Worth the wait, Homeworld, 2/4/15

The Mothership

I had meant to play Pillars of Eternity, that had been the plan for months. I had even played a whole 120 hour game (Baldur’s Gate 2) just to make sure I could cope with real-time combat in an isometric RPG.

But I am not playing Pillars, even though my family have gone to the in-laws for Easter and I have had to stop home because I messed up my Saturday swop. Despite having four nights and a day of free gaming time, I am not playing Pillars. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Pillars is no good or even that I don’t want to play it. It’s just that I have higher priorities, namely trying to save the remnants of a dying civilization. They are hanging helpless in the huge black void of space as I write, waiting for my swift return. They need me to guide and protect them through their hazardous journey across the galaxy and return them safely to their Homeworld. Even now, I can see in my mind’s eye the Mothership hanging in space; huge, but vulnerable.

Sixteen Years

I should have played Homeworld when it came out in 1999. I desperately wanted to play it when it was released, but I was skint, so skint that I was using a six year old computer. There was no way that the PC could ever hope to run something as graphically stunning as Homeworld and there was no possible way I could afford a new PC. So instead, I pined for it, like a lovesick teenager.

It was one of the very first games I bought when I finally got a new PC a few years later; by then it only cost a few quid to buy because it was considered old. I tried to play it, but it demanded too much patience to learn and I had too many other shiny new games. So I forgot about it.

And so the Mothership sat in its docking cradle waiting to take its maiden voyage for another twelve years; until a week ago, when during Mega Nerd Day me and Kalmfist played through the first six levels of Homeworld: Remastered.

Yesterday was the first day of Easter; the family was away and I had left work early with the intention of getting my teeth into Pillars. But try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about Homeworld. The Mothership was hanging alone in space whilst my fleets were traversing dust fields to take out an enemy research station. They needed me, how could I not help

The last of a dying civilization

Homeworld begins with the traumatic destruction of your home planet just as your civilization makes its first tentative steps into deep space. It becomes the player’s responsibility to build and shepherd a fleet of ships across the galaxy, trying to guide them back to the lost ancestral Homeworld.

The high-stakes nature of the game engages the player from the beginning and the themes of danger and vulnerability flow through the whole experience. The risks involved become starkly apparent from the first few episodes; if ships get destroyed they are gone, if they survive they travel with you into the next episode. So how well you perform in each episode affects how well you can do in later episodes. Cock up an episode in Homeworld and the whole fleet can be doomed, maybe not straight away, but someday soon.

The music ties these themes and feelings together: the choral version of Adagio for Strings, Agnus Dei, creates a haunting soundscape that lingers with me long after the PC is turned off. The music keeps swelling around my mind, dragging my thoughts back to my poor defenceless Mothership hanging motionless in the depths of space.

The Mothership

The Mothership hangs in space, immobile, waiting for its children to deal with the situation in hand. Only capable of propelling itself via hyperspace, for most of the game the Mothership is stuck, immobile. The only way it can influence matters is through building units to protect itself and by offering shelter to the smaller units if they come under attack.

An order of magnitude bigger than anything else in the game, it looms over the other ships in the fleet, its sheer size creating an awesome sight. Yet when the fleets are away making war, it is possible to look back at the Mothership and see but a tiny speck in an ocean of black. Then the sheer size of space comes crashing home and again I feel the need to protect and nurture this fragile collection of fleets led by the Mothership.

Moving

Navigating ships through 3D space is hard, particularly in a strategy game where you are viewing them from a distance. In order to successfully move fleets around, time and patience is needed. After much catastrophic ordering, in which I sent fleets hundreds of kilometres in the wrong direction, I finally worked out how to move ships successfully.

Whilst it can feel as if things are happening very quickly in Homeworld, in reality there is always time to issue a correct move order. Fleets move very slowly and space is very, very big, so it generally takes a long time for units to respond to an emergency. This means that you can give a very general move order, (go in this rough direction), and then refine it once the fleet is moving.

Issuing a good move order involves ensuring that you have a correct understanding of where your unit is in space and where it needs to go. The rookie error that I made a lot to begin with is to be zoomed in on a location and to just click where you want the fleet to go. It looks from the angle you are looking from as if the fleet will go where you want, but because you are viewing the volume of space from an angle what happens is that your fleet flies off in a completely bizarre direction.

The procedure* is quite complicated, but what I want to get across is that there is time to issue these kinds of orders to multiple fleets and still have plenty of time before the shooting starts. If the shooting has already started things are much simpler, just click on the ship you want to attack and the fleet will move to engage.

Tall ships

Homeworld is as futuristic as you like, and yet much of its success is down to how it evokes the naval combat of previous eras.

The names begin conjuring imagery of the past: Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers remind the player of previous epochs. But the names are more than just a nod to the past; the ships serve the same roles as their ancient counterparts.

Frigates are the work horses of any fleet, providing fire power and taking the punishment the opposition gives out. They can serve in multiple roles and how they act is greatly influenced by what other ships they are paired with. Lose your Frigates and the rest of the fleet won’t be far behind.

The power of Destroyers only becomes apparent after you have constructed one. They are so much more powerful than Frigates that it is almost embarrassing to compare the two. But their true worth is realised only after you have sent everything you have got into some huge maelstrom from which the only thing to emerge are the Destroyers.

Cruisers are slow; I thought Destroyers were slow until I watched how long it took a Cruiser to line up a shot. On the other hand, considering the devastation they can cause, slow is forgivable. Their main gun is capable of nearly wiping out a Destroyer in one hit. That kind of firepower takes a while to deploy.

Everything moves at different speeds and any ship of a decent size takes time to move. So the key to success is timing: just like in naval battles of the past, the person who wins is the one who can bring the most concentrated force to a point of weakness in the opposition’s formation. To do this successfully means timing the runs of multiple units who exist in different areas of 3D space. This is hard but devastatingly effective when done well.

A remastered Wow factor

Whilst I have been playing Homeworld I have read various reviews and forum comments about the remastered versions of Homeworld. Generally people think Gearbox, the developer, messed up to some degree, diluting the Homeworld experience because they used the Homeworld 2 code base, which altered how the game played.

Personally, I feel Gearbox have done a cracking job. As someone who hadn’t played it before I don’t really notice the tweaks imposed by using the Homeworld 2 code, but to be honest even if I did I don’t think I would be that bothered because I feel they gave me a second chance with the game.

The remastered game looks really nice, so much so that it allowed me to approach the game as if it was a new release. Now while I don’t think graphics are the most important aspect of a game, they did matter in Homeworld, which did very much have a bleeding-edge graphical look to it when it first came out. That Gearbox have restored the game so it feels bleeding-edge again definitely improved my experience. I only realised how much when I powered up the original game, which looked, frankly, old and blocky. Whilst it was once cutting-edge, time had not been good to it. So to return it to how it looked to my eyes all those years ago is a service for which I will be forever grateful.

Homeworld is a marvellous game, but more than that it is a beautiful and haunting experience.

 

* So long-winded that I thought I should explain it in the notes. The way to solve the problems with movements is to have a very precise method of ensuring you know where things are. This involves following a clear process:

  • Enter ‘Strategic view’ (hit space bar)
  • Move the camera so you are looking from directly above the fleet you want to move
  • Left click where you want the fleet to go
  • Hold the right mouse button down so you can move the camera
  • Change the camera view so you are viewing the move order from the side
  • Hold the ‘shift’ button down and then move the mouse to increase depth or height
  • Move the view back to above and check the location is correct
  • Left click to confirm the move order

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