| Dan Stapleton |
IF I’D never seen or heard of Homeworld or Homeworld 2 before playing The Homeworld Remastered Collection, and you told me they first came out in 1999 and 2003, I’d probably have called you a liar.
Even ignoring Remastered Collection’s beautifully enhanced graphics, which would’ve definitely fooled me into believing these were modern real-time strategy games, the way original developer Relic expertly pulls off a brilliant recreation of the Star Wars-scale space fleet battles is nothing short of amazing.
Time has been very kind to both Homeworld’s highly atmospheric story, and its design. It’s fantastic that new developer Gearbox has updated these games for a new generation of strategy fans.
But of course I did play Homeworld in 1999, and a great many games since, yet these two 15-hour campaigns are still some of the best large-scale space battles I’ve ever taken part in.
The way fighters strafe and weave in combat is really impressive – they almost never have physics-breaking bumper-car collisions – and I adore watching individual turrets on larger ships track their targets.
That breathtaking attention to detail, along with the newly refreshed models, textures, and effects highlight the creatively distinctive and often asymmetrical spaceship designs.
A good-sized engagement of a few dozen ships is like a ballet mixed with a fireworks display of violent explosions, lighting up the already colorful nebula-tinged skyboxes like a laser show.
Homeworld and Homeworld 2 definitely aren’t simple games, but their complexity is the rewarding kind. Controlling fleets that can move freely in full-3D space is challenging to get the hang of, and it can be difficult to even figure out what’s going on when two armadas of fighters, bombers, and corvettes are all swirling around in a giant furball of a dogfight around frigates, destroyers, battlecruisers, carriers, and the massive mothership itself.
Getting used to tethering the free-floating camera to ships or objects in the area you’re interested in is the equivalent of finding your sea legs when you’re accustomed to having solid ground under your feet.
Homeworld’s interface does a good job of helping you wrangle your forces, though, especially now that many of Homeworld 2’s improvements have been retrofitted to the original.
Zooming out to a tactical view of the area and giving orders to control groups makes things manageable, and double-clicking to select every unit of a type lets you take command of fast-moving and scattered ships.
The toughest trick is giving orders to travel to a specific point in space – you have to give a move order, then hold Shift to adjust the altitude, and you have to constantly shift the camera around to get a sense of depth.
Admirably, the interface does all of this without getting in the way of the action – even the build and research menus are mostly kept collapsed and out of sight. Subtle improvements, like the elimination of the need to refuel fighters and corvettes periodically, makes moment-to-moment gameplay move a little smoother than it originally did.
Actually, the full-3D navigation is rarely used in missions, as most of the action takes place on a 2D plane. I find the ability to send your ships up and down the Z-axis is more essential to Homeworld’s imposing sense of scale than its mission design or fleet tactics – the vastness of space becomes clear when you realise these maps are as large vertically as they are horizontally.
A side effect of the huge maps is that there’s quite a bit of downtime, and a slow pace in general as huge, plodding starships make their way from one side to the other. That deliberate movement has the advantage of keeping things from becoming overwhelming during the heat of battle; even though I’m managing dozens of ships at once, I rarely worry I’ll miss something crucial.
Waiting for resource harvesters to drain asteroids of their mineral treasures is quite tedious at times, though.
A rock-paper-scissors balancing system makes it fairly easy to determine what ships you should send to counter the enemy, though you usually have options.
You could stop an incoming wave of enemy interceptors with interceptors of your own, or multi-gun corvettes, or activate a Gravity Well Generator to disable them completely so that your Assault Frigates can pick them off.
The big-picture strategy is to make sure you have ships in range to respond to new threats before it’s too late, which leads to some tense juggling and risk-taking.
There are some great missions in the first 15-hour campaign: challenges like fending off swarms of drone ships in a dense nebula, reacting to surprise attacks, defending allies, and capturing enemies keep the goals varied.
The stakes of battle are raised considerably by the fact that your fleet is persistent from mission to mission, meaning that if you lose a destroyer in battle, you might have a tougher time getting through the next mission.
It’s generally good at scaling the threat to match what you’ve brought with you, though you might have to load a previous mission’s auto-save to get back to that tough spot with more firepower and resources in the bank.
