Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: Gearbox Software
Genre: Real Time Strategy
ESRB: E for Everyone
Full disclosure: my original plan was to write a series called “RIP: RTS,” publishing on one famous RTS franchise per week, culminating with Homeworld to coincide with the release of Homeworld Remastered Collection (HWR). An ambitious endeavor, I have been sabotaged by some fruitless concept called “life.” Nevertheless, the reason why I wanted to conclude the series with Homeworld is because I believe it to be the greatest RTS of all time if not also one of greatest games of all time.
I am indeed a Homeworld fanboy. I answered with gusto Gearbox’s inquiry to HW fans concerning a possible remastering of the franchise a year or two ago, saying that I would pay $100 for it. I pre-ordered HWR in December 2014 and it has yet to arrive at the time of this writing (Amazon says 3/9/15). In the meantime, Gearbox has provided Geeks Under Grace a copy for the purposes of this review, and I was all over it.
However, my fandom and Gearbox’s generosity do not mean that I will be gentle.
For readers unfamiliar with how HWR came into fruition, here is a bit of history. Relic Entertainment develops the original HW, published by Sierra Entertainment, in 1999, followed by Homeworld 2 in 2003. Barking Dog Studios develops HW: Cataclysm in 2000 as a stand-alone expansion. THQ purchases Relic in 2004, acquiring the HW Intellectual Property (IP) in the process. THQ’s demise last gen along with many other companies is the stuff of legend and tragedy. Gearbox purchases the HW IP in the auction of THQ’s assets, and here we are two years later.
One must be highly pedantic to find spiritually questionable material in the HW series. While is possible to infer some religious inspiration in Homeworld Remastered such as interpreting the Exiles’ voyages as “pilgrimages,” or conflating the hyperspace core trinity with the actual Trinity, there is nothing in this collection of games that would could compromise one’s faith.
4,000 years ago, the Galactic Council spares the Exiles extinction by the hands of the Taiidan, who themselves were nearly destroyed after the now-defeated discovered a far-jump hyperspace core and constructed a devastating warship in their savagery and bloodlust. They were sent drifting through space in disgrace, forgetting over the span of generations the purpose of their existence. Many in the convoy would expire due to poor technology in the crafts; others would drift and be lost in the Great Nebula. The tribe that would be known as the Kushan would land on the desert planet Kharak and thrive there in a meager existence. After the passing of several millennia, a satellite (re)discovers within a sand dune one of the vessels from whence the Exiles came. Excavation reveals technology long forgotten impossible to replicate—a far-jump hyperspace core—along with a guidestone mapping to a place with a name long forgotten: Hiigara, “Our Home.”
The Kushan construct a mothership large enough to house the hyperspace core along with several hundreds of thousands of their people in cryochambers for the journey, but the vessel is also so complex that no computer imaginable can manage all of its subsystems at ideal functionality. A scientist, Karan S’jet, volunteers to have her brain linked directly with the mothership at perhaps the eventual expense of life. She becomes Fleet Command, and thus, the leader of the Kushan.
A test of the mothership’s far-jump hyperspace drive is considered to be a violation of a 4,000 year-old edict against the Exiles. The vengeful Taiidan who had not forgotten their insulting defeats retaliate with a violation of Galactic Council decree of their own: bombard Kharak with atmospheric deprivation weapons with the intention of utterly destroying the Exiles. The Kushan aboard the mothership are then all who are left of their race, and they now have no choice but to endure all sorts of perils unknown on a journey through space toward this place unknown to them—their homeworld.
Over 100 years after the Exiles defeat the Taiidan and reclaim their homeworld of Hiigara, a new danger emerges. Having discovered what is known as “the Third Core,” a genius tactician named Makaan has rallied the last of the vanquished Taiidan under the flag of the nomadic and warmongering Vaygr. He calls himself the Sajuuk-Khar, or the Chosen One, and uses the far-jump capabilities of the Third Core to conquer all known sectors in space and is baring on Hiigara. Karen S’jet convinces Hiigaran officials to commence construction of a second mothership, the Pride of Hiigara, and they capitulate in fear of the barbaric Vaygr. While the construction of the previous vessel took six decades to complete, the Pride of Hiigara would be erected in months despite doubling the size of the vessel that shepherded the Kushan to their homeworld. Just as construction completed, the Vaygr would arrive and begin its siege of Hiigara. The Hiigarans flee, having a minimal home-base military presence after the Vaygr have breached all of their outposts, in order to fully-staff the Pride of Hiigara and rebuild its forces. The last of the Bentusi—also hunted by the Vaygr—arrive and once again provide wisdom to the Hiigarans, revealing that their First Core is identical to the Hiigaran Second and Vaygr Third, and that the secret of Sajuuk will be revealed only when the Three Cores are united. They depart, leaving the Hiigarans with clues concerning how to discover Sajuuk. The Pride of Hiigara embarks upon its voyage once again into perils of the unknown, and with the Vaygr in hot pursuit.
HW is the GOAT RTS franchise because it is the only RTS that has ever been able to execute true 3D z-axis movement with mastery. It is easier than it looks. Press the “M” key to plot movement indicated by a green line, and hold “shift” while the movement line is active to create a yellow line which commands ships to ascend or descend the 3D plane. There are other commands, such as attack-move, but these are the basics. Key this not being a headache are intuitive camera controls via the mouse or keyboard. Homeworld Remastered replicates the tutorials in the HW games and explains all so that players will not be clueless concerning the games’ dynamics. RTS fans should feel at home even while “abroad.”
All the credit goes to Relic for what you see in the screenshot above; the plotting and mobility of unit and object depth on the battlefield of space has yet to be replicated. Gearbox is lucky that it was able to acquire the source code for the Homeworld games, and to their credit, they were transparent about using the Homeworld 2 engine to “remaster” both Homeworld and Homeworld 2. Unfortunately, the former game suffered greatly, as it feels more like Homeworld 1.5, or a Homeworld mod running on the Homeworld 2 engine.
