Reviewed: November 29, 2002
Released: November 12, 2002
\He*gemío*ny\ n. A predominate influence of a region, state, or group over others. Thatís how you pronounce it and what it means, but just what is Hegemonia? Only the best space RTS game to ever come to this galaxy and land on your PC and potentially the best kept secret since aliens crashed in Roswell back in the 40ís.
I literally stumbled onto this game while doing my review for Project Earth: Starmageddon earlier this year. I saw some info on the DreamCatcher website, visited the Digital Reality website to view some screenshots, then proceeded to download the rolling demo and playable preview of this revolutionary RTS title. My vision of space games has forever been changed.
Coming in hot on the heels of another highly anticipated space RTS, O.R.B., you might think DreamCatcher was crazy to go head-to-head with Strategy First and their high publicized space RTS title. Well I am here to tell you that DreamCatcher has nothing to worry about. Hegemonia: Legions of Iron obliterates O.R.B. and just about any other space fleet battle game dating back to (and including) the granddaddy of them all, Homeworld.
There is so much to tell you about this game that I scarce know where to begin. I really shouldnít tell you anything other than to stop reading this and go out and buy this game wherever you can find it. Knock down little old ladies and shove kids out of your way, as you charge through the holiday shopping hordes and secure a copy of this legendary title right now before somebody else snatches up your copy.
OK. Youíre still reading so you must need some convincing. Hegemonia is a game of galactic conquest; more specifically, a conquest of our solar system. You start of as a Captain in the empire; an empire of planets and remote colonies that have been growing in population ever since Earthís inhabitants left our planet to stake their claim in the stars. At first, these colonies were weak and dependent on the Earth for resources and protection, but as they grew in numbers and strength they also became more independent and tried to severe their ties with mother Earth.
While much of the political power resided on Earth, all of the technology seems to be moving off-world with a mass exodus of scientists and other specialists who chose to relocate to the colonies. In 2104 there were 700 million colonists on Mars and another 150 million scattered among the outer colonies. They had their own armies, their own star fleet, and superior technology, and they no longer wished to remain under the control of Earthly politics. Fortunately, both the leaders of Earth and the colonies saw this volatile situation and prepared a conference to negotiate a truce before a war even had time to start.
On the way to the conference that was to take place on Earth's moon, a diplomatic convoy from Mars was ruthlessly attacked and destroyed. Mars blamed the Terrans and we didnít know whom to blame. Truth be told, the attackers had appeared and disappeared without a single radar trace. The attack was efficient and lasted only seconds. Mars demanded an investigation and an explanation no later than three weeks and when Earth couldnít give them one they severed all diplomatic ties and declared war on the World Government.
Thatís a quick summary of what you can read more about in the gameís 70-page manual (who says they donít make manuals anymore) and see in the gameís amazing opening movie. As you might expect from a story with two very diverse sides, you can play Hegemonia from either the Earth or Martian perspective. Obviously, as the story has indicated, the colonies have superior technology, but Earth still has a few tricks up their sleeve. The story and missions for each side are quite unique and offer an abundance of gameplay.
As with any 3D game, especially one set in the void of space, control becomes paramount. Hegemonia doesnít disappoint. It combines just about every popular RTS staple that veteran strategy gamers will know by instinct and adds a few very nice improvements to create an interface that is simple to learn and easier to use.
The mouse is your primary input device allowing you to pan and zoom around the galaxy as well as pick and group your units and issue orders. Itís all amazingly simple, so simple in fact that Hegemonia doesnít even waste your time with a tutorial. You also have several keyboard shortcuts that prove invaluable. The spacebar toggles between map and 3D views, and the map view doesnít pause the game. This means you could conceivably play the game from a 2D tactical perspective if you desired.
Clicking on a unit then on a target will give you a default action based on that relation. If the target is openly hostile you will get an Attack option. If itís a friendly unit you can Guard that ship or base. You can use the CTRL and ALT keys to force certain overrides allowing you to attack a neutral target that may be considered hostile but hasnít been openly aggressive.