A few missions don’t hold up – clearing a wave of asteroids headed for your stationary mothership is a tedious exercise after blasting the first couple of rocks.
Another mission forces you to guide your ships through a dust cloud to shield them from radiation; in the original, the dust particles were easy to spot; in Remastered, they’re one-pixel dots and frustratingly difficult to follow.
Those are more than worth tolerating, because Homeworld tells a fantastic, emotional story – something very few real-time strategy games have done.
With nothing but spaceship models, artful use of the cinematic camera, awe-inspiring classical music, and some excellent parallax animations and voiceovers, Relic created a convincing tale of a people fleeing genocide and setting out in a desperate search of their ancestral home. This game has gravitas.
Transitioning from Homeworld to Homeworld 2 is an interesting mix of tradeoffs. Like in the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, Homeworld’s story is an emotional story of desperate survival, and as powerful today as it was 15 years ago. Like the third and fourth seasons of Battlestar Galactica, Homeworld 2 loses sight of what made it special and turns to less relatable themes like playing out mystic prophecy and cliches of reuniting ancient artifacts. To be fair, Homeworld is a tough act to follow, but it’s still a bit of a let down in that department.
On the other hand, mission design is significantly improved in the similarly lengthy sequel, with no memorably annoying scenarios and plenty of great battles, some of which feature outrageously powerful ships. Homeworld 2 notably makes a big jump forward in control by shifting from Homeworld’s individually built small ships to treating whole squadrons as a single unit, which removed much of the busywork from maintaining a large, spectacular fleet. It’s too bad that story mojo runs out in the second game, because Relic learned so much from the first campaign in regards to mission design and pacing that Homeworld 2 is significantly more fun to play.
Notably absent is Homeworld: Cataclysm, the campaign that came between the two numbered games. Gearbox says too much of the source materials from that game has been lost or misplaced to give it the full remastering treatment for now.
It’s a shame Gearbox couldn’t take the Beta label off of the multiplayer modes before The Remastered Collection went on sale, so it should be approached with skepticism with regards to its balance and stability.
However, it’s great that it offers the ability to play as any of the four different factions from across both games. This means you can set up a scenario where you play as the Kushan from the original Homeworld against Homeworld 2’s Hiigarans (the same people), or match the first game’s Taiidan empire against the second game’s invading Vaygr.
Not that any of the sides is radically different in a mechanical sense, but the subtleties of each, such as the Kushan’s Stealth Fighter and Drone Frigate, give the options some variety. It’s here that the research system that seems so superfluous in the single-player game (because techs are unlocked one or two at a time) actually matters, and allows for some crucial decisions for what type of fleet you’ll build. Homeworld will likely never be a competitive RTS due to its slow pace, but skirmishing against the AI or other space battle fans won’t get old anytime soon. It also features a great fleet painter, which lets you splash your ships with pink and purple if you so chose.
On the technical side, I’ve experienced great performance on my GeForce GTX 970, and only one crash in more than 40 hours of play. The one significant issue has been that running in full screen mode has caused a strange problem where the cursor is constrained to roughly 75 percent of the screen area, unable to reach the bottom or right sides. (Windowed mode works fine.) For some reason, this occurred on two of three computers tested, and Gearbox’s team says this is the first they’ve heard of it.
Much as I appreciate the inclusion of the original, untouched versions of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 as extras in The Remastered Collection, some slight updating would’ve been nice – for example, making them support 16:9 resolutions without having to go in and tweak .ini files. But they do run, if only barely. Trying to run Homeworld Classic at above 640×480 caused text to become illegible. But this is the only way to experience fun but goofy features ability to play through the Homeworld campaign as the Taiidan instead of the Kushan.
The verdict: 9 out of 10 (Amazing)
Homeworld: The Remastered Collection does a fantastic job of polishing up and reintroducing these formerly hard-to-experience classic real-time strategy games.
Over the 15 years since it first came out, these exciting, large-scale space battles haven’t been matched, much less surpassed, and its outstanding atmosphere and story can teach modern game developers valuable lessons on how to make the most of simple animation, dramatic camera angles, and a largely classical score.
With only a few missions and ideas that stand out as poor with the benefit of hindsight, it’s amazing how well Homeworld holds up as a single-player focused RTS, and I can recommend it as strongly today as we did in 1999. – (Courtesy of IGN)