If you are a strategy gamer then you've at least heard of Homeworld 2. If not, you should know that it's the sequel to the 1999 strategy game of the year, held by many to be one of the best space themed RTS games of all time. Slipstream: The Price of Freedom is a mod for this epic space odyssey that caught my eye with their latest release. Does it offer a liberating experience or is it destined to slip into obscurity? The answer will depend greatly on how much you enjoy the space combat simulation in Homeworld 2.
Slipping Away: Background and Setting
Slipstream isn't what I would call a total conversion like Battlestar Galactica Fleet Commander, not yet anyway. It still keeps some of the ships, weapons and maps of HW2 and the feel of the game remains basically the same. It does adds many things but they don't radically alter the way you play HW2. This latest release (2.4) has some new features that may breathe some new life into the game for the die-hard HW2 fan; so if you're looking to replay Homeworld with a twist, this is right up your ally.
Slipstream: The Price of Freedom is the work of Sub-Real Industries, which has been working on Slipstream for nearly two years. They have ambitious goals for the future, hoping to develop for more than HW2, but so far have only produced the one mod.
Despite being skirmish and multiplayer only, there is a rather detailed back story for Slipstream. This puts it in the same category as the story in Total Annihilation or Sins of a Solar Empire: justification for two (or more) factions to slug it out with high tech weaponry. A synopsis of the story can be found right on the main menu. This leads me to think that they plan on making a campaign at some point. If they don't, it strikes me as a lot of wasted effort and potential.
The short version is that there are two factions: the UNCG (United Nations Centralized Government) and DOL (Dominion of Light). The DOL is the remnants of socialist Asian and western European nations that have become a fanatical religious group that want to use an ancient artifact to reorder the universe into pure light. However this would destroy everything in the universe. The UNCG is a conglomeration of the Americas (North and South) and aren't too keen on the idea of getting turned into so many photons. So, they fight.
Further background info is given as to the nature of the Slipstream drive, which is the standard faster-than-light travel in the Slipstream universe. You don't really need to know any of this to enjoy the mod, but it does add a little depth and meaning. It still seems a little strange to put all that effort into a story when there's no narrative to give these events meaning and no single player to allow you to take part in them. We can only hope that it will come some day so that all that work their writers put in pays off.
They Should Have Sent a Poet: Presentation
Homeworld 2 was one of the best looking games back in 2003, a somewhat rare distinction for an RTS back then, and has aged rather gracefully. The cinematic battles still have an impressive look to them, as fighters swarm around larger ships; projectiles and explosions everywhere. Slipstream adds a few new effects and ships to the mix that add some more bang to the fights. New ship models are somewhat similar, both technically and stylistically, to those in the original game however. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though — it speaks to the quality of the work of the mod team and the enduring style of Homeworld. Though they manage to distinguish them selves somewhat, I'd just like to see a little more deviation from HW2 since this is supposed to be a completely separate universe.
The biggest change to the game's look are the resigned interface and menus. The new main menu is a very big change, with a planet and a Slipstream Gate for a background image. The same image is used as a loading screen as well. The GUI in game has been slimmed down to bare bones and is now a light gray and black. This simplifies things somewhat, but almost too much. It also looks rather bland and uninteresting. While an interface shouldn't be so flashy that it's distracting, this one is almost distractingly plain. HW2's original interface was blue, which looked nice against the orange and black that makes up most of the backgrounds in the game. The gray tends to disappear from view, which is probably the idea. Still, it's a little to blank for my tastes.
The in-game physics have also gotten some adjustments. Ships will now move a little differently as they navigate 3d space. You probably won't notice this too much unless you're looking for it though. With these changes it should be noted that, while I've not had any technical problems myself, some people may. This is considered somewhat of an experimental build so you may crash or see performance issues with the new physics and effects. If you have an older machine you may want to turn some of the graphics settings down to keep things running smoothly. The unit cap can be also set to unlimited, which will make any computer strain if you pump out enough ships. In space, no one can hear your computer scream.
While the graphics are similar, the sound is practically untouched. There are very few new sounds, if any, for ships or weapons and no new voices have been added. This only increases the feeling that you're still playing vanilla HW2. If they do ever do a full single player mode some more sounds and voices would be nice, so long as they're done well.