There are several ways to control and move your units. You can create a series of waypoints effectively creating a patrol or navigational route through the solar system. You can also setup a tiered system were you assign a squadron to guard a particular unit then pick a destination for that unit. Your escort will follow the primary unit until it is given orders to the contrary.
Enemy and squadron AI is exceptional and I never found the need to babysit my units. I would simply have to click my squadron and then pick the target and let them do their job. There were times when I did have to call them off. Sometimes ships would surrender and my pilots would continue to attack unless I ordered them to cease fire. There were a couple of times I actually blew-up mission critical ships and got a good chewing out by the commander. It's nothing a quick reload of a save game can't fix.
Speaking of saving your game; you will be please to know that you can save your mission at anytime during the game. There is a quicksave and quickload feature as well as an Autosave that kicks in every ten minutes to save your progress. You will probably want to save before certain major encounters or if you want to try something risky or that may have a better solution.
The function keys bring up useful informational displays on the status of ships, planets, and research projects as well as the state of the Empire. These are all done in a futurist transparent overlay that blends with the interface and doesnít take you out of the game for even an instant. You can click on a ship and then pick the info button to get information on that formation, the pilot, and their experience points.
Yes, there is an RPG-like stat system in place that rewards your skills in combat with experience points that increases your squadronís proficiency in future encounters. This is a great feature that serves to get the player almost emotionally attached to his units. You wonít want to be taking any unnecessary chances after you have slowly built up your squadron over a half-dozen previous missions. This is how heroes are born.
Navigating in 3D space has never been easier because the designers simply don't make a big deal about it. While you can use the M key to move your units in 3D space and select waypoints in the X,Y,Z planes you are never "required" to do so. It's much easier to switch to the 2D map and pick your target or destination and you will go there regardless of where it happens to exist in the world of the Z-axis. While serious space jockeys might frown on this casual disregard for realistic navigation, O.R.B. has already proven that 3D navigation isnít easy and it can ruin a potentially good game if you try it and fail. Iím willing to take it for granted that in the year 2104 my navigational computer is going to make traveling in 3D space no more difficult than a quick drive to the corner FoodMart.
Unit control is especially easy with a nice little sub-menu that pops up when you click on your units. You can pick from various aggression levels and targeting modes. Hallelujah! Yes, you can actually target specific systems and it actually relates to the gameplay. In one of the earlier missions I had two small squadrons going up against a pair of formidable capital ships. By targeting their weapons systems first then going for their hull I was able to reduce the damage they inflicted and survive the encounter without a single loss. Most RTS games would simply have you target the ship as a unit and let the game calculate your damage and any losses. I found that the specific targeting gave this game a whole new tactical edge.
Hegemonia isnít just about space combat. You also have a fairly intense planetary simulation going on behind the scenes where you must manage a careful balance of production and research as well as thoughtful taxation of your citizens so you have funds to increase planetary defenses. Donít raise the taxes too much or Morale could take a hit and you will start to lose valuable citizens.
As you build up your ďheroesĒ in the various space battles you can assign them to planets to act as governors. Their attributes that are increased with the experience of battle can then be used to modify the morale on these planets, hopefully in a positive fashion. You can also send these heroes back into active duty to take over a squadron of fighters where once again, their stats will influence the performance of the entire squad. This ďheroĒ dynamic is very cool and one that I havenít seen implemented with such creativity.
Your planets are responsible for the production of new ships including fighters, battle platforms, mining stations, and special ships such as the covert spy ships used to gather intelligence from your enemies. There are even special spy missions you can undertake where you can steal money, technology, information, or lower planetary morale by instigating a negative propaganda campaign. You can even go as far as stealing inventions, assassinating leaders, and doing counter-intelligence work to uncover spies in your own government.
There are so many levels of Hegemonia that it almost seems like a half-dozen games have been combined into one. Normally when somebody tries something this ambitious you end up with a half-dozen substandard games, but in this case you end up with a half-dozen incredible nuances that combine to create the perfect RTS.
