Original Release: 2000, Platform: PC, Developer: Barking Dog Studios, Publisher: Sierra Entertainment, Image Source: GameSurge
While the original Homeworld is, without a doubt, my favorite game in its series, it wasn’t my first taste of it. My entry point into the franchise was actually Barking Dog Studios’ sequel/side story follow-up Homeworld: Cataclysm. And honestly, while it’s not as good as its predecessor, I could have picked worse places to start.
Cataclysm again focuses on the Hiigarans (previously called the Kushan) following their epic quest to find and reclaim their homeland in Homeworld. After the final battle of that game, their foes, the Taiidan Empire, have collapsed into civil war. In the midst of this chaos, the Hiigarans try to rebuild their civilization from the ashes of the old one. At the center of this is effort the Kiithid, a clan-like system they reestablish on their new world that grants societal influence based on the size and prestige of your ancestral faction. With many of the Kiith’s devastated in the aftermath of the war however, a cutthroat competition has emerged between the weaker factions trying to claw their way back to the top.
The player, in turn, takes command of the Kuun-Laan, a mining ship belonging to small Kiith Somtaaw. After a battle with Taiidan raiders, the Kuun-Laan stumbles upon an ancient artifact. Hoping to use its discovery to gain more influence on Hiigara, they bring it aboard and unwittingly unleash an alien force that, left unchecked, could threaten the entire galaxy.
What I like about Homeworld: Cataclysm‘s story is how naturally it extends from the first game. Rather than trying to create another situation as big and epic as its predecessor (one of Homeworld 2‘s mistakes if you ask me), it instead delivers a smaller, more localized narrative that directs it efforts toward fleshing out the Hiigaran culture and crafting new and interesting conflicts out of the chaotic-world left in the wake of the original game. The focus on the Kiithid, for instance, adds a whole new level of richness that the other entries in the series never really touch on. The Hiigarans, previously treated like a unified force, are shown to be an imperfect people, driven by the same petty competitions and greed as everyone else. The accidental release of the Beast (the name given to the alien) serves as a great natural consequence of the blind ambition of Somtaaw and provides the foundation for a quest and story that’s leagues more interesting than “we have to find the galactic cores to fight this generic race of conquerors.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Beast is built up, both in the story and in gameplay, as a genuinely daunting foe. An interstellar plague, it infects starships and transforms their crews into blobs of bio-matter that exist only to serve its hive mind and propagate its existence. In terms of the story, this leads to a desperate race to stop the Beast at its source while the forces of Hiigara struggle to contain it. In play meanwhile, it means that entire portions of your fleet can, in an instant, be subverted and transformed into agents of the enemy.
The gameplay itself is basically just Homeworld with different ships. Like the original, combat is entirely ship-to-ship and takes place in a fully 3D play space. It also faithfully recreates the core gameplay features including formations, tactics and all of the other things I complained about missing in Homeworld 2. In other words, if you’re like me and thought the original Homeworld was the bee’s knees, you’re going to have fun playing Cataclysm.
That being said, there are some changes. The gameplay, in places, tries to expand and alter what Homeworld did. The number of ships you can build or capture, for instance, is now governed by supplies, something you didn’t have to deal with in the first game. At first, this doesn’t amount to a substantial issue. As you advance through the campaign and gain access to more powerful ships however, the supply cap can feel restrictive. Mind you, there are arguable thematic reasons for its presence. Homeworld and Homeworld 2 dealt with wars between galactic level forces and saddled you with massive motherships capable of supplying huge war efforts. Cataclysm only puts you in charge of a small fleet supplied by a single struggling mining ship. It wouldn’t make sense for you to be pumping out oodles of warships with no limits. Even so, the ones placed on your production can lead to situations where you’ll have to ignore many of your earlier and smaller vessels in favor of the bigger infection-immune destroyers and dreadnaughts.
Working in tandem with that, the Beast’s infection powers can further sideline many of your smaller warships as the game progresses. While they’re never quite rendered useless, their increased vulnerability removes much of the flexibility that defined Homeworld. You’ll often have to play more defensively and with greater care than in other games, lest your own ships get struck with a red laser beam that turns them against you. It’s especially bad for fighter class units which also suffer from an unfortunate decision by the developers to make the game’s projectiles much more accurate. In the other Homeworld games, small arms fire was relatively easy to dodge. If a ship was small and nimble enough, it would have a good chance of dodging most of what was being shot at it. In Cataclysm, if you zoom in on a fighter as they’re under attack (especially after you upgrade to energy cannons) you can actually see individual shots subtly shifting direction to make sure they connect with their targets.
In my Homeworld Remastered reviews this would be the part where I complained that this ruins the combat and destroys my enjoyment of the game. The great thing about Cataclysm though is that it doesn’t. While the game definitely does things to limit the power of its fighters and frigates, it also adds in other things to help mitigate the changes. Many of your ships can be upgraded with special abilities that expand their uses in combat. For instance, early in the game your basic fighter unit will gain a linking ability that allows it to form a heftier corvette by coupling with another fighter. Not long after that it gains a single-use missile launcher that makes it ideal for hit-and-run attacks on capital ships.
Mind you, abilities like these don’t completely make up for the loss in combat flexibility but, honestly, I’m inclined to forgive the game in this case. In Homeworld Remastered and Homeworld 2, the changes to the combat had a direct impact on my enjoyment of the game. I sat there playing them, feeling actively frustrated or bored because of how things worked. I never felt that way with Cataclysm. It makes changes, some of which I’d brand as negative, but it still manages to craft an experience that, taken as a whole, I find to be hugely entertaining.
Maybe it just comes down to its story. Homeworld Remastered took several cues from Homeworld 2, but I was ultimately much harder on the second game because of its paper thin narrative. Cataclysm‘s story strikes a different tone from the original Homeworld, but it also offers a deeper look into the Hiiagaran society that expanded its universe in a meaningful way. All in all, it’s a really well put together game that I had a lot fun revisiting. The only downer for me is that it’s not likely that many people will have the opportunity to play this game again. Hard copies are rare and, thanks to the source code being lost, it’s not available as a digital product. In other words, if you stumble onto one at a garage sale, pick that sucker up and don’t let it go.
Next week I’ll be wrapping up my discussion of the Homeworld games with a deeper look into the real-time strategy genre, its handling of mortality and how this all plays out in one special mission from Homeworld: Cataclysm.