Lost and found and turned around
In 1999, I was 11 years old. It was a time when every video game purchase was a gamble. The best you could do was to read a review or watch a grainy, minute-long Quicktime video that you spent an hour to download on 56k while hoping your $50 wasn’t spent in vain. I discovered some of my favorite games with just the blind promises of the back of a box. Starsiege: Tribes, Suikoden II, Half-Life, Giants: Citizen Kabuto and more were all stabs in the dark that paid off with hours of enthrallment in front of the glow of a CRT.
As a young sci-fi fan, all anyone had to do back then to wrestle my hard-earned money from my wallet was throw some spaceships on a box. More than likely, if my mom allowed me, I’d fall in love with the simple promise of being whisked away to the stars. Sometimes my gambles paid off, like with Star Trek: Klingon Academy and Freelancer, and sometimes I’d get a dud like Allegiance, which was a good game, but one whose servers had been shut down before I even bought it. However, none made a bigger impression on me than Sierra’s Homeworld did. The top-notch writing and 3D playing field etched themselves into my memory and left me clamoring for a sequel.
Although the story continued in Homeworld: Cataclysm in 2000 and Homeworld 2 in 2003, the series went dark and new copies weren’t even available. THQ’s bankruptcy in 2013 led to the franchise’s rights going up for auction. After acquiring the IP with the winning $1.35 million bid, Gearbox announced it would be bringing an updated Homeworld and Homeworld 2 to a new generation in the form of the Homeworld Remastered Collection.
Homeworld Remastered Collection (PC)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: Gearbox Software
Released: February 25, 2015
Rig: AMD FX-6300 @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 7950, Windows 8.1 64-bit
Starting on the desert planet Kharak, Homeworld follows the tribal peoples of the Kushan. The discovery of the ancient starship Khar-Toba in one of the planet’s vast deserts confirmed what many already speculated: Kharak was not the origin of the Kushan people. The Guidestone was recovered from the ruins of the ship and carved upon its chipped face was a map of the galaxy leading to a distant star inscribed with a single word: “Hiigara.” No translation was needed as every Kushan knew it.
The map was pointing “home.” Over the next hundred years every man, woman, and child worked toward one objective: to complete the ship which would carry over 600,000 of them to their ancestral home planet. It would be equipped to overcome any adversity and be the first Kushan space-faring vessel to be capable of faster-than-light travel thanks to the salvaged Hyperspace Core found on the Khar-Toba.
You are Fleet Command, and the Kushan are depending on you to lead them to Hiigara. Along the way you’ll face off against the corrupt and despotic Taiidani Empire, trade with the enigmatic Bentusi, and discover the past of your race as you attempt to reclaim your rightful place in the stars. Your exodus across the galaxy is a relentless struggle against the odds and is one of my favorite campaigns in video game history. By the time you make it to the end there is a true feeling of satisfaction. Even though most of the story is told through voiceovers and the movements of starships, I felt truly connected with the Kushan as if I actually went through the journey with them.
Unfortunately, Homeworld 2’s story is of less consistent quality. Without spoiling the excellent saga of the original, all I can say is that it takes place 100 years after the conclusion of the first game. Although it’s still interesting, it can’t compare to the tenacious flight of the Kushan. I found to to be a bit tangential, and the antagonists of the game, the Vaygr, don’t evoke the same raw anger that the Taiidani did.
I highly recommend that if this is your first time playing the series to play them in order, as the charm of the original makes the second one shine a bit brighter than if it was played on its own. However, gameplay between the two is very similar, and in Homeworld Remastered Collection, the lines are further blurred as both games now use the same engine.
Up to the release of this collection, unlike the gameplay and plot, graphically the series was showing its age considerably on modern computers. Although changing a .ini file will enable 16:9 on the original games, it’s simply not a big enough change to do the game justice. However, Gearbox’s new models, effects, cutscenes, textures, and skyboxes have brought the series back to life.
They remain faithful to the original while fitting in enough subtle changes to make them interesting. Those expecting revolutionary visuals though will be disappointed. The new textures do have a bit of a muddled look about them, but with the amount of models that can be on screen at once, it may be for the best that they didn’t go overboard.
