Game Review: Homeworld 2

I just finished playing Homeworld 2. All in all, it was a hell of a game, just as engaging as its predecessors Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm. Not perfect, mind you, but still pretty damn amazing.

I just finished playing Homeworld 2. All in all, it was a hell of a game, just as engaging as its predecessors Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm. Not perfect, mind you, but still pretty damn amazing.

The Good:

The game, to nobody’s surprise, looks absolutely awesome. The grand starscapes of the first and second games are still there, of course. Ship design is top notch: Hiigaran ships are similar to their Homeworld counterparts, but far more advanced, and look amazing, from the sharp-edged Interceptor to the exquisitely sleek and deadly Battlecruiser. This was a far cry from the Cataclysm ships. The command ship in that game—a self-sufficient mining vessel called the Kuun-Lan—wasn’t exactly stylish or pretty, and neither were its auxiliary ships; however, they did share a very solid, very functional design, of which I thoroughly approve. But honestly, when all’s said and done, sleek and deadly’s the way to go if you’re playing a space-battle game. Vaygr ships are interesting; some have an odd asymmetrical look that was a bit startling the first I saw it, but have now decided is very cool. As are the Progenitor ships, blocky and deceptively rough-looking. The Bentusi Mothership looks quite nice, though I have to question its very existence. More on that later.

The soundtrack also earns my love. While Homeworld’s music was very atmospheric and New-Age-y, and Cataclysm’s was more punchy and action-oriented, Homeworld 2 brings us a beautiful soundtrack with a variety of rousing ethnic rhythms that kicks large amounts of ass. Truly the best of both worlds. The voice of Fleet Command is back, and boy have I missed her. The most emotional part of Homeworld, for me, took place at the very beginning, when Fleet Command ran through her startup checklist in her cool, emotionless voice, ending with “The Mothership has cleared the scaffold. We are away.” They repeated these lines almost word for word in Homeworld 2, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t have the same punch. In the first game, the Hiigarans were about to set off on their greatest adventure, the search for their ancestral home. In Homeworld 2, we’re just running away from a Vaygr attack. Blah. Although I have to admit, the shutdown checklist at the end of Mission 14, as Fleet Command left the Mothership and prepared to transfer to Sajuuk, was a very nice touch, and quite affecting.

(Don’t get me wrong. The voices of Ship Tactical and Ship Command in Homeworld: Cataclysm were very good. Tactical seemed older, experienced, a veteran of many space battles and a total pro. She never once lost her cool, no matter how bad things seemed. Command, however, seemed younger and more nervous, probably recently took command of the Kuun-Lan and never expected to do more with it than, well, mine a lot of asteroids—which was its function, after all. And, granted, things are a bit tense for most of the game, since the Kuun-Lan accidentally unleashed a horrible sentient biomechanical plague that threatens all life in the galaxy and against which they have—at first—no serious defense. But really, is that any reason to panic?)

Some of the gameplay has been improved. I appreciate how the Build, Research and Launch Managers only take up about a quarter of the screen, and are slightly transparent to boot, allowing me to manage my fleet with no break in the action. The concept of ship upgrades, introduced in Cataclysm, has been taken to a whole new level. It’s now possible to target individual subsystems on capital ships and Motherships (engines for all; ion turrets on Battlecruisers; resourcing and production facilities on Carriers. And so on). Two major differences between Cataclysm and Homeworld 2: research costs resources as well as time; but on the bright side, strike craft don’t need to dock to get upgraded.

The single-player missions are really, really hard. Which I like. Why did some reviewers complain about that? Come on, don’t you want to be challenged?

The Not So Good:

So, what, I can’t pick my ship colours for the single-player game? That was the best part! Okay, not really, but it’s still a bit annoying. Yes, you can pick colours for the multi-player battles (and not just your colours, but your fleet badge, which I thought was a lovely touch. If you ever wanted to wear the emblems of Kiith Nabal or Kiith Manaan, or some of the other Kiithid we saw in Cataclysm, now you can.) But for the single-player missions, we’re stuck with the default blue, white and grey colour scheme. Which is fine, really, no big complaints, but I just wish I had a choice.

And we’re back to unit caps? Sigh. One of the best innovations of Homeworld: Cataclysm was the concept of Support Units. Though it restricted you to a very small fleet at first, later on gave you a lot of flexibility. You weren’t bound by arbitrary limits of, let’s say, 14 fighter squadrons, 12 corvette squadrons and 20 frigates. If you wanted to focus more on fighters and less on frigates, then you were plum out of luck. 14 squadrons was all you could build, no matter how few frigates were on the field.

A few aspects of the gameplay are somewhat questionable. The taskbar is vastly expanded and shows all commands (moving, attacking, even specialized functions). Was this really necessary, or even useful? How many people will try to click on these icons instead of using the keyboard shortcuts? Also, each mission ends as soon as all objectives are complete. You don’t have the option of hanging around and rebuilding your fleet before moving on. All resources are collected automatically, but as soon as one mission’s done, you’re outa there. I’m not sure if this counts as a positive or negative. On the one hand, it does make the game faster-paced and more challenging, and clearly it’s not such a huge handicap if I still got to the end. On the other hand, it’s a pretty radical and unexpected deviation from the first two games. So, I’m torn. Intellectually I know I shouldn’t mind, but emotionally I don’t like it.

Now, let’s look at the story. To be blunt, it makes no fucking sense. The story in Homeworld was fairly straightforward: the Hiigarans discover that their planet is in fact not their home; genetic analysis proves they are unrelated to most other life around them, and the discovery of an ancient millenia-old starship (containing an ancient starmap that seems to point to a planet of origin) clinches it. The Hiigarans decide to reverse-engineer the old hulk and build a massive mothership, designed to carry a large fraction of their population, and look for home. And immediately run into their old enemies the Taiidani, who exiled them from their homeworld so long ago. The Hiigarans have to fight every step of the way to reclaim their home and heritage, and learn their forgotten history. Simple, yet epic. Me like.

