The original Homeworld, developed by Relic Entertainment, was released in 1999. This was back when real-time strategy games were flourishing on PC, with a lot of games starting to deviate from the Dune II-model. For example, only a year later, in 2000, Shiny released its quirky third-person RTS Sacrifice.
Homeworld garnered positive reviews and was lauded for its art design, its meaty story and interesting campaign mode, and especially for the fact that it was the first real three-dimensional game in the sense that you weren’t stuck to essentially a single plane.
A stop-gap sequel, Homeworld: Cataclysm, was created by third-party developers Barking Dog Studios and released in 2000. That game was fine, but something to me always felt off about it. Perhaps I didn’t like it so much because the story veered into sci-fi horror territory, whereas the original Homeworld had a more epic plot, with the exiled protagonists seeking to reclaim their long-lost homeworld while being pursued by the evil Taiidan Empire. In any event, Relic soon started development on a real sequel, dubbed simply Homeworld 2 (2003), which was much more in line with the original game as far as tone and plot were concerned.
Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were originally published by Sierra. When Sierra went the way of the dodo, the series, as well as developer Relic Entertainment, came to be owned by THQ. But THQ similarly went under. Relic was bought by Sega, while the rights to the games were sold to Gearbox Software.
Gearbox had, as far as I could tell, no experience with strategy games: they mainly produce shooters, both excellent ones like the Borderlands games and abominations like Duke Nukem Forever and Aliens: Colonial Marines. But they started to work together with some former people from Relic who had worked on the original games, and in 2015 a “remastered” collection of the original game and its sequel was released.
A fresh coat of paint
The remastered collection is excellent. The original Homeworld now looks as you remembered it looked back in 1999. The download comes with the original version of the game and the graphical differences are striking. The remastered version looks and sound crisp, with high resolution textures.
For the remastered edition, the engine of Homeworld 2 was polished up and the entirety of the original game was ported to the new engine, with remastered sound and some new voice clips. But it looks marvelous and is entirely in keeping with the style of the original game. This is indeed how a remaster should be done, and I am happy that we can now play a version of Homeworld that is just as good as the original.
Not everyone is pleased with the work that Gearbox has done, however. In particular, unit formations were broken in the remastered version for the longest time; eventually, a patch was released. The original Homeworld also modelled bullets and shrapnel, whereas the Homeworld 2 engine simply relies on die rolls to determine whether a hit is successful or not. In addition, the original game allowed you to play through the story as either the Kushan or the Taiidan Empire. In the remastered version, you can play the campaign only from the point of view of the Kushan.
Purists will hate these change, but to my mind they did little to affect the overall experience. Unlike most real-time strategy games, Homeworld is a game you’ll play largely to experience the campaign. The story is told in a serious tone, though never dour, and the visuals and music help in giving you the feeling of taking part in a sweeping space opera. Cut scenes are black-and-white and feature little animation; they contrast nicely with the very colourful space scenes that most of the action takes place in.
The plot for the original Homeworld has the Taiidan Empire destroy the world of the game’s protagonists, the Kushan. They were once known as the Hiigarans and had carved out a large empire for their own. But on behalf of the Taiidan, the Hiigarans were stripped from their ability to traverse space and relocated to a remote desert planet. But with the discovery of a hyperspace core in the desert and the construction of a massive Mothership, the Kushan set out to find their original homeworld. The game thus sees you guide the Kushan from one mission to the other, avoiding or fighting the Taiidan along the way, and encountering some other enemies and friends as well.
The remastered collection also includes Homeworld 2. In this game, you take control of the Hiigarans and their new Mothership as you face off against a new threat, the Vaygr. The story isn’t as interesting as the Battlestar Galactica-like plot of the original game, even though the highly specialized Vaygr vessels make for interesting opponents and the voice acting is just as good as in the other game. However, Homeworld 2 offers more Homeworld, and that’s never a bad thing.
Playing the game
As a real-time strategy game, Homeworld introduced a bunch of new ideas to the genre. There is no base building; your Mothership can produce everything it needs using Resource Units (RUs) harvested by resource collectors. Units are all various types of ship: some small, like the interceptors, and others massive in size, such as the heavy cruiser.
Movement is completely three dimensional, using an innovative control scheme that works well once you get the hang of it. You can attack enemy ships from underneath (where armour tends to be weaker), or you can send a detachment a long way around and attack enemy fleets in the rear. The AI sometimes uses these tactics as well and can suddenly appear in sensor range from directions you weren’t paying any attention to.
Most real-time strategy games tend to be frenetic. You don’t play StarCraft II as a way to relax, least of all when you’re playing it competitively. By contrast, Homeworld‘s pace is much more languid. Distances in space are vast and it takes a while for enemies to get in range. You’ll spot them as red blips on the sensor manager (a special screen accessed by tapping the space bar), and only when they come closer will you be able to identify what kind of vessels they are, and you’ll have to wait a bit longer still for them to get in range.
This makes scouting valuable while at the same time affording you to produce the necessary units to counter the threat posed by the enemy. If you lose your Mothership, it’s an automatic game over, but the ship can take quite a beating and there’s thus nearly always enough time to turn a bad situation around.
In short, Homeworld was a great game in 1999 and it still manages to hold up today. The remastered version contains the original versions of the game for those who want to experience them again, but I cannot get over how clunky the first game in particular is to play now. The remastered versions are a much better way to experience these classics.
The Homeworld: Remastered Collection is available for download on Steam. If you prefer your games to be DRM-free, the collection is also available on GOG.