Homeworld Remastered Collection
The phrase ‘ahead of its time’ is one that’s thrown around far too often in gaming and technology circles but if ever there was a game that turned its back on genre convention and rewrote the rulebook, it was PC real-time strategy classic Homeworld. Back in 1999, when top-down titles like Starcraft, Total Annihilation and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun dominated the strategy niche, Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld was bravely pushing the genre where no game had gone before: into true, fully navigable three-dimensional space on a scale where missions spanned whole star systems and campaigns an entire galaxy.
The last of the series, Homeworld 2, was released in 2003 and the strategy gaming community has clamoured for another sequel ever since. The franchise lay dormant for a decade before it was purchased by developer Gearbox Software at auction after the demise of publisher THQ. Now, to drum up anticipation for their promised reprisal, Homeworld: Shipbreakers, Gearbox have packaged up remastered versions of the first two Homeworld titles and a standalone multiplayer mode, releasing the lot to eager PC gamers.
Homeworld is space opera writ large, the story of the Kushan people’s journey across the stars to find a mythical place of origin. Inspired by the original Battlestar Galactica television series, the game shares much with the 2004 reboot not only in terms of overarching plot but in visual aesthetic, sound design and music. Barber’s Agnus Dei, a choral arrangement of Adagio for Strings, dominates the game’s soundtrack and lends gravitas and poignancy to the struggles of the Kushan in a genocidal conflict with their arch-rivals the Taiidan Empire.
Even a decade and a half on, it’s striking just how fresh and revolutionary Homeworld’s gameplay systems feel. The core RTS mechanics of base-building, resource gathering, research and combat take on a new level of depth and complexity with the introduction of the third dimension. Your fleet, centred around the colossal mothership, is vulnerable to attacks from above or below the primary plane while tactical exploitation of the same z-axis can allow your ships to drop in on the enemy unexpected.
The game’s starship classes, running from the highly mobile but lowly fighters to the lumberous, gigantic but powerful capital ships, give space battles an epic scale and choosing the right fleet composition quickly becomes the key to success. There’s a certain rock-paper-scissors dynamic to this aspect of the game; bombers are vulnerable to fighters, which are easy prey for flak frigates, which are in turn impotent in the face of larger capital ships. Choosing the right combination of ships and deploying them in the right tactical formations is deep and rewarding and encourages experimentation both in building and battle.
Homeworld 2 picks up the story when a new threat to the Kushan emerge after the completion of their mission. Core gameplay is broadly similar to Homeworld, albeit with some rebalancing and new mechanics thrown into the mix. Some of the original game’s tactical choices have been scaled back, although the game features a wider range of capital ships and battles that are generally grander in scope. It’s a fine game but one that improves only incrementally on its predecessor.
Both games take place against a spectacular interstellar backdrop and it’s in the raw majesty of the starscapes, planet rises and dust clouds that Gearbox’s remaster shows its true quality. This is a stunningly beautiful game and a triumph of artistry over raw technical grunt. Ship models may have higher polygon counts and improved textures but it’s the original visual design that steals the show, brought to life in a light show of searing plasma bolts, ion beams and exploding capital ships.
As spectacular and exemplary a conversion as it may be, Homeworld Remastered Collection isn’t perfect. As part of the remastering process, Gearbox has reworked both games’ user interfaces to take advantage of higher resolution screens and bring them more in line with modern strategy titles. Unfortunately, this means that the first game’s elegant and minimalist interface has been jettisoned in favour of more on-screen clutter; a real loss in a title visually dominated by stunning full screen starscapes. Still, original versions of both titles are included in the package for those who’d rather play without the interface changes and visual enhancements.
Sprucing up old assets has also resulted in a few quirks and oddities. The original Homeworld’s formation and tactics settings have been replaced with those of the sequel, something of an annoyance to veteran players no doubt, but which would likely have passed most neophytes by – had Gearbox updated the accompanying audio files. As it is, the player is asked to select tactics for their strike groups that aren’t there. Neither the UI changes or minor oversights during the conversion process are game-breaking, but they do jar in a remaster that otherwise treats the source material with a great deal of respect.
Homeworld and its sequel were notoriously challenging on their original release and the passage of the years has done nothing to lessen their difficulty. Put bluntly, these games aren’t for everyone Navigating and moving in a fully 3D space remains cognitively demanding even 16 years on and come the middle of the game, the player is expected to be able to monitor and react to events on two or three separate fronts in each mission. It’s overwhelming at times, and the learning curve is undeniably steep, but the payoff is a strategy experience that has still to be bettered in its epic scale.
Homeworld Remastered Collection is a welcome refresh of a landmark and fondly remembered series. That the core gameplay holds up so well today is a testament to the quality of Relic’s original work but Gearbox must take credit for a visually stunning remaster that handles the source material with care and respect. For real time strategy fans, this is nothing short of a must-buy, while those with the patience to get to grips with Homeworld’s idiosyncratic mechanics will find their time richly rewarded.