Reviews From The Backroom: Homeworld: Cataclysm
As Real-Time-Strategy games go, there really isn't much to look at as far as innovation. No matter how many different locations or time periods there are, how many planets and galaxies we go to, or how many different enemies we fight; we're almost always doing it the same way: by slowly trucking an assortment of troops across a vast, constricting wasteland. Some do it better than others, but for the most part the basic RTS formula is never changed.
Enter, the Homeworld series.
Homeworld tells the story of the Kushan, a race of people on an almost entirely desert planet, who discover the remains of a large spacecraft deep beneath the surface. This spacecraft confirms a belief that the Kushan have held for years: that they are not native to the arid, desert planet they live on. The actual game relays the rest of the story, which consists of the Kushan traveling from Kharak (the desert planet) to their home-world "Hiigara", the location of which was discovered inside the ruins of the crashed spacecraft.
Homeworld: Cataclysm takes place shortly after the events of the first game. The Hiigaran clan called the "Kith Somtaaw" are seen in the opening sequence with a large mining vessel, the "Kuun-lan", in space a good deal away from the home-world, mining away at asteroids. Game play starts when the Kuun-lan is called back to Hiigara to stop an invading fleet of one of the games multiple enemy factions, the Imperialist Taiidan. From the start, many points become clear, mostly that this is nowhere near being your average RTS.
You start out with your Command-ship (the Kuun-Lan), a few fighters, and a few resource ships. From the get-go, there is a large space-battle occurring just a small distance away from you, and the main fleet engaged inside this battle orders you around throughout the mission. Most of these orders consist of you mopping up enemies throughout the sector (area map), always steering clear of the main battle. For the most part, this is a very well presented level, with the player being allowed to cement the skills presented in the almost mandatory tutorial level. To fans of the series, this is tedious, but to newcomers it is a matter of win or lose.
The reason for this is the control scheme. In order for the player to control the ships in their fleet, they are expected to master the art-form of moving large numbers of ships in an entirely 3D space. This consists of moving to a larger overview map, selecting a lateral location, and then selecting a vertical location. This mechanic, while it is well done, doesn't flow very well at all. Enemy ships can move very easily out of the way, and most of the mission time is actually spent playing a game of tag with enemy ships. Couple this with A.I. that takes a "flight over fight" path when heavily damaged or in danger, plus the difficult moving command, and you have an extremely frustrating wild goose chase. In space. It would be forgivable if it happened from time to time, but this happens in almost every level.
To try and overcome this, a new feature was added that wasn't present in the first game: time compression. by using the "~" (tilde) key, the player can go from real-time to 8X time compression, greatly reducing time spent traveling, waiting, or collecting resources. Unfortunately, it's a blessing as well as a curse. Many times, Cataclysm will present you with a slow period at the beginning of a level, where you are supposed to collect resources and construct more ships for your fleet with the time compressor on, only to suddenly drop a large enemy force on you, or have a group of friendly ships that you are supposed to protect drop in, move out, and get shot up with a quickness.
This is one difficult game to get a handle on. Movement is difficult, ship orders are numerous, and enemies move and attack far too quickly and easily. After you round the learning curve though, the rest of the game is truly great.
For starters, this game still looks incredible, despite being a 2000 release. All of the ships have clear, highly detailed textures and even more detailed attachments (such as animated turrets); the weapon effects are very well done, to the point of having their own lighting effects; and the presented environments are an absolute sight to behold. Whether the background is a nebula cloud with flashes of lightening running through it, or a large brightly lit galaxy off in the distance enclosed in darkness, the backgrounds and playing fields look like something straight off the cover of a fantasy Sci-Fi epic.
As for the game-play's strong points, they still outweigh the negatives that have been mentioned above. Every single level in this game has a very distinct feel to it, with no two missions playing out the same way. Even if it's obvious that enemy craft are going to drop in while you're heading towards mission point A, the large 3D play area allows for several different points of entry and many areas for the player to use for strategizing. And when it comes to strategy, every possible angle has been taken into consideration. Weapon types and weaknesses, ship sizes and speeds, fleet supportability, researchable technologies, add-ons, formations, and the list goes on even further from there.
The story also flows quite nicely. Though missions can, at times, SEEM to be going a bit off-course in relation to it, everything in Cataclysm holds tightly to the plot, and never leaves the player wondering what McGuffin B has to do with Plot-point A. At times, I wondered why the game gave me some item or weapon, only to have it taken away a short time later, but even so, the ebb and flow never really was broken.
The only unfortunate part of how the story is told lies in the between-mission cut-scenes. Every single mission features a short, well animated cut-scene, and while it is nice to have the story linked to every single level and to take a short break to enjoy a cut-scene between each hectic mission, they just aren't very good. Some of the clips show artwork that was either unfinished or poorly cleaned up prior to inclusion, often looking like tacked-on concept art. As for the writing, it can come across as cheesy, sometimes even cheap; and the voice actors who read it off (and also read off dialog in-game) do a particularly poor job of it. Emotions are either over-done or down-played too much, emphasis is misplaced, etc. The overall feel of them is that they were rushed and poorly produced.
Cataclysm was and still is, despite being an expansion gone full-release, a well put together, beautiful experience. The look and feel is solid, the game-play is very challenging without being impossible, and all of the mechanics work together well without ever getting in the way. As far as issues go, the only one I can name that is really a game-breaker is that many people with Windows XP or newer will have a great deal of trouble getting this to work for them.
Highly Recommended, but not for the inexperienced.
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