Sunday 7 May 2023

Homeworld - Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

Written by Reiko

The game opened in our penthouse apartment in San Francisco, but almost immediately we are thrust into danger and intrigue as we receive two calls, one rather more mysterious than the other. The company that runs the Gateway station and its prospecting missions wants us to come right away to talk to their alternate ambassador to the mysterious Artifact that recently appeared in the solar system. But then I was warned by an anonymous undercover FBI agent that the fanatical Phoenix Sect, who killed the original ambassador, apparently has us in our sights as well. We have to escape!

A mysterious anonymous agent warns us that things are going to get hot.

Amid that tension, there are a few interesting things in the apartment. The TV (er, "PV console") has a description that includes this: "It is an old 2-D flatscreen model, devoid of the 3-D tank and the full Virtual Reality hook-ups that are common among the more sophisticated consoles. You specified the older model when you were having the place outfitted - you didn't want anything to do with full immersion VR after your last mission as a Gateway prospector." The whole endgame of the first Gateway was a lengthy puzzle to repeatedly break the Assassin AI's VR simulation, including a rather detailed simulation of hell, so I can understand the PC's aversion.

The bed is also described as "old fashioned" and "You never did get used to the new fangled, high-tech sleep cocoons that are considered standard in the year 2112." I don't think we ever get a visual of what those are supposed to look like, though. The reading light is even described as an anachronism. I guess that's an easy way to display an apartment that looks pretty normal to our eyes while painting a verbal picture of a culture with more advanced technology.

Bills are still the same 100+ years in the future.

I also find a wadded up bill in the trash, which gives us this interaction upon examining it: "You snarl, wad the paper back up, and throw it back in the trash. You might have $50 million in the bank, but $267.51 for PV services is still highway robbery!" Inflation actually seems to have been pretty minimal for roughly a hundred years into the future if that's a monthly bill amount for entertainment/communication services.

News article showing how fanatical the Phoenix Sect is.

In the bedroom, I picked up a "news fax" and a matchbook with a single match left. "The grungy, folded matchbook is the only souvenir you have from the rough and tumble Blue Hell Bar aboard Gateway Station." The news fax is actually a printout from a "library terminal," but I suppose the writer at the time would have been imagining some kind of device that acted like a fax machine in terms of directly printing information sent from another location. When I read it, I get six brief articles in cutscene format with headlines including "Phoenix Sect Demonstrations Continue" and "Gateway Corporation Expands Role." I'm not going to copy all that here, but it's another way the story optionally fleshes out its setting and plot right from the beginning.

I'd better get a move on, though, or I won't have enough time to get out of here. I exit the apartment to the foyer area, from which I seem to have my own personal elevator access. However, the elevator is "temporarily out of service." We know now that that is deliberate, but the Phoenix Sect will shortly find a way to restore it and come up here. There's no escape that way, but there is a hallway that goes south to the stairs. Unfortunately, the stairway door is also sealed closed by the "SmartBuilding system" unless there's an emergency. No escape! Unless I can cause an emergency...

Lighting a fire to escape.

There's really only one way to cause enough of an emergency, and that's to set something on fire with the match in the matchbook. A surprising number of things in the scenario are flammable enough to set off the smoke detector: the bedspread in the bedroom, the books and the decorative plant in the living room, the trash in the trash can, the decorative plants in the foyer and hallway, and also the matchbook itself. The trash in the trashcan even starts a visible fire in the living room image.

Escaping through the stairwell.

Whatever we burn [10 - our first score increase], the sensor detects the smoke, decides there's an emergency, and unlocks the stairs for us. Now we can open the door and escape to the roof, where the military aircar is waiting as expected [10].

Flying over futuristic San Francisco

Romeo Delta Two launchpad

We get a rather lengthy cutscene here showing us flying away from the apartment, over the city, and out to the launchpad area along the coast south of the city. The huge base connected to the launchpad was apparently built where Vandenberg Air Force Base is now, if you know where that is.

Arrival at the research center

The scientist is trying to brief us on the Aquila mission.

