|a game by||Barking Dog Studios|
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Oh how it all comes flooding back. It's like it had never been away. I guess it was no secret that I was something of a Homeworldtan the first time round, but after swearing off the thing for four or five months (mainly to have it replaced with an equally unhealthy Counter-Strike obsession) I thought that maybe it was out of my system. That maybe now I could look at it with a more objective eye. Criticise its unwieldy 3D system, its cartoonish graphics, its hackneyed storyline. Five minutes into Cataclysm and the glassy-eyed stare of concentration, the lack of awareness regarding the real world, the nervous twitching on my fingers and the slowly-drying reservoir of sputum forming on my chin gave me my answer. Homeworld is back.
Sci-Fi Plot 348b
Barking Dog Studios apparently started working on Cataclysm a year before the original game was actually finished. The plucky developers (who seem to be making a habit of improving other peoples' games - part of their team had a hand in Counter-Strike!) approached original designers Relic with a mission to improve on what they'd already seen of Homeworld. At the same time Relic had a bucket full of ideas that for one reason or another weren't able to be included in the original game. Cupid's arrow hit and the two teams pooled their talents. Hence the reason Cataclysm isn't being touted as a sequel to Homeworld, but as a sort of official follow-up. It's the first 'episode' to take place in the Homeworld universe (which indicates more may follow).
So what's this 'episode' all about? Actually that's a good description, since unlike the grand, sweeping tale of a lost race that was seen in Homeworld, Cataclysm's single-player game does feel more like a traditional episode of any science fiction TV show. It's the old 'alien life force infecting allied ships' plot - the Borg with organics rather than technological origins.
Despite the hackneyed background, it is remarkably well told considering it mainly uses the in-game engine. You start in command of a simple mining vessel, are quickly called in to lend a hand with some rebel insurgents, get sent to investigate a distress call and find a strange alien artefact. Despite every sci-fi fan on the ship screaming at you not to, the device is brought on board and quickly infects the lower decks. You ditch them before it spreads and so is born The Beast. As forces are sent to attack they become infected and the race is on to stop it before it, er, assimilates the galaxy.
In With The New
Part of the reason why it works is the well thought out universe where it all takes place. Unlike the two basic sides in Homeworld, Cataclysnfs world is populated with many different clans, all dealing with each other in different ways. Hence you often find yourself called in to help out an allied clan in a fight, which opens the original game's tactical element to whole new levels.
Working with friendly forces in the midst of a battle is often as rewarding as working out your own strategies. It also adds a bit of variety. Although you only have a limited number of ships at your personal disposal, each clan has variations on themes and things hardly ever get repetitive (one of the criticisms that was often thrown at Homeworld).
Which is also true of your mothership. It starts out as a basic carrier style affair, but once the infected decks have been jettisoned you're free to upgrade it however you wish. One of the biggest criticisms levelled at Homeworldms the basic nature of its research tree. Barking Dog has tried to vary things here by assigning certain research paths to different research modules.
If you don't build the module, you can't follow the path. Unfortunately, the research areas can also be used to build support bays for your ships, allowing for larger fleets and better defences. So it's a balancing act. And it does improve things, albeit slightly. The actual nature of the research remains the same, but since no one else has come up with any innovations in this area it remains a minor criticism at best.
Same Old Same Old?
Other improvements come in the form of waypoint commands (allowing useful patrol routes to be set up), linking technologies that allow two or more ships to join together Power Ranger-style, new units such as ramming ships, hive frigates, multi-role worker units, and mimics (who do exactly what they say on the tin allowing for all sorts of sneaky infiltration tactics), and a generally greater feeling of control all round. Those that found things somewhat confusing in Homeworld find things a little easier here. Being able to issue orders from the improved map screen helps immensely and everything just seems to run smoother than it did before.
Cynics may well argue that there's nothing arse-shatteringly new here, and since Relic knew all about these features during Homeworlcfs development they should have put them in to start with, rather than charge us another $35 for what is basically a mission disc. At the least they should have followed Microsoft's Age Of Empires model and released it as a cheaper expansion pack. This is a tricky situation.
On the one hand they're right. There is nothing particularly different about any of it and the fact that a seasoned Horneworld veteran felt so at home right from the off sort of confirms that. On the other hand it is still incredibly playable and although the new features don't sound like an awful lot, they do increase the playability by a factor of ten while eliminating a lot of the problems Homeworlds critics may have had with it.
