Since the 90’s, RTS games have been a real specialist staple of PC gaming. Starcraft is one of the most widely played games in the world competitively, the Total War series is gradually work its way through history and Dawn of War remains the most faithful gaming rendition of the Warhammer 40k universe. What you might notice about that list is that it is exclusively dominated by ground-based strategy games and it draws into question why exactly there aren’t more RTS games based around fighting in space. It’s probably because they would have to compete with Homeworld.
The first Homeworld was released by Relic in 1999 and is remembered as the first fully 3D RTS ever made. It had you commanding fleets of ships and sending them into zero gravity dogfights. It’s also remembered has being one of the saddest games ever made, purely on the basis of one heart rending moment involving a destroyed planet and impeccable use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It raked in 10/10 scores and awards throughout the gaming world. Thing is though, it was the second game that really refined the formula and although it’s less well remembered, I’d say it remains the best space RTS ever made.
Story-wise, it’s a direct continuation from the first, following the nomadic Hiigarans as they attempt to find and claim their home planet, led by the game’s narrator Karan, who has fused her consciousness with the Mothership. It’s a legitimately deep, fascinating plot but the real draw is the unique, complex gameplay. Each space battle starts you out with the Mothership, which is pretty much the king, once it goes down you’re finished. From there you bring in shipyards to build other ships, mining craft to gather resources from asteroids and slowly but surely you build yourself a fleet.
Of course while you’re doing that you need to be sending out scouts to get a fix on the enemy because you can bet they’ll be doing the same. Often the big question was whether to bide your time and risk weathering a few early strikes to build a bigger fleet, or slow the pace of production in order to pick away at the enemies defenses.
Plenty of other, non-spacey strategy games work from that angle, but Homeworld 2 ran deeper still. Once you had a fleet on the move, you had to organise them into formations, highlight their strengths, account for their weaknesses and decide how best to implement them. One of the most significant mark-ups from the first game was the ability to send out boarding parties, meaning that an enemy frigate could become an asset if you played your cards right. Ships could also be upgraded to be outfitted with better weapons and armor, a change that you could actually visually examine thanks to graphics that were outstanding at the time and still hold up now.
Once the fighting actually started you were treated to a balletic display of destruction as the smaller, nimbler ships would weave around each other whilst the larger frigates tried to broadside one another like space-age galleons. Just getting to the point with resources and research where you could build some of the larger units was satisfying; seeing a huge, terrifying battlecruiser rising out of the shipyard after spending lord knows how long attaining the means to build it felt like a massive achievement.
It’s surprising really that no games since have really tried to recapture the magic of the Homeworld series, even with regards to how high they set the bar, the very concept of a space RTS seems to be a goldmine of possibilities. The closest game to the series to have appeared since then is EVE Online, an MMORPG which initially only grants you control of one ship, but has given rise to some absolutely enormous space battles often involving hundreds of players, stylistically it certainly owes a debt to Homeworld.
Both games are still relatively easy to get hold of and some great mods have emerged in recent years, including a Battlefleet Gothic one and (sharp intake of breath) a Star Wars one. A HD double edition called Homeworld Remastered is in the works and should be available soon but in the mean time I highly recommend picking either one up and really digging in, even if you risk coming down with space madness.