The series is played on a completely three-dimensional field. Unlike Starcraft or Command and Conquer, you’ll have to worry about enemies from above and below you as well as on all sides. Even though these games are 12 and 16 years old, no game series since has replicated this formula, leading them to still feel as fresh as any game coming out this year. Your focal point will be your mothership, and its survival comes above all else. Typically, you’ll need to concentrate on collecting and refining resources from the various asteroids and gas clouds which dot the map, and use them to build your fleet.
At its core, combat depends on a rock-paper-scissor system of effectiveness and is easy to get into, yet offers quite a bit of tactical finesse. One thing I liked a lot was that during the campaign, ships you’ve built or salvaged will transfer to the next mission. It adds a huge incentive to actually shepherd your units, and I found myself giving carriers and Assault Frigates names and characterization and reveling in their victories and yelling at the screen when my favorites were blown apart because I made a mistake.
Although the movement system is still top notch and unique to this series, but the A.I. that controls the ship could use some work, particularly with formation settings. Both games are in the Homeworld 2 engine which had a distinctly inferior formation and posturing system than the first and unfortunately it’s made for a ton of frustration. I found myself having to micromanage my ships when moving a large fleet because even when I put in the command to fall into a formation, they sometimes refused to stay with the group.
In particular in my last session, my fleet of over a hundred ships flew together in formation perfectly except for two Support Frigates. Instead of falling into their battle line and matching speed with the rest of the formation, they wanted to race ahead towards wherever the fleet’s destination was with not a care in the world that they were the weakest frigate-class ships in the game. Although I was able to get them to rejoin the fleet if I ordered formation again after each movement command, it was frustrating to worry if my units were going to race blindly to their death whenever I had to pay attention to another situation.
One of the big changes with Homeworld Remastered Collection is that the games are somewhat combined. Playing vs. A.I. or online multiplayer, instead of having to choose from either the Kushan and Taiidani, or Hiigarians and Vaygr, you can choose from all four. I was afraid that this would throw the impeccable balance that the game’s combat depends on off, but they’re all similarly matched, and the dynamic that the combination of both game’s playable races create ended up making the game more interesting.
Steam Workshop support makes installing mods a cinch as well, so not only do your have the unique dynamic between these four races for the first time, but you can easily add new material. There’s quite a few of the more popular mods on the workshop for the original versions of the games, and before too long you can be sure we’ll see ports of mods and new mod.
Online multiplayer is currently in beta, and requires a Gearbox SHiFT account, which is free and fairly easy to sign-up for. Once I linked my SHiFT account to Steam I really didn’t notice any interference from it when I played online. The first couple days I had the game it was shaky, with the service sometimes unavailable and a few game crashes. However, although I didn’t notice a patch, something must have been changed on Gearbox’s end because I have now played four online matches with no issues.
When committing to playing online, just remember, it can take two or three hours depending on the map and number of players to actually complete a match on Homeworld Remastered Collection. Although I absolutely love the feeling of victory after facing down three other players, I hope that future updates add an option to get a match done a bit faster.
The major disappointment I had with the collection is the absence of the excellent Homeworld: Cataclysm. The reason given by the developers was that the source code was lost or incomplete, but having a copy of the original or even a cinematic giving its backstory would have been great, especially for new fans to the series. Honestly, I found the fight against the Beast to be a more engaging story than that of Homeworld 2’s artifact hunt, and the changes in units and gameplay were much more interesting than the sequel’s replication of the first’s formula. Hopefully the success of these remasters will inspire Gearbox to attempt to reconstruct Cataclysm, and maybe even create a continuation of the series.
Seeing these classic games back in print is wonderful. It’s always saddened me that these two titles, along with some of the best games of the late ’90s and early 2000s, are impossible to get. My adolescence was spent playing titles from industry icons Sierra, 14 East, Interplay, and Black Gate, and I hope that the recent storm of successful and well-made remasters gives someone the incentive to revive even more greats from the past.
Whether you’re a fan of sci-fi, real-time strategy, or simply just video games in general, Homeworld Remastered Collection is a must-have if you haven’t played the series before. For those who spent years guarding their precious pressings of these classics, it’s time to rejoice, the Homeworld series is just as good as you remember it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]