Should you buy it then? Honestly, yes. If you didn't buy Homeworldthen I'd recommend you skip it and go straight for Cataclysm. It's a more rounded product and less overwhelming than its predecessor. There's enough here to please Homeworld fans too, more than enough. An engaging storyline and more strategic options than you can shake a stick at. Should it have been a mission pack?
Of course it should. But it isn't and it does have the advantage of running straight out of the box. Besides, at the end of the day it's only $35 and you could probably do with a weekend off the booze anyway.
Download Homeworld: Cataclysm
When is a sequel not a sequel? When it's a "fully-fledged spin-off," according to Michael Gyori, the lead designer on Homeworld: Cataclysm. "Basically," he explains, "we have taken the original Homeworld engine and modified it to bring you a new tale from the Homeworld universe."
If you read the Top Story in our April issue, the rudiments of said tale were covered there, and suffice to say it's the usual science fiction fare. As such, it features some very silly names, indeed, as did the original Homeworld, last year's highly-acclaimed (at least by Paul Presley) space epic from Canadian outfit Relic Entertainment. But when it came down to the crunch, such as developing a follow-up, Relic didn't fancy it and instead stuck its collective head around the door of the nearest office and asked if anyone there felt like it. That office, luckily, was the headquarters of game developer Barking Dog Studios, who, after some protracted muttering, accepted the challenge.
Or, as Gyori explains: "In the spring of 1998, it was quite apparent that Homeworld was going to be big. At the time, Barking Dog was brought on board to help with Homeworld and work on an expansion pack. Sierra soon realised that Homeworld: Cataclysm should be a standalone product, and here we are today."
It all sounds very cosy, but it could be argued that taking over someone else's game is a bit like wearing dead man's pants. Not so, says the designer. "Well, first of all, Relic is far from being a dead man and some of them don't even wear pants. But seriously, this is no different than George Lucas letting someone else direct The Empire Strikes Back while he was busy elsewhere.
We are honoured to have the chance to add our twist to an award-winning continuity fans should rest easy knowing our story and manual were written by Marcus Skyler, the same person who wrote Homeworld."
With the fears of continuity fans firmly assuaged, it seems appropriate to ask what changes have been made to the engine, controls and so forth. "Various graphic tweaks have been made to ensure the game is even more stunning than before," Gyori claims. "Some of the new features include large shockwave explosions, ships holographically mimicking other ships, polygonal accurate collisions, ships that project energy shielding, small repair bots moving around the hull of large ships, new salvaging effects, new weapons and their effects, external ship construction, new ship animations, lens flares, slip gates and dynamic Gouraud shading.
"As far as controls go, they are basically the same ergonomic, easy-to-use controls from Homeworld, with some improvements to the right-click menu and some changes to reduce micro-management. Players are now able to give many commands in the Sensor Manager, making it much easier to control your fleet over long distances. We've improved the AI as well, so ships will function better on their own while your attention is elsewhere."
That's all very well, but some people can't think in 3D. "We have tried to make Cataclysm more approachable to all kinds of players," he continues. "The improved Sensor Manager interface, for example, will allow you to view the space battles from above and issue attack commands without worrying about 3D positioning. As I mentioned earlier, ships will also handle themselves better when unattended by the player." Clearly, there is a tendency for all space games to look alike. After all, space is space, right? Wrong, says Gyori. "With all new backgrounds, dynamic 'terrain', such as moving asteroid belts, slip gates, many new effects and loads of new ships, this is as different as space can look while still having that dazzling Homeworld feel."
Dial P For Plagiarism
Some people (well, Paul Presley) have suggested that Cataclysm's storyline has similarities with that of Star Trek. Have you ever heard of that? "Heard of Star Trek? Hmmm, doesn't ring any bells. Seriously though, Cataclysm has elements from many space movies. If Homeworld was reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica, then Cataclysm should give the player the feel of Alien or The Thing."
Talking of Battlestar Galactica, the rumour of a licensed game proved false (although some chimps have actually made a model enabling ships to be used). As for Cataclysm's inspiration, Gyori admits: "The nature of the Beast (a techno-organic enemy race) was definitely influenced by the works of HP Lovecraft, while the general feel of facing the great unknown comes from classics like the stories of AE Van Vogt and early Arthur C. Clarke. I suppose there is a little of Frank Herbert's Dune and good old space opera thrown in for good measure."
There you have it then. If pensive space combat is your bag, Homeworld: Cataclysm sounds like being all that and a packet of potato chips. If nothing else, it'll keep Paul Presley off the streets.