Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: Gearbox Software
Release Date: February 25th, 2015
Platforms: PC (Steam)
Reviewed on PC (review copy provided by Gearbox Software)
In the fall of 1999, Relic Entertainment released a real-time strategy game called Homeworld. It was the first fully three-dimensional RTS game made and combined with stunning graphics, story, music, and gameplay, it became an instant classic among PC strategy enthusiasts. It won multiple Game of the Year awards and spawned an expansion and a sequel. All were equally well-received. That made it even harder when Relic Entertainment was purchased by THQ and the Homeworld franchise was put on the back-burner. When THQ went under in 2013, Gearbox Software acquired the rights to Homeworld at auction and announced that they were working on Homeworld Remastered: a full remastering of both Homeworld and Homeworld 2. This revelation was met with much enthusiasm in the PC gaming community, as it’s been quite some time since a decent RTS was released.
Fortunately, Homeworld Remastered does in fact live up to its predecessors. Both games are gorgeous recreations of their formal selves. As a nice bonus, the remastered edition also comes with both titles in their original forms. Gearbox redid Homeworld using its sequel’s updated engine, so when playing the campaign and multiplayer in Homeworld, there will definitely be differences from what you remember playing the first time. Some of the menus are streamlined, some of the game mechanics are more forgiving and more efficient, and some units behave differently than they do in the original release. However, if you’d like to avoid any of those changes you can just open up Homeworld 1 Classic and play the game as it was released 16 years ago.
The campaigns for both games are great fun. They’re very challenging, even to seasoned strategy players like myself, and I never found myself bored during any of the levels. There are some tedious levels, but they border on annoyance more so than boredom. The story is a different take on the traditional space operas we’re used to – it likes to inject prophecies, myths, and tribalism into extremely technologically advanced species, mixing primitive and futuristic themes. Homeworld 1 follows the story of the Kushan, a species living on a desert planet inhabited by warring factions. The Kushan unearth a massive buried spaceship under the sands and were able to reverse engineer all the technology it carried, entering a golden age of scientific discovery. A map found in the ship points toward a faraway world called Hiigara, translated as “Home” in their tongue. The campaign follows the Kushan as they launch a mothership meant to travel and find their homeworld, and the trouble they encounter on the way. Homeworld 2 continues the story of the Kushan after they’ve settled on Hiigara, and how they resist a species trying to wipe out them and their entire world, all the while trying to find an ancient power hidden in the core of the galaxy.
The gameplay is daunting at first, but by the second level it gets easier to adjust to. Hotkeys make up the majority of your unit selections – unless you’d prefer more traditional ‘click-and-drag’ – and the menus are easy to access and understand. Each ship class has its own tab under the build menu, so what could have become very bulky and confusing is instead efficient and sleek. The maps each level takes place on is fairly large, and that feeling is compounded by ship speeds. The bigger the class of ship, the slower it moves. You start with fighters – the smallest and quickest – and move on to corvettes, frigates, capital ships, and super-capital ships, which take literally 15 minutes to cross the map. While waiting for your ships to get their rears in gear can be frustrating, it creates a sense of scale that most games sorely lack. You really do feel like you’re watching monstrously sized ships cross space at a (relatively) realistic speed.
The space battles are everything a sci-fi fan could possibly want, and sometimes more. They’re large, chaotic, beautiful, and almost balletic. Fighters and corvettes swim around the enemies and attempt to outnumber them while your frigates and capital ships keep their distance and pound them with heavy fire. While it’s tempting to send your units in and sit back and watch the show, micro-management of certain battles can be crucial. If your capital ships aren’t targeting the enemy capital ships – usually in order of most dangerous to least dangerous – you could get pulverized before you realize your mistake. This leads me to a tangential point: save your games! Homeworld 1 has no auto-save function inside missions, so it’s up to you to quick-save your game. Do it often! I lost track of the amount of times I didn’t quick-save before I made a catastrophic decision. Fortunately, Homeworld 2 implements auto-saves every time you complete an objective, but sometimes those objectives can be 20 to 30 minutes apart, so it’s still a good idea to save before you attempt to do anything too dangerous with your fleet.
The visuals in this game are truly stunning. The scope of the fleet, the backdrops of the levels, and the designs of the ships all add to a vibrant art style that never gets dull. The weapons firing and impacting ships is precise and fun, and the variations on the types of armaments means it never looks too similar – there are guns, lasers, missiles, flak, torpedoes, cannons, and ion cannons. The cutscenes eschew traditional CG animation for a more creative take: every cutscene appears as moving concept art. The scenes are static images with either the camera moving or certain images in the shot moving. It’s very unique and very fun to watch.
Both games launched with a multiplayer component, but as of this writing, it’s still in beta and experiencing some issues. I was only able to successfully join one match, and my opponent never started playing. Sadly, that part of Remastered is not the only thing experiencing issues. I ran into several bugs while playing the campaign, ranging from as small as button presses not registering to as game-stalling as the screen going blank and the objectives not updating, or necessary graphical details not appearing on the screen. Most of the issues I encountered are listed as “known” on their support database, but some of them are so frustrating that I’m surprised they didn’t make sure they fixed it before the game launched. I spent nearly an hour on one level waiting for it to be over, as I’d completed the objective and wiped the map of all enemies, but that never happened. I was only able to progress by restarting the level and doing everything over – and hoping there wasn’t a second occurrence. The only positive light to this is that I enjoyed Homeworld so much I didn’t mind repeating the same level.
Another more significant issue that’s ongoing is the AI and unit behavior. You’re able to command your units to be aggressive, defensive, or passive, and to order them into formations (walls, spheres, phalanxes). Sadly, neither of these features seem to be working well currently – or at all in some cases. My units would aggressively pursue enemies into hazardous areas, even though I selected the passive stance, and told them to retreat. They would ignore me and be destroyed. Capturing ships is a major part of the game in Homeworld 1, and my units would not stop firing on vessels I was capturing, even as I told them not to and to retreat. They destroyed a great lot of units that I wish I was able to take as my own instead. In a certain mission, the game crashed three times to my desktop for no reason and with no error message – luckily it stopped after that.
Despite the bugs and the annoyance and frustration they can cause, having this classic game updated and available again to the masses is a great treat. It runs well, it looks amazing, and it is definitely one of the top RTS games of all time. If you’re a fan of strategy games, science fiction, or both – play this game! You will not regret it. If you played it when it was originally released and enjoyed it, be sure to give it another go. It aged incredibly well, and I had every bit as fun with it as I remember having way-back when.