Homeworld lives up to its hype
(IDG) -- The buzz began building at last year's E3. Tucked away in a corner of Sierra Studios' room was a little gem of a game that promised to be something completely unique. Jaded journalists listened skeptically as Alex Garden, Relic Entertainment's 23-year-old CEO, explained the concept of a real-time strategy game in a true 3D environment of deep space.
Then the same journalists watched with mouths agape as Garden walked them through the various interfaces and showed off the game's sheer beauty by zooming in and out on ships performing complex flight-sim maneuvers during insterstellar battles.
Homeworld, from newly formed Relic entertainment, became the darling of the show. Our preview called it "one of the few radically different games you'll see, the next step in the RTS genre." Our sister Web site Games.net said Relic "must have sold its soul to the gods of game design." Computer Gaming World named it E3's Game of the Show, GameSpot named it one of the Best of E3, and the buzz hasn't abated as online preview after online preview has hyped Homeworld as the Next Big Thing.
Believe the hype. We've been tracking Homeworld's development since E3, and we recently traveled to Relic's Vancouver offices -- where the team was putting the finishing touches on the game -- so that we could bring you this exclusive Homeworld tour.
Kushan vs. Taiidan
"Hmmm, let's see, you've got one main good race and one main evil race, plus a few other side races all going about their business in a living universe...we make no apologies if it sounds a bit like Star Wars," says Garden, who estimates that he's watched that movie 40 times -- in the past year.
The game looks like Star Wars. OK, there aren't X-wings, but this is definitely a game that feels like a movie. The opening choir piece, Agnus Dei, gives way to an entrancing ambient soundtrack that makes it all the more hypnotizing watching the beautiful, highly textured ships dodge and weave, bank and roll, do Immelmans and split-Ss, break one formation and manuever into another as the sound of the powerful engines Doppler-shift.
Capital ships get knocked off-course as swarms of fighters pelt them. Missiles climb right into your exhaust and obliterate you in a fiery explosion. Ships' guns track enemies, then recoil as they let loose their payload.
The game conveys a grand sense of scale without sacrificing attention to detail. It helps you comprehend the vastness of space.
You'll be looking into the endless void and see the tiniest blip. It looks like a star but appears to be moving. Zoom in and, whoa! There's a fleet of Taiidan fighters approaching in X-wing formation. Get close enough and you can see the decals on their hulls.
Or maybe you spy a tiny dot because of its miniscule exhaust tail. Zoom in and -- nope, it's not a far-off comet -- it's a torpedo with excellent textures, right down to each engine burner being numbered.
But Homeworld's not just about looking pretty. Its story also shares some similarities with Star Wars. Broadly outlined by Garden in a design doc and fleshed out by lead designer Erin Daly, lead artist Rob Cunningham, and designer Quinn Duffy over a weekend in an unheated room, it follows your trek to the center of the galaxy to reclaim your birthright.
A lovingly crafted manual will fill you in on the rich backstory, which takes place over thousands of years: Your peace-loving race, the Kushan, was living on a jewel of a planet in the center of the galaxy. Another race, the Taiidan, began colonizing the outskirts of your galaxy, making its hostile intentions known by destroying races on other planets. Eventually, it was your turn.
Fearing that completely eliminating your race would unite everyone in the galaxy against them, the interlopers overran the planet and sent the survivors to the far reaches of the galaxy, systematically eliminating all political, cultural, and spiritual leaders.
All that remained of your homeworld was an ancient relic, a piece of rock that receives a signal when pointed at a particular part of the galaxy. This relic took on mystical significance, becoming known as the Guide Stone, and your leaders began researching and building the means necessary to trek toward the beacon.
The work is complete, the voyage can commence, and thus begins the game. And though the good race is known as the Kushan, in an interesting design decision, you can play as the Taiidan even though the story and missions remain the same. We don't want to ruin any surprises, so we'll just say that the in-game story, which unfolds over 17 levels, is an involving tale full of intrigue, plot twists, comic relief, and plenty of full-scale battles to challenge the tactician in you.
Riveting cinematics (appropriately letterboxed) created with the game engine usher the story along, introduce both friendly and hostile races, and provide a framework for the missions. The mission types cover the RTS gamut, from search-and-destroy to capture, escort, and merely survive. They generally have one to two main goals and several secondary objectives.
"We estimate there are 20 to 30 challenging hours of [single-player] gameplay," says Garden. "We're not trying to make the world's hardest game or the world's longest game. We want to make the world's most fun game, a game where after you're done, you know you got your fifty dollars' worth."
No tank rushes
This game is not harvest, harvest, harvest, build, build, build, attack, attack, attack. Of course, each one of those RTS staples is an aspect of Homeworld, but this promises to be an RTS with the stress on the S.
"Intelligence is the key to everything," Garden says. "You know in games like C&C you can build a big force to go stomp 'em, and you know if you're starting in this corner that the enemy is in the opposite corner. In Homeworld, you don't know where the enemy is -- and the worst part is, he can move, or the [enemy fleet] you're watching can move. You're going to have to watch, anticipate, feint, dodge, set traps. You must think in a tactical sense and prioritize goals."
Every member of the Homeworld team I spoke to detailed a different favorite tactic, and it's the variety and intelligence behind these strategies that will give the game legs both in single- and multiplay. For instance, Daly likes diversionary tactics: sending a group of fighters to draw away the enemy's main defenses, then attacking from a different side with a devastating fleet of cloaked fighters and capital ships.