Homeworld: Cataclysm’s story was a bit more twisted, but the setting and initial premises flowed from the events in Homeworld. Fifteen years after reclaiming Hiigara, things aren’t exactly rosy for the former exiles. They face serious political and social problems at home and abroad, including near-constant warfare with some remnants of the Taiidan Empire, who—quite correctly—blame the Hiigarans for killing their rightful emperor and breaking their hold on the galaxy, upsetting thousands of years of political stability all in the name of looking for home. Though to be fair, many if not most Taiidani were quite happy losing the aggressive, oppressive lunatic on the throne. (It’s all in how you look at it, I guess.) A few missions in we’re introduced to the Beast—a biomechanical virus with a strange collective intelligence, which can take over both machines and people—and the main plot gets underway. Yet even here, the story grows logically, step by step. In between fighting Beast-infected fleets and Taiidani Imperial forces, the Kuun-Lan uncovers the origin of the Beast and how to eradicate it, and—shockingly—learn that it has allied with Taiidani Imperials, so full of hate and resentment that they’re willing to jeapordize their future for just one more shot at Hiigara. It’s a paranoid little story, where friend becomes foe, bitter people choose revenge over survival, losing means a fate worse than death, and the good guys are very much alone. All that, and extremely challenging missions. What’s not to love?

Homeworld 2’s story, by contrast, is very much standalone, introduces plot points out of nowhere and—even more frustratingly—contradicts what has gone before with no good reason. The initial cutscene and first couple of missions introduces the Vaygr—essentially an interstellar Mongol horde led by a religious fanatic, who have their eye on the Hiigaran system—and the concept of the Three Far Jumper Cores, ancient hyperspace technology that allow ships to cross vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye. One such Core is in the possession of the Vaygr. The second was found by the Hiigarans in the derelict ship, and incorporated into the first Mothership for their journey home. A hundred years later a second Mothership has been built, also housing the Second Core.

This is the first problem: how is it that Fleet Command is still alive after a hundred years? Here’s the second problem: Why build a new Mothership? Was it in response to the Vaygr attacks? Third problem: there was never any previous hint that the Mothership’s hyperspace technology was in any way special. In fact, there was good reason to think it wasn’t: we learned in Homeworld that Hiigarans were exiled in a whole convoy of ships, only one of which eventually made planetfall. Were they all carrying Far Jumpers? Why would the Taiidani have let powerless, disgraced exiles get away with this unique technology? Absurd as it seemed, it was necessary to set up the main plot, to wit: a prophecy. It seems the Hiigarans are destined to reunite the Core Trinity. Whoever does this would apparently gain great power, power with which to reshape the galaxy and begin a whole new age. This prophecy is delivered by the Bentusi, an ancient star-faring race who were the Hiigarans’ only allies during their homeward journey, delivering crucial technology and advice. They appear here in a great-looking new ship, reminiscent of their old design but seriously jazzed up. As impressive as the visual was, this again seemed unnecessary.

So off the Hiigarans go, hunting down clues as to the Third Core’s location, all the while trying to stay ahead of the Vaygr who also seek to reunite the Cores. Eventually they go up against the Vaygr leader, destroy his command ship and take his Core. The Core Trinity is reunited inside Sajuuk, an ancient mythical ship created by the Progenitors, the mysterious race that first developed hyperspace technology and built the Cores. (It turns out that the third Core was housed in the Bentusi Mothership.) Under the control of Fleet Command, Sajuuk moves to eliminate the remaining Vaygr forces. The end? Not quite. In a surprise twist, just as Sajuuk and the rest of the good guys confront the Vaygr in orbit around Hiigara, a number of unknown ships appear out of hyperspace and start bombarding Hiigara. Who are they? Not Bentusi, not Hiigaran, not Taiidan, not Progenitor. Were they allied with the Vaygr? Who knows? Where did they come from? My guess is, the writers’ asses.

Now it’s the end. Time for that new era of peace and prosperity.

Okay, I’ll admit. This story had some good moments. The start of Mission 8, when the Hiigaran discovers the Gatekeeper of Sajuuk, a Dreadnought-class ship that had remained dormant for millenia. My thoughts during that cutscene ran more or less as follows: “Holy cow, this looks cool”—as the view swooped in towards the Gatekeeper’s berth—“Oh, shit, it’s still active!”—as lights blinked on on the ship’s surface and it slowly began to move—“Ohmigawd, this music is amazing.” There’s the transfer of Fleet Command to Sajuuk, which I’ve already mentioned. The closing cutscene and credits, nicely grand and cosmic. But those Big Cosmic Moments weren’t connected in any interesting way, and there were some moments that were… not so good, where it felt the writers were deliberately trying to recapture the magic of the first two games. For example, Fleet Command’s startup checklist in Mission 1 (already mentioned), and the Bentusi’s sacrifice in Mission 10 to destroy the Keepers, seemingly indestructible Progenitor ships. This felt too reminiscent of the scene in Homeworld: Cataclysm where another Bentusi ship blew itself up (and most of the attacking fleet) rather than become infected by the Beast.

Don’t let that stop you from enjoying Homeworld 2, though. I still highly recommend it, especially if you’ve enjoyed its predecesors. And if you can ignore the silly plot and enjoy the Big Moments, more power to you. When all’s said and done, Homeworld 2 is a truly superb game.