Target Engaged: Gameplay and Unit Changes
While there aren't all that many truly new ships in Slipstream, the ones that are there are worth looking at. Some are just re-skins, like the DOL's Super Carrier (which is just a renamed Vaygr Flagship). However the functionality has been expanded so that it can now build even the largest of capital ships, eliminating the need for the Shipyard. Same goes for the UNCG's Outpost, only it's a scaled up Carrier.
Drone ships are the only fighters left in the game (except for the Kamikaze Drones for the UNCG) and they are pretty weak. They can do a lot of damage if in a large group but will get torn apart by a few anti-fighter frigates. Most of the other ships are renamed and rearmed but will be recognizable from the original game. The biggest additions are in the capital ship line (in more ways than one). There are now Heavy Destroyers, Battleships, Ranged Cruisers, Heavy Cruisers and Assault Cruisers. Most other ships will be recognizable in their roles as they serve similar functions, just beefed up versions of other ships, with the exception of the DOL's Ranged Cruiser. This is more like an artillery ship that can fire on targets many kilometers away.
With all these big ships to build you're going to be needing a lot of Resource Units. The resource gathering is still the same, though the amount of RUs you get per load has been increased by a factor of five. This lets you get your fleet going faster and allows you to build the larger capital ships without having to halt everything else. The problem with this is that resource fields are no longer as valuable on the battlefield. Denying your opponent a field won't do as much to hinder his economy as he can get by just fine on one field. If you have three fields you will have more RUs than you will be able to use. This makes money somewhat of a non-issue and allows you to sit and turtle until you feel your fleet is big enough to mount an attack — or the other guy attacks first. Of course you'll also run out of resources faster, but that's not to likely to happen in a typical game, even with the multiplier set to Low. One interesting change is that Carriers can no longer build Resource Collectors. So if you really do need to boost your collection rate you'll have to halt whatever you're building on your Super Carrier/Outpost to build more Collectors.
When it comes to game options, you will have a few more when starting up a skirmish or multiplayer game. With the Game Type set to TPOF: Advanced you can choose more than the Resource Multiplier (which determines how many RUs an field has in it, not how fast you can collect them), Unit Cap (which you can now set to Unlimited), Starting Resources and Location. You can also set the Starting Mode, Win Conditions and Music. The Starting Mode gives you the choice of starting out with your Super Carrier and an Assault Carrier (default), only the Super Carrier or Instant Action (which gives you a large starting fleet and all tech unlocked).
Other changes to the gameplay are fairly minimal. You'll still select your units and use your Sensor view to send them out into the unknown, attack and jump (into Slipstream that is). Most subsystems are no longer targetable now (for the sake of “realism”), which is a shame. But I doubt most people used subsystem targeting all the much anyway. Subsystems do still take damage though, either from hits to that area or from splash damage. Personally, I don't mind if being able to track a specific part of a ship with your turrets isn't realistic, so long as it's fun; it's one of my favorite aspects of Empire at War. I don't see how it's all that different than targeting Drone fighter that are zipping past. Would be a bit easier, I'd think. That's really not going to make or break this mod, so I'm not going to worry about it.
However, if a mod is going to distinguish itself nowadays it has to offer something unique. After all, what is the point of modifying a game if not to to be different from the original? Slipstream feels like a great total conversion that isn't finished. It has taken steps that could lead to a very enjoyable single player experience, with a good start on the story, some nice new ships and impressive effects. But there isn't that much new content yet. Some of the changes they have, such as the tweaked physics, aren't going to be all that noticeable to the average player. What I'd like to see now is for the Slipstream team to start working on adding more new stuff, assuming they have the manpower.
This could be one of the last great Homeworld 2 mods, but only if they are able to add more content beyond a scattering of new ships and weapon effects. Fortunately this mod is still being actively developed (unlike most other HW2 mods), so the future looks bright. My message to the developers would be this: don't be afraid to make your own mark, to forge your own path. There's a whole universe of possibilities out there. Show us something amazing.
In the end whether or not you like Slipstream will depends largely on whether you like Homeworld 2. There isn't much that's that different from what you've been playing for the last six years, but what it does add is of high quality and will add a little something extra to the gameplay experience. Just don't expect anything mind blowing. Except for the explosions.