Garden likes traps: he'll draw an enemy fleet toward a big dust cloud that's been charged by an Ion Ccannon so that it houses a lightning storm. As the enemy tries to escape the cloud, they'll run into mine fields laid by his Minelayer Corvettes. Duffy has perfected the art of the moving attack. He'll bring in a gargantuan capital ship and keep it circling around the target so that its guns don't have to reorient before firing. Others detailed cool defense tactics and traps using cloaked Gravity Well Generators.
"We're chasing the Holy Grail -- we see the various ships as tools to create your own strategies," says Daly. "There are enough tools to do what you want, and that will result in strategies we haven't even thought of."
Lost in space
Conveying the vastness of space while offering precise control in a true 3D environment is a daunting task. Some, like the folks at Digital Anvil, think it's impossible. They're working on an RTS game in space, too, but they're restricting their game to a 2D plane.
Homeworld's interface conventions came to Garden in a flash. As he sat around programming some Mac stuff at a friend's office while carrying on a bunch of different conversations -- about Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and how it felt like you weren't really in space -- inspiration struck.
What if you were watching the battle from the outside? If your focal point, say a single fighter, were surrounded by a sphere, and you could rotate your point of view around that sphere and shrink or enlarge the sphere to zoom in and out? Eureka!
After much programming and tuning, that's essentially how Homeworld works: the camera control is separated from unit control. The interface is the Homeworld aspect Daly is most proud of. "It's hard to make a game in real 3D and get it working properly," Daly says. "But we've conquered it and solved the fundamental problems of moving in 3D."
Indeed, they have. I've now spent hours playing Homeworld, and the interface is among the most elegant I've ever seen. About 80 percent of the game can be controlled with the mouse (almost every command has a hotkey as well), and controlling the camera becomes second nature in about 10 minutes. RTS conventions like the ability to group units combine with Homeworld's context-sensitive cursors and menus to enhance ease of use, and the conventions for moving units to different planes are ingenious.
Still, the Relic team is aware that an RTS in 3D space can be an intimidating prospect, and even though the interface has been tested by focus groups, there is a step-by-step tutorial covering every aspect of gameplay.
Much attention has been paid to Homeworld's pacing and subtle in-game coaching. The first few missions primarily reinforce what you've learned in the tutorial, and text and speech updates will guide you in the right direction. For instance, you might hear that there's abnormality nearby. You go to the Sensors Manager overlay, and there's a "ping" emanating from an area. Now, rather than just blindly venturing into the void, you know where you need to investigate.
The game also tunes itself to your abilities while it ramps up the difficulty. Early on, the number of enemies is scripted and their ability to build more ships disabled. Later, as you've acquired more skill, the enemies will have the ability to build, and they'll do so to counteract your tactics.
Complicating the AI programming is a cool feature: persistent fleets. Finish a mission, and your remaining ships dock with the Mothership before it hyperspaces to the next place. So if you're good, you'll start the new mission with tons of resources and a large fleet stocked by veteran craft, which have better shooting and evading capabilities. The game will then have more enemies for you to face than if you'd barely survived the last mission.
Similarly, the technology you get to research ramps up, and audio and text clues will guide the direction of your development. You'll get new things to research by salvaging abandoned ships, trading with the Bantusi race, or simply via the passage of time. Research enough components and you'll gain the ability to build more advanced ships. The linear tree (there will be 25 to 28 technologies) unfolds logically so that you won't find yourself in a mission without the tools necessary to conquer it.
Research can also play an interesting part in multiplayer games. Because of their pace, you're almost forced to focus in on a specific area; rather than dabble in technologies across all ship classes, it pays to specialize to accommodate your style. If you're a fighter fan, you'll want to research Fighter Drive technology and Heavy Fighter Chassis immediately so that you can build Interceptors. Fans of capital ships will tailor their research in that direction.
Of course, you can also turn researching off entirely for multiplay. Homeworld has an incredible amount of multiplayer options and modes so that you can create just the game you want. Do you hate resource management? Click the I Hate Harvesting button, then set the resource influx frequency and amount (2000 RUs every 5 minutes, for example).
Just about everything's customizable, from victory conditions (destroy Mothership, capture a capital ship, allied victory) to unit caps to turning on/off fuel burn, research, and "crates" (floating crates can yield new ships).
There's even a cool mode called Bounty Hunter where RUs are allocated based on destroying your opponent's ships. If someone is powerful, you'll get more RUs for taking out their ships, and the bigger the ship you take out, the more RUs you get.
A mode Garden calls Chess gives each player (up to eight over a LAN or the Internet) a set number of ships, without the capability to build more. The five to eight multiplayer levels will be augmented by user-created maps. Homeworld's mission editor, similar to a 3D-modeling program, is robust enough that you can do some simple scripting, like specifying that pirates attack the first player to reach a certain dust cloud.
"Two years from now, people will be making missions that are impossible today [because of PC technology limits]," Garden says.
I believe him. Homeworld has the elements to take it into the next millennium. Its sheer beauty, innovative interface, engaging plot, wealth of customization, advanced sound engine, and excellent multiplayer capabilities make this one space voyage you just can't miss.
Homeworld adds a whole new dimension to real-time strategy games
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