Homeworld II

Bitter 11/11/2003 

Remember this? You'd better.
Don't. That pretty much sums up my Homeworld 2 experience. Or perhaps "How could they have fucked up this game so completely?". I feel like all the promise that this game had has been completely wasted. Goddamn it, I wanted to like this game. Homeworld 2 is to Homeworld what the second Star Wars trilogy is to the first.

First up, the few positives. The game is bordering on gorgeous: the graphics are much-improved from the first game, which I never found lacking, yet the enchancements do change the atmosphere of the game, I think. I never really thought about it before, but the bright colors of the previous game (which were somewhat customizable, so maybe it says more about me than the game) made the ships quite toy-like. In this new game, the ships look very much more naval, and a have more of a metallic, military feel to them. It's obvious when looking at a destroyer (very WW-II in the modeling), that it takes no shit. I would note again, though, that a lot of my time was spent in the sensors manager, which isn't much different from the first game.

However, because this game was substantially better looking than the first, I actually made an effort to zoom in and enjoy some of the battles, and was impressed.

The pace of the game is quite frenetic at first: if it weren't for one of the later missions, I'd say the game is perhaps 10 hours long, maybe a bit longer. This is much different than the more stately pace of Homeworld, although I have been known to pace myself in games like Unreal Tournament, too, preferring a stately stroll with the Bomb rather than gallavanting about like a frothing popinjay.

The new game also carries with it the tradition of beautiful backgrounds, this time employing actual images to good effect. No static screen shot can really capture the effect, but it can try.

The interface in this game is mildly different from the first: the separate screens for the build and launch managers are now combined along with a research manager as a tabbed interface to the right of the screen. This is okay, but I found the interface obstructing the action a lot when I didn't dismiss it, so it's not functionally that different from the previous game: you start something, and then close the panel.

The general movement controls, though, have been carried over, and the need to do any kind of 3D manuvering is much reduced, basically to a single mission where you have to try and maneuver to stay within a dust cloud (the implementation of which is orders of magnitude improvement over the same concept in the first game). This is fine: the control scheme is quite good.

Gosh, this mission is really hard.

Okay, still pretty hard.
New is the concept of upgrades to ships, an RPG-ish treadmill, and not particularly welcome, I might add. In this second game, when you win a mission, all available resources that remain in the level are automatically harvested (a nice time saver), but this in turn means that you rarely lack for resources except potentially toward the end of the game, so upgrades are mostly a matter of remembering to click a research choice every now and again. There isn't a separate research ship: the ability to do research comes when you build a "research module" (like the modules to build the various different kinds of ships), so you don't have worry about protecting them, etc. Anyway, it's there, you might have to do a little basic prioritizing sometimes, but it feels tacked on.

I guess I should feel vindicated in that a lot of the technologic gewgaws are saved only for multiplayer: EMP bursts, sensor pings, cloaking, and the like.

Particularly glaring in this version of the game, though, were the unit limits. They are never explained, and how could they be: they make no goddamn sense. How can you cap units concurrently, and yet not serially? By this I mean you can have no more than 2 battlecruisers (the ultimate heavy ship) at once, but you can have as many as you want in a row, limited only by the amount of resources you can gather. Why?

Sure, there are limits to what is probably displayable, but mostly it must be to make it easier for the developers to try and balance the game, since they can know at the outset the limits that you can have, and fuck you harder for it. And then they can introduce you to all the bugs they've added to the game. To whit, mission 12. I won't go into the details of this travesty of a mission, except to say I spent far more time trying to beat it than I did all the other missions combined, and ultimately gave up, in part because of a likely bug I encountered.

Note the substantial difference in the number of each unit I am allowed. I played with the smaller number for quite awhile before I thought "the fuck?", and then quit and restarted the mission, at which point I had the limits on the right. Also, how much of the Gay is it to point a giant neon finger at your completely artificial, imposed limits. There were unit limits in Total Annihilation and the like, but you could bump them, so it seemed like they were only imposed not to beat your hardware to death, and rarely encountered in well-designed scenarios . I guess my machine (an XP1800+) must be sufficiently far from what the Homeworld 2 team was targetting (supposedly a P3 866MHz, P4 1.6GHz recommended) to worry about computing resources, but I ran the game at the full detail levels at 1280x960, so even lesser machines should have headroom at lower resolutions. Anyway, I hit the unit ceiling early and often, which means that careful stewardship of your fleet isn't rewarded: you might as well treat your guys as disposable.

