Prepare yourself for Homeworld
(IDG) -- Two years ago, if you asked the typical gamer "Who is Relic Entertainment?" you'd probably just get a blank stare; back then, after all, the developer company was nothing more than a few guys in a small office in Vancouver. Now, though, Relic is riding high on its highly anticipated first release, Homeworld. Having earned the E3 Critics Award for Best Strategy of E3 two years in a row, been lauded in previews, and donned print-magazine covers, Homeworld is currently the belle of the ball for strategy games.
In a highly competitive market, Homeworld is standing out among its competition by taking the genre where it's never been before -- into the vastness of fully 3D outer space.
I mentioned above that the game's plot was compelling. Well, it's more than that -- it's positively gripping. I sat down with the manual, half of which is story, and read all of it before playing the game. Relic has drafted an epic science-fiction tale that chronicles one people's struggle in a galaxy rife with conflict. The story is presented in three formats: the manual to start you off, and then in-game letterboxed cut-scenes (which use the game engine) and between-level animated movies. All three media combine to pull you into the universe of Homeworld.
The manual's story certainly lays the foundation for the game ahead, but it's the epilogue in particular that will make you part of the culture. I saw what the designers were doing ahead of time. By teaching me their characters' history -- the discovery of a ship on their harsh planet, the knowledge that they were not of this world, and finally, that they had learned the location of their true homeworld -- I became sympathetic to their cause. It became my cause, and their lives were in my hands. As I played levels, I cared not only about winning a game, but about saving my people, too.
And save them you must, for the universe they are about to fling themselves into is of a most unfriendly nature. Without giving away the story, it's safe to say that the forge of war will create a people stronger and tougher -- or to paraphrase Nietzche, that which does not destroy them will only make them stronger.
Weaker, I think -- perhaps in the knees -- is how many of you will feel when you see full 3D space in an RTS. Space is a vast background in which to base a game, and by using space debris, asteroids, and gas pockets, Relic gives it an overall structure. Within that structure is where Homeworld really shines, with spaceships and their interaction.
Spaceships are a natural to be built with polygons: they can have straight lines, boxy-looking shapes, and a certain simplicity that would make other 3D subjects such as human faces or trees look horrible. Taking advantage of this fact, the designers have created beautifully simple ships that use a low number of polygons, but they've covered them with fantastic-looking textures that make the ships appear visually impressive. The end product is low-polygon, highly complex-looking ships that allow the developers to push the game's system requirements lower than many thought possible. The result is especially breathtaking when hundreds of ships are fighting at one time--something that might have caused major slowdown on weaker machines if the game had higher system reqs.
It might be dizzying watching that many ships in battle if the camera controls weren't so easy to use. With the exception of in-game cut-scenes, the camera is always focused on a single ship or group of ships. You can zoom in and out from a ship, and circle around it in a complete 3D sphere; and as the ship moves, your camera follows. This might be confusing if it wasn't for the Mothership, which acts as a stable, stationary point to which you can rapidly bring the camera by touching a hotkey. Movement through the emptiness of space is conveyed via engine trails that slowly extinguish as a craft advances. The effect adds to the game's beauty, giving the ships an almost majestic aircraft feel.
Homeworld's interface uses many of the controls generally found in the RTS genre. Players will be able to hotkey groups with the number keys, assign tactics and formations to groups, control ship functions with the mouse or keyboard, and generally control the game pretty intuitively. Hold down the attack key, create a box with the mouse and your units attack the ships in the box -- combat can be just that easy. That's not to say you won't need to follow the tutorial to understand how to play: movement, grouping, formations, and tactics take on a new dimension in 3D.
The gameplay is what you've come to expect from RTS games -- you'll gather resources, build units, develop technologies, and battle with the enemy. A rare element among the normalcy is the fact that all surviving units transfer to the next map. This rewards good players with larger, more powerful fleets as the game develops. Maps don't have infinite resources -- in fact, the maps may be a bit stingy on resources, forcing you to battle with your wits and true tactics, not just build up and rush in with a ton of zealots, if you know what I mean.
Homeworld multiplayer is going to have variations based on map, goal of the game, number of players, and starting units. This adds up to a huge variation in gameplay that is dependent on the situation and should challenge gamers to come up with new strategies. For example, a map with tight resources focused in one spot means everyone is battling over resource collection right from the start whereas a map with plenty of resources spread out turns into a game of massive battle fleets.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the fact that even the sound in Homeworld will kick ass. Relic has lined up the band Yes to do a special song for the game that will also be part of the band's upcoming album The Ladder, which I unfortunately didn't get to hear in the beta. The normal background music during the game is a mellow kind of new-age science-fiction theme. Radio chatter from your units comes in the form of gravelly walkie-talkie sounding voices updating you on their status. The game's battle sounds are keyed into how close you are to the action: When I zoomed in on a ship I could hear the fighting all around it, but when I zoomed out, I was back to the cold silence of space, with the tin of the battle a mere buzzing in the background.
There's certainly no lack of buzz surrounding Relic these days, now that Homeworld has entered the beta stage and the game's ship date looks to seriously be locked into September. In combining the quality story and tactics of Myth with Starcraft's real-time strategy elements -- and then launching them into space -- Relic appears to have the hottest ticket in town. This summer and holiday season will be full of real-time strategy titles in an already saturated market, but Homeworld may very well outshine them all, like a brilliant star in the sky.
Homeworld lives up to its hype
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