Space exploration will lead you to ore-rich asteroids suitable for mining and deserted planets suitable for terraforming. Terraforming is a complicated and lengthy process that will command all of your current resources. This means that no units can be built during the process and if you are forced to interrupt it the planet will immediately return to its original state.
The "technology tree" in Hegemonia is massive with more than 200 inventions to be researched and discovered. Combine that with the planetary system, hero management, covert ops and spying sub-missions, and even wormholes that take you to uncharted regions of the galaxy, you quite literally have one of the largest and most comprehensive space RTS games in history.
All of these unique variations in gameplay and resource management all come together in an story-driven series of missions that offer their own unique challenges that grow with the player. Each mission builds upon the skills learned in the last so the entire game actually serves as a tutorial of sorts. In the beginning certain menu options and research trees are locked so you canít confuse yourself with things you canít even use. As you gain experience and rise through the ranks these menu items will become open to you.
Each of the missions are of moderate size and come with a set of initial objectives and often several new objectives that will be added as events unfold. Lengthy travel times are made bearable by the time accleration function that allows you to cycle through 1x/2x/4x speed. Just make sure to turn it off before engaging in combat.
The story is quite gripping and told through excellent cutscenes that look amazing and complimented with professional acting and movie-like sound effects and music. But whatever you see in these movies cannot begin to prepare you for what you will experience once you start the game.
If you donít have one of those plastic keyboard covers you had better get one before loading up this game. The sheer quantity of drool that will ooze from your slack jaw will certainly short out your keyboard. This is one of those games that people will be talking about for years to come. Hegemonia has set a new high bar for graphics on your PC; a bar that isnít going to be hurdled anytime soon.
Letís begin by discussing the ďWalker EngineĒ. Youíve never heard of it? Well you are probably going to be hearing a lot more about it very soon. This amazing proprietary engine is capable of delivering graphics unlike anything you have every seen before. Capable of displaying 100,000 polygons, this engine also features an incredible LOD system that dynamically changes the detail levels to suit your current zoom level. Whether you are riding on the back of a fighter or watching it do battle from a nearby planet, you are guaranteed a consistently smooth framerate and the best looking models you will see in a space RTS game.
This LOD system has allowed the artists to create some of the best textures that hold up to the closest scrutiny. Normally I try to zoom in so my virtual camera lens is touching an object just to see how blurry or pixilated I can make it Ė in this game the closer you zoom the more detail you see. Itís mind-boggling!
Iíve included a dozen or so screenshots with this review that I took from the first two missions of each campaign. Please keep in mind that these in no way do this game the justice it deserves. Even if I had left them at their original 1600x1200x32bit quality you still couldnít appreciate the fact that each of these models is dynamically lit from real light sources such as the sun, or the glow from the engines. You canít see the space stations and mining platforms with all their moving parts that are spinning in opposite directions to create artificial gravity and counteract the torque of the other moving rings. You canít see the hundreds of twinkling lights of the view ports on the space station. You canít skim the surface of Earth and see the bluish glow of the atmosphere that envelops the planet. You canít circle around to the backside of Earth as it spins on its axis and see where night and day begin and end and zoom in to see the millions of lights dotting the half of the planet still cast in darkness.
What you can see is the colorful star maps, even though you canít appreciate all of the subtle glows and animations that are taking place. You can see some incredibly detailed wreckage that floats gracefully in space and the colorful ion trails of the various ships. There is even a giant asteroid belt with spinning rocks and misty clouds that separates the Earth from the outer planets. Even the menu screen will blow you away with this tiny little probe droid that flies around the solar system visiting planets, space stations, and other visually stunning objects.
Explosions look like they were video captured and larger ships and asteroids blow apart in realistic chunks of debris, all of them burning and blowing up into smaller fiery pieces. Damage is realistically rendered at the point of impact with hit-location specific texture scarring and explosions. Pieces of debris will fly off the larger ships during combat for a very convincing battle experience.
