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Homeworld Review

Every so often a game comes to market that is so distinctly unique it deserves a deeper looking into than the other games released at the same time. Sierra Studios has released some of the most immersing games to come to market for some time and it looks like they have another hit on their hands. Half-Life helped redefine the first person shooter with its story line and inventive use of the Quake2 engine. Then Sierra came to market about a month ago with Homeworld. For those not familiar with this game they may find this to be an interesting review.

Homeworld is billed as a 3D real-time strategy. While 3D strategy games have existed for some time Homeworld breaks impressive new ground with itís stunning visuals and incredible game play. I personally have not been a fan of this game genre in the past. Games like Age of Empires quickly grew tiresome for me. I have found that most of the games that were released in the 3D-strategy genre previously featured a very weak 3D environment and that their story lines were often their weakest point. Enter Homeworld and itís 3D environment. In truth most games that claimed a 3D engine were merely using a flat playing area with primitive 3D graphics imposed on it. Homeworld utilizes a true 3D playing area. It is quite easy enough to move up and down as well as forward, back, left, and right. Imagine a chess game where pieces can approach from below and above and you begin to grasp what this means to this game.

The Story

In Homeworld you will be introduced to the planet Kharak. Kharaki scientists have found that their DNA is so dissimilar from the DNA of living things on Kharak that it is now believed that they are in fact foreign to their world. While this discovery has attacked all previous theories of origin on Kharak a near simultaneous discovery has changed Kharaki destiny forever. A space telescope, which should have pointed to the heavens, has malfunctioned and instead begun scanning the surface of Kharak. What easily could have been a failure for the space program instead has brought to light a fantastic new discovery. Deep in the desert band that is the center of this bleak planet a large metal object has been discovered. On further exam by field units it is found to be an enormous spaceship.

With research from archeologists and scientists it is deciphered that this is in fact how the inhabitants of Kharak reached this planet. Deep inside the ship a technology that enables a starship to enter hyperspace, and thus travel incredible distances, is discovered. Most importantly an artifact that is known as the guidestone is deciphered. It shows a simple map of the universe with a line drawn from the position that is known to be Kharak to a star deep in the center of the galaxy. An inscription is found next to this central star: home. You will enter the game shortly after the completion of the mothership. The mothership was built to house 600,000 settlers who are in a cryogenic freeze as this civilization begins itsí search for their homeworld.

The Game Interface

While most games are satisfied with the simple 3D interface I mentioned before the designers of Homeworld built an excellent interface that is actually quite easy to learn. Most functions are controlled from the mouse. All the better if your mouse is equipped with a scroll wheel as that will make zooming in and out much easier. The other functions are controlled from a few keyboard shortcuts. The game environment requires you to resource (harvest resources for the construction of vessels) as well as research new technologies. This will lead you from building better fighter craft and support vessels to large frigates and then eventually to carriers and destroyers.

The game can be played in a single player mode where a player goes through 16 pre-designed missions that will follow the Homeworld storyline. If you play in multiplayer mode you can use the CPU to create your opponents or you can play on the WON network against other players. Although I found other players to be unpredictable and more challenging it is hard to keep a good game going since a lot of people quit before the game is over. That actually brings up one of my only two gripes with this game. The game can take several hours to complete depending on the quality of opponents. If you are playing the single player missions it can become boring waiting a couple of hours to play through one of the missions. If you rush through a mission you may complete the objectives but youíll find yourself unable to complete the next mission successfully since you lack the ships and resources (that you should have collected in the previous mission) to complete the new mission objectives. I would have liked to see an option where resources can be collected quickly (fast forward) once the military objectives of a mission were reached.

Video and Sound

Homeworld actually looks good at 640 x 480. Thatís a lot more than can be said for a lot of other games. Obviously rendering a starfield in the background meant that the designers could concentrate heavily on ship design and details such as vapor trails for the engines but I didnít expect 640 x 480 to look as good as it did. Once I went up to 800 x 600 I noticed how much better the ship detail appeared. I did notice better graphics at 1280 x 1024 but then the frame rates nose-dived in combat situations. I find that 800 x 600 is a quite acceptable compromise of performance and appearance in most games so I was happy how well Homeworld performed at 800 x 600. I never noticed video stutters or mistakes while playing this game.

The sound of Homeworld is very enjoyable but there are some minor annoyances. I really thought the music was wonderful. When you enter different missions youíll find the music will clue you into the kind of scenario to expect. If an enemy attacks midway through a resourcing mission youíll know when the music suddenly changes. I enjoyed the music so much I found myself adjusting the settings for the music higher and higher. My annoyance came from the fact that the game relies very heavily on updated reports that are verbally transmitted to the player. In a large battle you can become overwhelmed with reports and identifying the ships that need assistance may not be easily accomplished. These verbal clues are important to the game as they inform the player when ships are completed or research projects are done (thus allowing research in other technologies). I would have liked to have seen a setting where damaged ships or ships low on fuel would automatically disengage and seek help rather than finding strike craft floating without fuel or larger vessels being destroyed when I still had plenty of firepower in the area to complete the mission. Thatís actually a very minor criticism since I eventually took this as one of the challenges that is presented to a leader in this game.

Conclusion

Anyone who is looking for a game that is more challenging and immersing that the first person shooter games available will love Homeworld. Itís uniqueness and varied challenges will keep you involved for extended periods. The graphics in this game are stunning and beg for the player to zoom in and study all the detail. Add to that the wonderful sound and youíll see why I liked this game so much. There is a tremendous amount of strategy that a player learns while playing this game. My main criticism centered on how time consuming playing this game could be. While you can save a single player game or skirmish vs. CPU game midway through I found many players dropping out of games prematurely when I deathmatched (skirmished in Homeworld speak) against them on the WON network. For that reason I think this game is best played alone either in the predesigned single player missions or skirmishing vs. the CPU. That way a player can break up one game over several sessions at the computer. The documentation that came with the game was amazingly complete. Sierra was thoughtful enough to include Adobe Acrobat .pdf sheets with the keyboard shortcuts used in the game as a reference. Installation was a snap and included the GL Setup program for use with OpenGL accelerated video cards. Also included was a utility to create your own missions. My second and only other criticism of this game is that it will take very up to date hardware to truly enjoy it. Sierra lists a 233 MHz Pentium II with 32 MB Ram as the minimum configuration but on my 233 system I experienced very slow performance even at 640 x 480 with all the extra visual candy turned off. Sierra recommends a Pentium II 350 and 64 MB ram. If your system is a Pentium II 450 or higher and you have 64 MB of ram then you should have no problems enjoying this game in my opinion. Thatís a pretty high entry level to ask for if you ask me. On my 550 MHz main system I experienced no delays whatsoever but I couldnít enjoy the game with my older system as much. Thatís a sad comment on how there really isnít such a thing as an entry-level gaming machine today. Overall I highly recommend this game to anyone looking for a challenge along with his or her entertainment. If you only buy 5 or 10 games a year make sure you add Homeworld to that list.

Victor Oshiro
victor@targetpc.com
99/11/10
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