In the latest installment of our Community Retrospective series, Doug McCormack, tells us about acclaimed RTS Homeworld…
Perhaps one of the shames of the shifting video game landscape is the decline of certain genres. One category which has diminished to the point of niche is that of real time strategy (RTS). While far from dead, fewer of these titles are released each year save a few enduring names, such as Starcraft and the venerable Total War series.
However it wasn’t always this way.
The mid to late Nineties saw a golden age of RTS games and one which holds a place in many peoples hearts was Homeworld. A first effort from Canadian developer Relic, Homeworld was released in 1999 to critical acclaim and commercial success.
The game tells the story of a race known as the Kushan; a tribal people of a barren planet named Kharak. Centuries of conflict and damage to Kharak’s already hostile environment nearly saw the extinction of the population. However, all this changed with a monumental discovery. Deep in one of Kharak’s deserts an ancient starship was unearthed. This was remarkable in itself were in not for a more startling find within the ship.
Scientists discovered a map of the galaxy showing co-ordinates thousands of light years away from the planet, and beneath this map etched into the tableau was one word older than all the tribes “Hiigara”-home. The implication was profoundly clear, The Kushan are not native to Kharak.
This revelation brought about unprecedented co-operation among the disparate tribes. Massive engineering projects, the scale of which was measured in a century of construction were commissioned. The culmination of all these efforts was the “Mothership” a space faring vessel several kilometers long. The ship’s purpose was twofold. Firstly, to bear a crew of 600,000 pioneers towards the fabled Hiigara. Secondly, the ship was to act a massive war factory capable of rapidly mass producing fighter craft and capital ships to defend itself against any potential threats along the way.
Which was just as well as during the first few missions the population of Kharak is incinerated by an hitherto unremembered foe.
It turns out that the Kushan were exiled to Kharak as a part of a surrender to a long forgotten war with a race known as the Taiidan. The exiles were spared genocide provided they never develop the means to travel faster than light. The Mothership’s propulsion drive broke this treaty. In retaliation to this slight the Taiidan attempt to finish the job. While the Mothership survives the assault, alas, the population remaining on the planet perishes.
With Kharak now a wasteland utterly incapable of supporting life the survivors onboard the Mothership and it’s accompanying fleet are left with no choice, they must press on with their mission to find their ancient Homeworld knowing they are the last of their race.
While the over-arcing story owes more than a fair share to the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, the narrative is secondary to the gameplay itself. As the home of the newly itinerant Kushan- the Mothership is the star of the game. In addition to being an ark the ship acted as the primary war factory. Irrespective of a mission’s goals, should the ship be destroyed it’s mission failure (and extinction for the Kushan).
Homeworld deviated from the standard RTS archetype as the game takes place in a 3D environment. Ships can be sent in any direction with no restrictions on movement. This was a revelation at the time, as up to this point RTS games mostly took place on the X and Y axis. Having enemies descend on the mothership from unfamiliar angles and vectors compelled the player to think, attack and defend in 3D.
Another unusual aspect of the game was that all ships and gathered resources in one mission would carry over to the next. Such a design choice forced the player to adopt more careful tactics. For example should you kamikaze a well defended space station, success is likely. However this invariably turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory as your decimated fleet would be hopelessly outmatched by the time the next mission booted up.
The missions themselves are well conceived, challenging and above all fun – particularly when they play to the strengths of the 3D space. One standout sees the Mothership miscalculate a jump and blunder right into an asteroid field. The next ten minutes are a frantic scramble to position fighters to defend the fleet, while simultaneously using the mothership’s factory to churn out replacement ships for the ones hit by the incoming rocks.
Homeworld’s beauty lies in the fact that despite seeming complex to an observer it’s interface is intuitive very quickly becomes second nature.
Despite these innovations there is a core RTS experience to be had. Resources need to be mined, technologies researched and the staple rock, paper, scissors triptych of which unit beats which is present, albeit with starships. The presentation of the game at the time was also notable. Dozens of fighters scream around the battlefield leaving plasma trails in their wake, gunboat turrets rotate and track targets and massive capital ships trade laser fire. The missions are also imbued with character with varied backgrounds composed of derelict ghost ships, supernovae and asteroids.
Audio does much to immerse the player too, often you can hear how a fight is progressing by the radio chatter of pilots and ship captains. While there is no on-screen cast the voice acting during cut-scenes and narrative beats helps elevate the emotion, particularly in the moments following the genocide at Kharak. The music is predominately ambient original score however the use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings during the opening of the first missions is to me one of the most evocative moments in gaming history.
Playing the game today is testament to Relic’s talent in devising such an outstanding RTS, even by today’s standards. Their thirteen year old engine doesn’t look anyway near as humble as most of it’s contemporaries. Homeworld spawned two later sequels in the series, unfortunately it’s unclear where the future lies for the franchise. When THQ went under; Relic was picked up by Sega and as yet there has been no moves by any interested parties to pick up the license, save a crowd-funded effort which came up short of their intended goal of $50,000.
Whatever happens in the future Homeworld’s status is assured as a shining example of the RTS genre.
– Doug McCormack