The aircar takes us to the research center where we're supposed to brief the replacement ambassador, but we have to wait over two hours. The cutscene continues as we start getting a briefing ourselves from Marie Claire, a senior scientist working on the launch. The ship, Aquila, is at Pad Tango Three (the military loves naming things with letter-names, although it was Tanya for T on Gateway). She starts telling me about the ship's propulsion system and how the Ambassador will have to travel for four months to reach the Artifact, but suddenly an alarm goes off and she rushes off to see what's going on.

Twenty minutes later she's back. She looks terrified. She sits down across from you, her hands shaking. "I'll make this quick," she says in a distressed voice. "You came at a very bad time. This complex is under attack. We've been gassed. While you've been sitting in here, some kind of nerve agent has been released across Romeo Delta Two. Almost everybody is dead."

"We have been incredibly lucky. This part of the lab building is a positive pressure facility, which means that it is temporarily resistant to gas. We don't have much longer, though. At some point the gas will seep into the building."

"I think the attackers are Phoenix Sect. We know they want the Aquila ship. They want to get to the Artifact before anybody else, and the Aquila probeship is the only human-built vessel capable of reaching points outside the solar system in under a year."

"We have to keep that ship out of the hands of the Sect! There is an auto-launch program on the Mission Control Computer that will fuel the ship, activate the on-board autopilot, and trigger a lift-off. If the probeship is launched in this fashion, it will fly to the Artifact on autopilot. The alternative is to destroy the ship so that the Sect can't use it. An auto-launch is better." Marie writes something on a piece of paper. "The auto-launch authentication is-"

The door to the conference room bursts open. A figure dressed all in black and wearing a gas mask appears just inside the room. He is holding a radio and a gun. The gun snarls and flashes brightly. Marie is thrown out of her chair as she is struck by a cloud of steel flechettes.

A hair's breadth from death


The attacker runs into the room and his gun swivels to cover you. The man's finger tightens on the trigger, then pauses. He lowers the gun slightly and speaks into his radio in a harsh, clipped voice. "Looking Glass, this is Mock Turtle. Building One in Wonderland Sector One is secure. I'm the only survivor of my squad, but all of the Charlie Mikes are down and all civvies are down except for one. The last civvie is the guy the hit team was s'posed to plug in Frisco. What to do with him?"

The radio crackles. "Looking Glass to Mock Turtle. Waste the civvie and then sit tight. Good work. Sorry about your men."

The terrorist looks back at you and raises the gun. You flinch as the gun explodes in an orange flash. It takes you a moment to realize that the flash wasn't a shot - the gun literally exploded in the terrorist's hand as it was hit by a bullet from outside the room.

The explosion is followed by two sharp cracks from just outside the conference room. The black-suited attacker is spun around by the impact of high velocity slugs and drops to the floor on top of Marie, his radio dropping to the floor nearby. Your Combined Military Force escort pokes his head into the conference room and waves an assault rifle in the terrorist's direction. "You lose," he hisses at the terrorist's body. "All the 'Charlie Mikes' weren't down after all, you son of a bitch!" He looks at you. "Hey, buddy, it's a damn war zone out there. You better sit tight in here." The soldier runs off.

Well, that was quite the ride. We're finally given control back, dropped into the middle of a terrorist attack and basically told to stay put even though that's almost the worst thing we can do. I mean, we're in a little conference room with two bodies and some lab rats.

Those poor lab rats...why are they being kept in a conference room?

Without any protection, we die from the nerve gas in only seven minutes; the lab rats that are inexplicably stored in cages in the conference room start keeling over first. There's no indication that the soldier that saved my life had a gas mask, but fortunately, the terrorist did, and so now I do too [5]. Also fortunately, the note on the table has the authentication code for the auto-launch: AERIE [5], even though Marie didn't finish saying the word before she was killed.

I also need to take the radio from the terrorist [5]. The terrorist members continue to chatter at each other each turn on the radio, which will be helpful for determining what they're up to. Finally, I take the grenade from the terrorist's belt [5], which is described as having a four-minute countdown and an explosive power of half a ton of TNT. I'm going to have to be careful not to blow myself up if I find I need to use it for something. I think I've got everything useful from this room, so I take a deep breath (through the gas mask, of course) and step out of the conference room.

