|Most of reviews of Homeworld: Cataclysm have been very
enthusiastic. Critics are heralding it as
the next-best-thing to the Second Coming in Real Time Strategy games, and while I would
normally like to launch a vitriolic attack on something so many others like (call me
perverse), in this case that isnt possible. Cataclysm
is a damn fine game. Its immersive,
difficult, and carries more micro-management opportunities (the strength, in my opinion of
all good RTS games) than anything Ive seen to-date.
Its so good, in fact, that many wont want to play it.
The story begins 15 years after the first Homeworld game ended. The Kushans have successfully made a life for themselves on their ancient homeworld Hiigara after a traumatic exodus from the planet Kharak during which that planet was vaporized. You belong to kiith Somtaaw, a mining clan that was decimated on the trip from Kharak. Those kiiths that survived with more members dominate Hiigarin politics. However Somtaaw is has produced a new deep-space mining vessel and, coupled with their engineering skill, the future looks bright. Dont think youll get to pursue economic advantage for long because a techno-bio-something virus called The Beast -- which fights by assimilating enemy ships -- comes out of deep space and threatens your new world. Hell, they threatens the whole galaxy as well as the new fall television lineup. The Beast is an interesting cross between the Zerg, Borg, and Wallmart, expanding into new territories and taking over the competition, all while providing fast-efficient service. Thats the setup. Now comes the killing.
Gameplay in Cataclysm is deep and complex. In a mission-based format, youre in charge of a fleet consisting of everything from small strike fighters to a huge command vessel responsible for producing all of your machines. In other RTS games, your production center village, base, whatever is usually stationary and consists of multiple independent structures, and I like the singular, mobile production facility in Cataclysm. In addition to manufacturing corvettes and carriers in order to pulverize The Beast into poker chips, you also need to mine recourses from asteroids and nebulas (you lose ships like car keys) and research new technologies (The Beast is devious and requires innovation). Throw in the control of a massive number of ships, and youve got the initial daunting feel of this game. Luckily, the game interface is simply and accessible from any of various tactical views available via both hotkeys and drop-down menus, and the tutorial is excellent. Ships can also fend for themselves once you set their combat profile, patrol routes, and formations. However, while the artificial intelligence is good, managing this many ships in a huge 3D environment takes some doing.
Cataclysm sports an interesting variety of ships from the mimic, which takes on the appearance of enemy ships and asteroids (vital in many missions), to the hive frigate (has a small number of attack ships that swarm a target), to the dreadnought battle cruiser (just about as tough as it sounds). Producing an effective fleet is a real challenge both because your command ship supports a limited number of vessels and the huge number of possible fleet configurations. You really need to tailor a fleet to each mission, but production is fast and changing your available ships isnt a big deal.
The dynamic mission bases system both intrigued me and produced headache-level frustration. Starting out, your mission objective is about as solid as hot cheese. Objectives fluctuate and change, so theres no telling where the enemy is coming from or what youre really going to need to do. On the one hand, this adds narrative power and suspense as well as a healthy dose of realism. Actual combat, I suppose, must fluctuate and shift as new information come available. On the other, I had to play every mission like a dog about to be kicked, moving my ships out cautiously with the sure knowledge that, once I figured out the scenario, Id have to restart the mission. And restart. And restart. This moves Cataclysm into the for-hardcore-gamers-only category.
If punishing space-plagues isnt enough, Cataclysm has excellent graphics. The ship details are great (although The Beast ships ought to be a little more scary) and the textures look nice. Unfortunately, the in-mission cut-scenes and between-mission movies are terrible. In-mission, the camera is static and doesnt take advantage of the three dimensions. Between-missions, the films are in black and white, again static, and dull. Voice acting, while good in parts (i.e.: in-mission alerts and combat chatter), suffers as well. Its a little sad that such a pretty game to play doesnt have equally pretty cinematics.
Cataclysm deserves all of the good reviews its garnered. I havent played an RTS this demanding before and all of those who loved the first Homeworld will not be disappointed in the follow-up. Completing a single mission in Cataclysm is an accomplishment what with the complex battle scenarios and the simple necessity for strategic depth on the part of the player. But, that type of challenge will discourage some players and, for the more casual gamer, there isnt much beyond tedious replay. That, coupled with poor film sequences, stops Cataclysm from getting a perfect review. Its a fantastic game, but a fantastic game that I wouldnt recommend to everybody.