The interface is seamlessly integrated into the game with a series of semi-transparent windows that overlay only when necessary. These contain useful information and are usually specific to a unit you have previously clicked on or perhaps an update to your current mission objective. Of course you can bring up information panels at any time with the function keys or by clicking on the screens button located in the bottom corner of the display. All other real-time information is kept tucked away along the border of the screen and even the traditional bar graphs attached to each unit depicting their health is hidden from view unless you force it to display with a press of the L key.
During the game you can pick from several cinematic cameras by pressing the G key. Each press cycles to a new camera and when the cycle repeats you are still treated to a variation of the same view. This is a wonderful feature that lets you enjoy the action from all sorts of interesting angles once you have issued your orders. During some of the lengthier flights you can watch as your squadron engages in some fancy formation flying as they cycle through all of their various configurations.
Again, nothing I write here and no screenshot can begin to communicate the awe you will experience the first time you see this game in action. At any given moment in Hegemonia you will feel the same tingly feeling you felt the very first time you saw the opening credits to Star Trek Voyager or that huge reverse camera move in the opening to Contact.
All of this visual splendor does come at a cost. To play this game as it was meant to be played you are going to need a lot of hamsters working that treadmill inside your CPU case - about 1Ghz to be exact along with a beefy 3D accelerator and an EAX sound card to complete the package. While you can play and possibly enjoy this game with less, your awe and amount of drool will vary accordingly.
The music compliments the wondrous visuals with stunning tracks worthy of a theatrical film release. Everything sounds so majestic you canít help but feel you are actually flying through these spectacular environments.
Sound effects are scaled so they are proportional to your view distance. If you roll the mouse wheel and get right up into the exhaust port of a ship the engine noise is deafening. If you switch to the internal cockpit camera of one of your fighters you get the quiet hiss of the engines outside the cockpit canopy.
Explosions are thunderous and shockingly realistic provided you can get over the fact that there is no sound in space. In the first Earth mission you are sent to blow up a meteor. The resulting explosion is not only incredible (see screenshot #8), but it extends into a series of smaller explosions as each of the smaller chunks of rock blow apart.
The voice acting is excellent with realistic portrayals of all the major and supporting characters. Even the voices of the occasional pirate or illegal arms smuggler are created with professional talent. All of the dialog and narration is delivered extremely well and mission objectives and updates are all spoken, as well as being displayed in text windows. This is great since you donít always have time to read a few pages of text in the middle manipulating your squadron.
EAX is used to create some spatial 3D effects that literally envelop you in sound. At one time I chose to watch my assault on an enemy mining facility from the targetís perspective. I was immediately surrounded by the sounds of my squadron as they circled the target unleashing volleys of laser fire.
At the time of writing this review I have finished the Earth campaign and the first three missions of the Martian story. That alone took me nearly 20 hours to complete. Iím guessing there will be at least 30-35 hours of total single-player gaming offered with this title, but even that is a rough estimate as there are so many things that can happen outside the confines of the main story. There are nearly a dozen random events that can crop up at any time to alter your destiny and change the way the game unfolds.
You can also play the single-player campaign cooperatively with a friend. This seems to be a growing trend and one that I am totally in favor of. Of course there are still plenty of multiplayer modes that let you play against your friends. These can be played on a LAN or over the Internet using the GameSpy service. Finding other players might be a bit challenging right now as this game seems to be a ďsleeper hitĒ at the moment, but I plan to keep shouting my praises from the mountaintop and maybe take out a billboard ad or two until everyone has a copy of this game installed on their PC.
In case you canít tell by now, I really liked Hegemonia. This is one of those titles that has me re-evaluating the scoring system we use to rate our games. Hegemonia is indeed perfection on a level I would have never suspected from a virtually unknown foreign developer and released by one of the smaller, but growing import publishers in the U.S.
You might not see huge advertising campaigns or big banners or displays at your local software store, but if you do see this game on the shelf and you have the slightest interest in space RTS games then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Hegemonia. You can thank me later, but youíll thank yourself the moment the opening movie begins.