Most real-time strategy (RTS) games are relatively two-dimensional; despite their contoured landscapes, you’re still playing on a flat map. But Aspyr’s Homeworld 2, set in space, changes all that. It forces you to fight in a truly 3D environment. The result is one of the most attractive, enjoyable games you’ll find on store shelves this year.
A sprawling space opera, Homeworld 2 tells the story of the Hiigarans, a space-faring race of people that has returned to Hiigara from a distant exile, only to find themselves persecuted by a warrior clan called the Vaygr. At the start of the game, you and your fellow Hiigarans are putting the finishing touches on your new mothership, the Pride of Hiigara, when the Vaygr fleet attacks. This sets in motion a series of events that will keep you on the edge of your seat straight through to the end of the game – if you survive that long.
The basic elements of Homeworld 2 will be familiar to RTS fans: Your mothership is your home base. It’s where your fleet originates, where you research new technology, and where you refine resources from asteroids and debris fields. But while the mothership’s bulk enables it to withstand a huge amount of punishment, it doesn’t have to fight alone. The ship has enough manufacturing resources to create a fleet of spaceships: shipyards and carriers (both of which can create vessels of their own); gun platforms; swarms of interceptors and bombers that buzz around like lethal, insects; and more. Understanding how to develop and use all these resources is pretty easy, thanks to a clear and straightforward tutorial you can replay in chapters if you miss some of the finer points the first time.
Homeworld 2’s user interface is relatively intricate. Pop-up menus and overlays provide you with data about your fleet’s condition and operational characteristics, mission objectives, tactical analysis, research status, and more. But it’s all very logical and easy to understand once you grasp the basics of camera control, fleet movement, and resource manipulation.
The game’s visual details have a cinematic scope. The ship designs and settings offer the epic scale of a Star Wars movie and the complex technical detail and gritty realism of Blade Runner. The game also features awe-inspiring, colourful backdrops of nebulae, glowing planets, and blankets of stars.
The audio production is equally top-notch. Homeworld 2 features a properly grand soundtrack and excellent voice acting. The game’s events are often accompanied by radio chatter from squadron leaders, ship commanders, and other voices from your fleet – all of which could quickly become irritating in an inferior game. But here, it all informs and enhances game play.
The game’s single-player campaign is linear – each time you play, the Vaygr do the exact same thing. How you win your battles, however, is up to you. And if you tire of the single-player mode, you can take on the computer in a skirmish, which lets you play as the Vaygr.
Homeworld 2 lets you challenge other Mac players online using GameRanger, and direct TCP/IP or LAN connections – but it doesn’t support cross-platform competition, an unfortunate drawback caused by DirectPlay, the networking technology used in Windows versions.
Homeworld 2 is, without question, a tour de force in real-time strategy gaming. If you buy one RTS in 2004, this should be it.