When in doubt, just unplug the thing.

I don't find any immediate danger from the engineering lab I find myself in, except for a wildly flailing robot arm in my way. Apparently whoever was supposed to be using the arm is gone, although I don't see any bodies here, but the arm was left on and unattended. I find a cable connecting the arm to a wall socket, so I carefully move under the arm and unplug the cable to deactivate the arm [10].

Now I can move forward, but which way? I see five available exits from this lab in addition to the way back into the conference room. I'll just have to start looking around and hope I don't run into more terrorists. Before that, though, I see there's another object in the room: a Heechee tuning fork, similar to the one I used in the first game. I can't grab it until the robot arm is deactivated, but if I don't specifically take it, the game automatically has me collect it on the way out of the room. It will do that with the radio also, ensuring that even with the stress of this dangerous situation, you don't fail to have the most important items. I'm not sure I particularly like that, to be honest, but I'm also very comfortable both with examining locations for items and for saving and restoring as needed.

Waiting at an empty maglev station.

Down follows a ramp to an underground maglev tram station. I might have to use this kind of tram to get to the actual launchpad, but there's no tram here at the moment. I go back and check a couple of other exits, which don't actually go anywhere, but indicate that we look around a maze of labs and return to the main engineering lab. South is the door to the lab building, which is guarded by an "evil looking drone aircraft" so I can't leave that way. The next time I return to the tram station, the tram is just arriving, so I hop in. It's empty except for one dead man caught by the gas who gets to just ride the tram around the track endlessly now.

At one point, I see that it's been about twenty minutes (each turn is one minute) since I regained control in the conference center, and the radio chatter indicates that more terrorist ground forces are on their way and should arrive in about twenty more minutes. Clearly we've got an overall time limit here. After I get in the tram, suddenly someone starts speaking on the radio in an unprofessional manner, and the response from the leader is for the company to find whoever broke communication discipline and shoot him.

The phrase is usually “open the kimono” but for our purposes it means “infodump.”

I ride the tram for several minutes and then arrive at the Mission Control station. Hopping out, I find a busy room full of controls and screens and also a couple more dead people. One specialist is wearing a white badge, which I swipe, because he won't need it any more. Examining it [5] gives me his name (Adeiro Kassan), clearance (Alpha One) and "Spec Code" (A552).

When I examine the controls, it first asks me for a spec code. Now I have Kassan's, so I enter that and get access to the "MICON" system with a choice of several different missions: Daedalus, Chimera, Tycho Brahe, Aquila, or Atlas. We know the one we're dealing with is Aquila, but what are all these other ones? I can pull up mission profiles for each one, execute ship systems checks, and even try to initiate the auto launch sequence, although I'm certain the authorization code I have should only work for Aquila.

Daedalus mission profile

Daedalus seems to be a military mission to deploy a new geostationary weapon over Africa to deal with a rebel government in Algeria. Chimera is a military experiment involving cloaking and stealth capabilities. Tycho Brahe involves testing an FTL drive prototype in the moon's gravity well. Aquila is, of course, our mission to send the Ambassador to intercept the Artifact. Finally, Atlas is a cargo run bound eventually for Gateway.

Aquila is the only one with an additional Special Information menu with Mission Objectives, Aquila Vehicle Data, a Flight Profile, and Course Data with some possibly plausible numbers for range and orbit information. The flight profile information tells me that the autolaunch has a 30-minute countdown; interplanetary acceleration will begin after two low Earth orbits; and transit to the Artifact should take about 55 days, which should be spent in cryo-sleep, presumably eliminating the need for most life-support systems on the ship. The mission objectives include determining if the Artifact is a threat, finding its origin, initiating diplomatic communication if possible, salvaging it if possible, and collecting data on it.

Waiting for the tram again while the enemy panics.

