Original Release: 2015, Platform: PC, Developer/Publisher: Gearbox Software, Image Source: Steam, Thanks to Gearbox for providing our review code.
There’s a story about Betty Crocker that I’m rather fond of. Back in the 1950s the company was trying to figure out why its line of instant cake mixes wasn’t selling better. After some research, it discovered that the housewives they were targeting with the just-add-water cakes didn’t like how little effort it took to actually bake the things. Silly as it seemed, they needed to feel more involved in the experience. The company released a revamped version requiring prospective bakers add both an egg and water. Sales soared and the cake mixes became a huge success.
I’m probably getting the details of that wrong and I’m fairly certain the story itself has been debunked any way, but I still think it serves as a good parable to explain why I’ve never been able to warm up to Homeworld 2. I loved pretty much everything about the original version of Homeworld 1. As much as I admired the visuals, music, and story however, the biggest part of what kept me coming back was its take on real-time strategy. It had a sense of freedom that made it feel unique to me. Most every ship, from the lowliest fighter to the biggest cruiser, was useful and the game left your tactical options open enough that you rarely felt forced into relying on any single battle strategy.
Homeworld 2, comparatively, feels like it wants to make the same cake without the egg. On the surface, the end product looks very similar. You get a fully-3D RTS filled to the brim with explosive and dazzling space battles. Sadly, however, the game ruins that by overly streamlining its experience so that many of the small things that made its predecessor interesting are gone.
Take fighter combat. In Homeworld, you produced fighter craft as individual units that you could group into custom squadrons and command using a variety of tactics and formations. This process was probably one of my favorite parts of the entire game. I loved experimenting with different squadron builds; mixing units, dividing formations and otherwise just tinkering around to see what I could do and how well it would all work against my foes. In Homeworld 2, fighters and corvettes are produced in uniform squadrons that can assume only one basic attack formation and enjoy tactical options that are basically limited to “defend yourself” and “attack everything in sight.” It’s far simpler and not in a good way.
The game’s units also lean much more toward specialization. Throughout the game you’ll be given access to a number of ships (Flak Frigates, Pulsar Corvettes, Marine Frigates) designed entirely to serve a single purpose. Now, to be fair, this was something that existed in the first Homeworld as well. A Salvage Corvette was only good for capturing enemy units while an Ion Frigate wouldn’t be much use outside of blasting capital ships with pretty laser beams. That being the case, it’s far more pronounced in Homeworld 2. In the original game, you could send mismatched units against each other and still have some hope of survival. Violate the sacred rules of rock-paper-scissors in Homeworld 2 however, and you can usually be assured that the disadvantaged warship will lose.
The worst part about this specialization is how it’s used to partially automate combat. At some point in the game, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll build yourself a big fat fleet made up of different unit types that will all have to work together to defeat your opponents. The thing is, the game practically handles the whole cooperation part on its own. If you select a mass of mixed ships and command them to attack an enemy fleet, each ship will automatically target whatever they’re strongest against. While there are still advantages to micromanaging battles, doing so isn’t nearly as necessary as it is in other games. Many victories can be easily secured simply by building a lot of ships and pointing them toward whatever needs to die.
Which isn’t to say that missions are always a cake walk. While many fights can be won with basic strategies, others can be difficult to the point of feeling unreasonable. One late in the game mission in particular left me wanting to pull my hair out. I started off with a strong fleet, but was quickly overwhelmed by my opponent’s persistent deployment of Battleships (the heavy hitter in Homeworld 2). I just couldn’t build ships fast enough to deal get ahead. The missions themselves can also be painfully linear. Mind you, I’m not opposed to this as a rule. Several levels in Homeworld 1 had tighter focuses and were still quite enjoyable. The best levels in that game though, were the ones that gave you broader objectives and allowed to approach them as you saw fit. The missions in Homeworld 2, comparatively, are much more tightly directed. They hit you with scripted events and specific objectives that often require little imagination to complete.
All of this said, my worst problems with Homeworld 2 easily comes from its story. I can forgive a lot in a video game if it spins an interesting tale. Homeworld 2‘s story however is just a dull mess. It’s a shame because Homeworld had a great a narrative. It was simple, to be sure, but it still managed to create an epic and, at times, even emotional journey that hooked you from its earliest moments and didn’t let you go until its very last. In comparison, Homeworld 2 falls completely flat. Following the plight of the Hiigarans (formerly the Kushan) as they try to fight off an invasion by a warrior race known as the Vayggr, it never adequately establishes villains and wastes too much time trying to expand on the franchise’s universe with retconned backstory details and uninteresting prophecy. The long and short is that it just isn’t as interesting as its predecessor and offers little incentive to push through the single player campaign’s rougher moments.
Back when I first played Homeworld 2 years ago, I walked away from it feeling let down. I had hoped that in revisiting it in the Remastered Collection I might find something I’d missed in the past that would more deeply endear the game to me. Sadly, I can’t say I did. It’s not a bad game by any stretch and I can definitely admire elements of its overall package (the art and ship design is fantastic). As great as some parts are however, the game on the whole just feels lacking. Should you still give it a try? Sure. Maybe you’ll like it where I didn’t. That said, for my money you’re better off sticking with the original.
Come back next week for my review of Homeworld: Cataclysm! In the mean time, feel free to PM me with comments and suggestions for future reviews.