Great graphics, mediocre gameplay, poor storytelling.
I won't say that I'm completely disappointed, because I'm not, but this certainly was not the game I was hoping would follow Cataclysm.
The graphics have been extensively overhauled, and are the best thing about this game. There's nothing like watching two massive fleets open up on each other in this graphics engine. The game uses the same "spherical backdrop" concept as the first two. Generally it feels less like you're floating in space than in a giant sunset painting, but black backgrounds make for a difficult time in tracking your ships. The range from fair to good to astoundingly good, such as in the final mission.
On the downside, this game is just plain hard. Now a hard game in and of itself isn't necessarily bad. But there's a difference between "fun hard" and "annoying hard". The former punishes you for bad decisions you make in a game, and the latter punishes you for simply playing a game in the first place. And unfortunately, this game is often "annoying hard".
The designers also did away with a lot of the open strategy found in the first two titles. For me, part of the charm of Cataclysm was exploration, planning, and strategizing. And sometimes, just zooming in on my fleet as it went about its activities, watching harvesters harvesting and fighters patrolling. Not Homeworld 2. There are precious few moments when you can relax. It's often just reaction after reaction to scripted events. I'm sure this was done for "pacing", but it wears thin after a while.
This non-open approach to the game makes for some big gameplay differences from previous games. Player resource harvesting has essentially been removed from entirely, since resources are harvested at the end of the level "automatically". But since each level abruptly ends after you achieve the last objective -- presumably for "pacing" again -- this sounds better in theory than it works in practice.
Firstly, you don't get the opportunity to rebuild and regroup at the end of the mission anymore -- unless you consciously leave an open objective, which is not always possible. And even when it is possible, it feels artificial. Come on, why not just let me rebuild at the end of the mission? I'm a big boy -- I can choose when I'm ready to go. Why do I have to leave a carrier lurking about just to finish building a destroyer?
Secondly, it also sometimes makes for a silly, artificial feel to the storyline's progression. Some missions have you "barely escape", often with a devastated fleet. But then, as the screen fades to black after your emergency departure, the words "Resources Collected" flash across the screen. So who stayed behind to collect them? And how did they survive? And how did they get back to my main fleet? A little storyline cohesion isn't too much to ask for.
The storyline is interesting, but not properly developed. Story elements or incidents are often introduced without any background or explanation of their significance. For example, an early mission has you going after something called "the Oracle". What is it? Who knows. Something important (apparently) that moves the storyline forward (apparently). Some very momentous events happen in the course of the game, but without much background or explanation, it sometimes feels a little too much like reading a fourth grader's story: a series of barely-related events with no underlying rationale holding them together. Certainly nothing like Cataclysm, whose cohesive and engaging story led me to discover, in the last mission, that I had become truly invested in the characters and the outcome. I had hoped for as much with Homeworld 2.
I enjoyed many aspects of the game, but finished it with an overall sense of dissatisfaction that you will no doubt find reflected in this review. The game was all right, without the open-endedness that made the original games truly shine. In the end, I found myself yearning to play Cataclysm again, and I'll probably do that.
Sure, it's graphics don't compare to Homeworld 2. But it's got a heck of a story line, and it's just plain fun.