Fortunately, the systems check passes, so I can start the autolaunch sequence [25], although at this point I have no idea if there's anything else I should be doing first. "All systems nominal. Mission Aquila is GO. The thirty minute countdown clock is starting... NOW." From the computer system interface, I'm dumped back into the main text interface, and immediately the radio chatter indicates that the terrorists know what I've done. Apparently they had planned to do it themselves once they had control of the whole base, but I triggered it early, and now someone says, "This could ruin our whole day." Good, that's kind of the point.

So now we've done what the scientist asked us to do. The obvious next thing might be to try to get the heck out of the base. However, I don't actually know how to get out, and from playing this before, I'm pretty sure we actually have to get ourselves on the Aquila. I think we'll find that even the replacement Ambassador hasn't survived the terrorist attack, so we're going to have to go instead. Of course, there are a lot of ways this could go wrong, and I'm going to do my best to explore those too. But the next step forward will have to be to continue riding the tram to see where else it can take us. Next time, join me to find out how we snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and also defeat from the jaws of victory, as we perform spacecraft repairs and set off Chekhov's grenade.

As with Gateway, I will catalogue deaths and critical failure states at the end of each post, and track how many I find. Gateway had 16, but I didn't find any until the sixth gameplay post, so do you think Gateway II will have more deaths than that?


If you hang around the apartment building too long, the Phoenix Sect hit squad arrives (#1)

Succumbed to the nerve gas by failing to wear the gas mask. (#2)

Exploding the grenade in the lab. (#3)

Caught by the terrorist squad before starting the autolaunch. (#4)

This last death was actually difficult to trigger. I think I found a bug by deliberately turning off the radio and then just riding the tram around. After a while I got a little bored and turned the radio to the second frequency. A number of messages played about the defenders getting overrun by the terrorists, but after those played out, the radio went back and started playing the terrorist messages that had originally been playing on the first frequency, but by then it was probably an hour later than it should have been and the terrorists should have already gotten to the ship. I thought they were going to burst in on me in the tram, but they never did; this death was just a general one about the terrorists overrunning the base because we took too long, and we're killed in the process.

Score: 85
Deaths: 4
Inventory: white badge, tuning fork, slip of paper, gas mask, radio, grenade

Session Time: 1.5 hours
Total Time: 1.5 hours

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There’s a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no points will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. Please...try not to spoil any part of the game for me...unless I really obviously need the help...or I specifically request assistance. In this instance, I've not made any requests for assistance. Thanks!


  1. it certainly tries to keep an action movie type of pace to the plot, which is why I guess they don't want you to end up in a "dead man walking" scenario by leaving plot important things behind. Time limits (even relatively soft ones) can sometimes be unwelcome, I'm kinda mixed on them myself, especially since I do like to look around and explore, that's one of the main appeals of an adventure game after all.

  2. The Romeo Delta Two part is soooo good. I am particularly fond of the radio chatter, which manages to do a very good job in providing a dynamic environment (or at least the illusion thereof) since it changes according to your actions during the game.

  3. 500 microton is a bit of a problem. A ton is 10^6 grams and micro means X10^-6. Thus 500 microton translates (if math does not fail me) to 500g. Which means the grenade has the power of half a kg of TNT, or just more than a pound. Deadly at short range yes, but not a major explosive device.

    1. I'm guessing the writers just didn't know much about explosives. I mean, I know a bit about military equipment and I don't really understand what a pound of TNT really is in terms of explosions. Pohl, and by consequence the writers of this game, are not the kind of military nerds like Larry Correia or David Weber who write pages about well-oiled rounds going into well-oiled chambers. For one thing, game conventions or not, they'd probably have a grenade with a timer of 4 minutes be something other than a grenade, seeing as that's about 24 times the timer of 99% of grenades ever made.

    2. It's also a lack of understanding of the metric system, but it's not of major consequence. I understand they tried to make it sound futuristic and dangerous but they just threw the wrong adjectives at it. It's not a game breaker at all just a bit of a rough patch in what is otherwise a very well narrated story so far. I do agree that the artwork is excellent as well!

    3. It also specifically says it's supposedly equivalent to half a ton of TNT. Failure of the metric system, yes. Effective explosion? Also yes.

