems I've ever experienced, even outside the space genre. For one, and this goes hand-in-hand with the graphics, upgrades to carrier and mother ships are represented visually on the ship. Should you wish to take out the carrier's engines, fighter development module or any other upgrade/module, you can select your units to attack it, providing you're zoomed in enough to see it. What this does is create a new depth of combat strategy, instead of gradually chipping away the health points of a massive carrier ship, you can practically render them useless with planned attacks on key modules. A mother ship is pretty useless if it can't move due to busted engines, and can't produce due to destroyed production modules, which is much quicker than trying to blow it sky high...or is that star high.
The smaller units, though, do not have such detail, but that is not a problem really. For one, they'd be too small to select specific onboard targets in real-time like you can on the larger carriers, not to mention the fact their health point total is far less than the carrier/mother ships so generic hull attacks are still relatively quick. However, the added cool factor of being able to target weapons or engines of ships of all sizes still remains true, maybe this is a feature we will see in future additions to the series, but I wouldn't lose any sleep if it wasn't.
Finally on the gameplay, Homeworld 2 attempts to join each mission together by bringing all your built units with you, from mission to mission. This is a very cool feature, as with a storyline like this, which basically consists of your fleet on continuous journey, it only makes sense to bring built units over to the next mission instead of just loading the default set. One thing to watch out for however is keeping up with the game's speed. Say you only just managed to successfully complete the previous mission. For the next mission, the same fleet will be used, and by the logical theory of new missions getting harder and harder as you progress, you may need some serious building time to get back up to speed. However, I didn't really experience this myself, if I failed a mission, it wasn't because my previous fleet took a beating in the last mission and I couldn't keep up, it was because I sucked, basically.
Games based in space have an incredible amount of potential for superb graphics, there is nothing as pretty as space clusters and galaxies when done right. While Homeworld 2 does look pretty good, it is no Haegemonia. Everything from the explosions to the somewhat lower quality textures leaves Homeworld 2 eating Haegemonia's dust, however if there is one thing that Homeworld 2 does better, it is model detail, specifically in the larger carrier ships. For example, as mentioned in the gameplay section above, if you research the fighter module, it will be represented visually on the ship, and the same goes for pretty much anything else that can be researched for carriers.
Compared to the original, Homeworld 2 is not visually innovative, atleast not innovative enough, to which I feel a little disappointed about. Nevermind though, the graphics still look pretty nice, it is just that after playing the new beta addon for Haegemonia, the transition was a little bumpy, specifically when in close camera range to units. The detail was there, but the quality wasn't.
With true three-dimensional environments, which means movement in any direction is possible, controlling in a game like Homeworld 2 would probably appear difficult to the majority of gamers. However, never fear, as this is one area Homeworld 2 masters. Without following the tutorial, new comers will have difficulties mastering all the controls amongst other things, however if you spend about 15 minutes getting acquainted with the controls via the tutorial, everything will become very clear and easy to utilize. Some functions are hidden with key combo's, for example shift + right click, which tends to get a little unconventional, but once you know them well enough, they become automatic.
Unlike some other space RTS titles, moving units by selecting and right clicking only moves them on their horizontal plane. To move up, you will need to use the left mouse key by holding it down and dragging your desired altitude, which is represented visually. This may sound a little bothersome, but believe me, it prevents a hell of a lot of mucking around getting units to the right place, and it is dead accurate. The time spent choosing the location for the horizontal and vertical planes is hardly a problem when you will never have to redo the location over again due to inaccuracies.
Haegemonia was acclaimed as, perhaps, one of the most detailed and complex space RTS games of the modern PC gaming world. However Homeworld 2 has considerable more detail in most areas, yet it is also considerably less complex. While the average gamer may find space RTS a little daunting, and Homeworld 2's difficulty level doesn't help there, anyone who enjoyed the original, or anyone who wants to venture into the space RTS gaming world, will find Homeworld 2 to be easily the best space RTS to date. With so many functions, ease of control and moderately detailed visuals to boot, there is little more to say here than "well done Sierra, Relic Entertainment, Vivendi and everyone else involved", because Homeworld 2 is going to be, without a doubt, a classic for the ages. For the moment though, this is a must buy, you simply can't go wrong with gameplay like this.