Game Name:  Homeworld
Developer:  Relic Entertainment
Publisher:  Sierra Entertainment
PC Release Year:  1999
Review Date:  November 3, 2013

As a self-described nerd, science fiction is naturally a part of who I am.  This was not an immediate interest, but more of an acquired taste.  It started with Star Wars, as it does with most kids who later find their imaginations wandering the cosmos.  Obi-Wan and R2-D2 were a means of connecting with my older brother, who I considered the coolest guy in the world.  Later, I would find myself bonding with my stepdad over Star Trek, and my best friends over Battlestar Galactica.  Every time I went further down the science fiction rabbit hole, I developed a deeper appreciation for the sense of adventure, wonder, and isolation the medium is capable of delivering.  Before trying Homeworld, I was hesitant to believe that this type of experience could translate to the gaming realm.  I am happy to be proven wrong.  Here is an excellent example of a title that not only delivers great RTS mechanics, but tells a tale seemingly made for TV or film.

Homeworld’s story of survival and perseverance is immediately recognizable by anyone who has seen the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica.  Your people have recently developed the technology to explore the furthest reaches of space in a new colonial starship that is entirely self-sufficient.  After completing its maiden test flight, which functions as an informal tutorial for those who choose to skip the official one, you return to your home planet to find it in flames.  A series of black and white, hand-drawn cartoons do an amazing job conveying the enormity of this holocaust to the gamer.  With nowhere else to go, you turn to the stars in hopes of discovering a new world to call home, while trying to escape from a mysterious and powerful enemy that is bent on eradicating what few survivors remain.  The game’s greatest strength is that this journey becomes personal, and the more you play, the more you want to see David defeat Goliath.

As the last vestige of civilization, the gameplay in Homeworld naturally centers on your mothership.  For all intents and purposes, this is the equivalent of a base in a typical RTS, and remains stationary except when using hyperspeed to jump from one stage to the next.  Resource gathering ships will collect valuable materials from nearby gas clouds and asteroid belts, and use this as a drop-off point.  From there, you can use your available hanger bay to build and launch a range of support craft to carry out your mission objectives and protect what remains of your people.  To gain access to new ship types, you can direct technology upgrades from here as well, assuming you also have a research ship.  Unsurprisingly, if your mothership is destroyed, you lose the game.  All in all, this type of foundation is not exactly unique for the genre, but it is well done.

Movement in Homeworld is novel though, given few developers have ever tried to replicate its system.  The game arena is a complete 3D space, and the verticality introduces an interesting dynamic to typical RTS combat.  To get an idea of how battles play out, imagine the type of positional weaknesses seen on tanks in a game like Company of Heroes, and take it a step further since capital ships regularly have weaker armor on their tops and bottoms.  Although you can issue blanket commands to your fleet with little consideration of these positional rules, you will needless throw men to their dooms if you do not try to dive in from above or set patrols to guard the underside of your fleet.  Originality aside, the mechanical process of directing units in 3D is a bit cumbersome, since it requires two very distinct components.  You must first give a move order along a horizontal plane, before you can set the height or depth of the command.  This is by no means game-breaking though, since it is mitigated by a wonderful array of support orders.  If properly setup, so that you create a chain of ships providing escort protection to one another, you only have to directly command a handful of vessels.

On the topic of ships, Homeworld’s diverse array of spacecraft is more than enough for serious RTS buffs.  At a high level, they are broken into four combat classes which vary by size.  From smallest to largest, these are fighters, corvettes (think the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars), capital ships, and super capital ships.  Within each of these pools is a range of units with differing stats and abilities.  Taking the tiniest class as an example, you have access to scouts (the fastest ships in the game), interceptors (designed for shredding one-man vessels), defenders (which make great escorts), attack bombers (great against capital ships), and cloaked fighters (best used for sneak attacks).  More broadly, there are repair ships, salvage craft to let you commandeer enemy spacecraft, and gravity wells to lock smaller vessels in place.  While ion cannon frigates and heavy corvettes will form the backbone of many players’ fleets due to their versatility, the remaining ships are all well balanced and can easily be substituted in to meet a particular need or promote a certain playstyle.

While a standard RTS can grow monotonous once you have found your favorite units, Homeworld’s excellent level design keeps this from being an issue.  As you search for a new planet to call home, you will navigate dangerous asteroid fields, explore gassy nebulas, and hopscotch past supernova flares.  Each of these unique scenarios is designed to present the player with a new challenge, forcing them to try new tactics.  At one point in the game, you are confronted with an enemy vessel that can take over your capital ships if they stray too close.  Logic dictates that fighters are the answer, which may force some top-heavy players outside of their comfort zone.  Conversely, you will find yourself on another stage continually taking damage from deadly radiation.  While this is manageable for your bigger spaceships, fighters and corvettes will quickly perish if left unattended.  To make it through to your target, you must either rely on a carrier to dock the small vessels in, or exclusively lean on capital ships until your objective is complete.

Despite the fun time I had with Homeworld, the game is not without its flaws.  For starters, there is a grand strategy element at play, since your fleet is persistent from one hyperspace jump to the next.  On the surface, this seems like a great idea.  It forces you to think through every encounter, as the ramifications of a poorly chosen engagement can linger into future levels.  Conceptually, it also fits with the story since your ragtag group of spacecraft houses all that remains of your people.  In practice though, expect a headache or two from this punishing game model.  I made it all the way to the last level, only to realize I did not possess a large enough pool of firepower to hold off the waves of enemies while I waited for my ally to jump into the fray.  Reloading a save game from three levels earlier was the only way to get myself into a position to adequately beat the final stage.  The slow gameplay only adds to the frustration.  There is no way to quickly move around the map and once you begin playing, you will quickly come to the painful realization that they added the refueling ships for a reason.  To top it off, you are rarely safe to send your resource gatherers out until after you have beaten the level, causing a monotonous grind at the end of each map.

In the end, these negatives are nowhere near heavy enough to weigh Homeworld down.  While they are irritants to be sure, it is very easy to ignore them by immersing yourself in the game’s universe.  If the title’s beautiful and extremely colorful backdrops do not suck you in, surely the journey’s many challenges will.  You almost feel a part of the story, as you struggle to escape religious extremists that have pulled you out of hyperspace, or rush headlong to defend a besieged friendly mothership in scenarios ripped from the small screen.  It is this connection with the story that makes a truly great game, and I am happy to say Homeworld is exactly that.

Verdict:  Recommended