In other words, Homeworld feels like a remake while Homeworld 2 is the actual remaster. The latter has benefited from a modern graphical upgrade and augmented audio, including the reprisal of Heidi Ernest as the voice of Fleet Command, but little else has changed. On the other had, the remastered edition of Homeworld is almost a completely different game.
Please allow me an extra level of geekiness beyond what is usually encountered here at GUG.
OG Homeworld uses something akin to a ballistic weapons system in its engine. When an Interceptor shoots a bullet, that bullet travels in a straight line, and only registers a “hit” if it actually lands on a target. Lasers function the same way with a beam of light emitting from an Ion Cannon that has a higher chance of touching a capital ship than strike craft. Homeworld 2 on the other hand, uses an RNG system. Therefore, regardless of whether or not one sees that a bullet or laser touches an enemy vessel, the damage is already calculated even if one perceives that a shot misses. Of course, the latter system is significantly easier to design, which is why fights in HW2 are less about strike craft performance and more about abundance and positioning of capital ships. This is a gross oversimplification, but those with criticisms concerning why strike craft do not “hold” their formations or respond to aggressive, neutral, or evasive tactics—absolutely critical in OG HW—must come to terms with the fact that remastered HW is not even the same game as what we remembered in 1999/2000. In other words, when I imagined recreating a squadron of Multigun Corvettes sweeping the map in “X Formation” or building a “Wall Formation” of Ion Cannon Frigates commandeered with Salvage Corvettes and eviscerating practically any armor in sight like I did when I was still in high school, I was woefully mistaken and woefully disappointed. Heavy Cruisers are now god-tier like in HW2; I tested this by sending a max-unit fleet full of Assault and Ion Cannon Frigates to fight the final enemy Cruiser in the game, and it took out three-fourths of the battalion by itself. Because HWR uses RNG throughout, hard counters are hard counters. Heavy Cruisers eat through anything that is not also a Heavy Cruiser, including Destroyers. Even Bombers can now be properly tracked by the guns on capital ships! In OG HW, the ballistic system allowed fighters to run circles around capital ships as they would miss those tiny specks while shooting with big guns. Not anymore.
Additionally, the elimination of the ballistic system means that resource collectors and support frigates no longer hover around the targeted object, but have to “dock” with the asteroid, dust cloud, or unit to gain the desired effect. This actually reduces the effectiveness of both. While I and HW purists lament the fact that the fuel mechanic for strikecraft removes their limitations, I miss the utility of support frigates for that very purpose.
Balancing the multiplayer beta is going to be a nightmare!
I feel that I am doing (fans of) HW2 a disservice by not having as much to say about it, but the truth is that there just isn’t that much to add, because HW and HW2 now play virtually identically besides palette swaps and tech trees (while I always loved the size and design of the new Hiigaran Cruiser, I hated building a Shipyard for it). HW2 remains true to first version, meaning that balance “works as intended.” Fighter and Corvette squadrons do not stupidly crash into things and can be destroyed down to the last ship, be docked in a Carrier, and launch at full strength. Unlike HW, it is as I imagined it to be, working as intended with new gloss.
The Homeworld games were already considered masterpieces in their time, so besides not being able to include “Homeworld (the Ladder)” by Yes due to legal disputes, it would have been a monumental failure for Gearbox to have jacked things up to the degree that would ruin the game.
Unfortunately, there is some such “jacking up.”
Porting HW over to the HW2 engine caused some collateral damage. There are specifically two instances where Homeworld Remastered broke during my review playthroughs, both in the HW campaigns. The first time was as early mission 4, when I experienced a “mission failed’ after destroying the enemy carrier as instructed (see #12). After performing a Google search to discover out how to see the dust clouds in the Supernova Research Station mission, I completed my primary objective of destroying it, but the game did not offer me any other objectives. I was stuck, and after reloading the mission several times and getting stuck again, I simply restarted the entire mission in order to finally beat it. Minor issues included oftentimes experiencing the “hanging sound” of some capital ship even if I did not have the camera near one (see #8) and I was unable to attack the Junkyard Dog. Sometimes, music would not even play during fights; I would only hear ambient space noise.
That said, the game is gorgeous, and not super-demanding of hardware, which is unconditionally the best part of this collection. Behold:
OG HW stood to gain the most from the graphical overhaul. The graphics were not just grainy, but PS2-era in detail (which is still a compliment since HW launched well before the PS2 did).
While many HW fans lament the fact that Gearbox was unable to secure the source code for Cataclysm, I rejoice, because it uses a ballistics weapons system like HW did, and if the company manages to recover and/or replicate Barking Dog Studio’s creation, I would hope that they would not significantly alter the fundamental ways in which the game was designed. I am deeply saddened by the fact that HW as it is now barely resembles the franchise classic. Speaking of “classic,” Gearbox was generous enough to include the OG versions of HW and HW2 in this collection. Purists will flock to the classic versions of the game, while newcomers will benefit from the graphical overhaul while possibly getting stumped by bugs that they will not be prepared to overcome. Three-fourths of Homeworld Remastered is completely playable and enjoyable, however, I cannot recommend the collection to all because of the game-breaking bugs that I encountered in the remak-er, I mean “remaster” of HW. Fans of the franchise like myself will buy this regardless. Here’s to finding Cataclysm while keeping its pacing and gameplay intact!
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The Bottom Line
Homeworld Remastered delivers a beautiful but flawed HD update of two of the greatest RTS ever. While Homeworld 2 is stable, bugs in Homeworld will confound newcomers while many of the fundamental changes therein may alienate veterans.