      Also keep in mind from a gameplay perspective, four minutes is only four turns, so even though it's a rather long time in real time, it needed to be that long to allow the player enough turns to use it and get away.

    4. Half a ton is a pretty big bang yes!

      Regarding the timer it is absolutely necessary as a gameplay mechanic. A demolition charge would have made sense for the power and timer but then the player would expect the timer to be adjustable, and probably made the puzzle too easy.

      But it really is a minor point, I'm really enjoying this part of the write-up, the radio messages and the descriptions give a sense of urgency and unfolding tragedy.

    5. I'm not sure it's a metric failure so much as a total failure to understand what tonnage of an explosive even means. If they'd gotten the units right, they'd still be saying "500 millitons... That's equivalent to half a ton!" which is a weird thing to say. It's like saying "50 percent? Why that's almost half!" it's a contentless sentiment. It feels to me like the sentence was written without the starting assumption that an "X-ton explosive" MEANS "equivalent to X-tons of TNT". It feels like they went in with the understanding that tonnage was a measurement of (probably SPECIFICALLY) nuclear explosions, THEN wanted to convey "It's a micro-sized nuke", THEN tried to explain it in terms of TNT-equivalent, but without ever realizing they weren't actually doing any sort of conversion, just saying the exact same thing twice, one of those times incorrectly.

    6. Eh, while it is a minor point, it is goofy. Imagine if randomly some game randomly went brought up how humans have 10 fingers on each hand. It wouldn't be a deal breaker, but you'd be amused by it nonetheless.

  4. I'm shocked I haven't seen images of this game plastered all over the internet before. This seems to be one of the best done pixel art games and people seem to have just forgotten about it.

  5. re the "news fax" - from the 60s through the 90s there were various attempts to push subscription fax services - an incoming fax every morning would deliver newspaper-like content, and futurists were pretty convinced it was going to replace newspapers eventually. Far as I know, none of them reached the subscriber levels needed to be considered stable, but they were still trying within the past decade - my printer has the capability to subscribe to content providers and automatically print out a page of news, a crossword puzzle, and stock quotes every morning. Has the capability, but can't do it; they shut down the service within three years.

    1. That's fascinating. Of course, all of those sorts of daily notification news services have switched to email long since. Even physical newspapers are slowly dying in many areas.

    2. I forgot about the whole news fax service idea until Ross mentioned it, a whole bunch of tech magazines were touting it as the next thing in news in the late 90s/early 2000s. Interesting how they thought paper would remain the preferred format for so long.

    3. There was a VERY long period even when computers were clearly the future that "important" people treated interacting with a computer as "beneath" them. So the assumption was that, sure, the proles and peons would get their news from a screen, but the CEO was going to expect his secretary to print out the news for him in the morning. I know in the 90s, it was still a pretty standard assumption that non-technical businessmen would have their secretaries print out their emails.

    4. (Lisa H. here)
      I still see sig blocks on some of my work email lists that say "please consider the environment before printing this email", like it's something people otherwise would commonly do. In some thirty years of electronic communication (we had CompuServe before we had today's kind of internet service) I can probably count the number of times I've printed an email on both hands at the most.

  6. ThatSpanishAnonymousWhoLovesCoktelVision12 May 2023 at 06:03

    I was going to open a debate about which "part 2" is better in classic graphic adventures, but I guess there's really no point, as most of them are very good except for a couple of terrible ones (namely Larry 2 and some parts of Space Quest 2). Including Gateway 2, which appears to be excellent. Perhaps the question would be whether any of these games were better than part 1 besides Day of the Tentacle and maybe Simon 2.

    But perhaps a more interesting topic would be which is the favorite graphic adventure interface for the readers of the blog. I mean, the Gateway games have a really weird interface and you don't know whether you should click or type. But is this the worse? Not really, Eternam and The Black Cauldron could take that spot. Also, which is better? The verb list at the bottom, the Sierra interface or the minimalistic, responsive style where you can't even choose the action? I'm sure some people believe typing is better due to the possibilities, so here's the debate.

  7. Is the briefing scientist Anne Robinson?!