Thus, on mission 12, I got fed up, and manually edited the units I had for the mission to triple my number of battle cruisers. I finished the game an hour later. Please note the names of the save games I have for mission 12:

And the horse you rode in on. Note increasing incoherence in later save game titles.
There must have been some attempt at balancing the scenarios dynamically, too, because it's almost comical how many enemy ships I encountered in mission 13 after cheating my way from the previous mssion. Even if the enemy ships in, say, mission 7, were only crewed by the Panty Sniffers 3rd Class from the ships in mission 13, the warships they could have amassed would have blotted my feeble little fleet from the sky.

Finally, the mission structure is absolutely hidous and comical and tragic all at once. Rather than the potentially poignant story of exiles returning to a home they've never known that started the first game (mostly squandered), this game begins with a flight from the Homeworld. However, rather than try to fashion a riveting story about beating back a foe against all odds, we abandon the plight of the Homeworld against the overwhelming force of the bad guys and follow the Mothership on one silly, inane, and increasingly mystically fruity quest after another. There's even the trite, overdone Buddy-death sequence in there, but I didn't care. No one will care: it's pointless. Relic, you fucking botched it: your sense of timing and of the dramatic is ass, it's the lead pipe approach to emotion. "Did I hitya hard enough?" I think I hear a comical boinking noise and maybe a clown horn in that sequence. Faggots.

I got the Gehenna reference, too: rather than being sort of fun like the Hegira and Tannhauser Gate references in the first, it felt pretentious this time.

The game, despite it's brief duration, becomes boring boring boring. Your units are a little smarter in some ways: fighters will swarm whatever's nearby, and ships will pick what they are best at killing from a group kill order, but mostly stupider. Flak frigates, which are really only effective against bombers and fighters, are quick and will zoom past your heavy hitters to be swatted like flies by the opponents destroyers. Much of the mission pacing, especially in the last several missions, is almost completely controlled by how quickly your super capital ships will move, which is damn slow: a recipe for entertainment.

Even more finally, the scripting is still fragile. There's a mission where the controlling element is the repair of a particular ship, which has to dock with a shipyard to get the mission really going. Well, in my particular case, this shipyard was parked close to the Mothership, where I put it in a silly attempt to keep it safe. However, this meant that when the to-be-repaired ship (very large), arrived, it apparently got stuck and couldn't figure out how to dock. Did it report this in any way, shape, or form? Fuck no. So I spent about ten minutes fighting off the innumerable enemies that kept coming until I finally checked the status of the ship, saw it wasn't getting any better, and had my Mothership scooch over a few meters in order to allow the ship to dock. Like a light switch, the script's do-while() loop completed, the infinite number of ships dissipated, and the mission continued it's erratic jag toward completion: there's even a *counter* that pops up on the screen to count down until the ship is ready -- it'd be like having a starting gun at the Alamo.

Smell that? That's the smell of perfectionists rotting in a dumpster somewhere, shot point blank in the temple by the Relic team before development.

The game ends with your return to the Homeworld (remember them: you haven't heard a peep out of them during the entire game: PLEASE CARE NOW!!! K, THX!), and a basically pro forma squishing of the final bad guys. As in the last game, a few little tasty new tidbits of enemy wackiness is thrown in here, so I let a couple hundred million of the civilians of the Homeworld die under orbital bombardment to watch the neat graphics before I won the game.

I feel like I really got cored all the way to my colon on this one. I thought that four years worth of work would have allowed the developers to really step up and produce a game much better than the previous. I mean, the graphics are better, sure, but with the basic mechanics nailed down in the last game, all that development care and head-scratching could be expended on crafting a very fine experience, right? Well-told story that makes me give a shit, tension and fine balance in the actual tactical engagements, etc.? No.

Absolutely not. This game is nothing: a shiny apple with a blackened core of rot. $50 right into the toilet, and not even the satisfaction of a shit well taken. Bravo, ya got me.