Disclaimer: I played Relic’s space strategy game Homeworld [official site] when it first released (because of course I did), but unlike many of its fans I didn’t continue to live and breathe it, so I am simply not your guy to get into the fine detail of how the new version does or doesn’t differ from the original. I’m sure other places and even our own comments section will provide that stuff, but this piece is essentially looking at whether the Homeworld games, newly remastered by Gearbox, still hold up today. I should also note that I’m discussing this as an overall package rather than comparing the two games within it to each other.
1) Is it pretty enough?
2) Is it still any good?
These are questions I ask about my reflection in the mirror every day, but turns out they’re also the biggies to pose at this semi-remade version of cult classic space strategy series Homeworld.
Homeworld was always pretty, to the point that (with some help from mods and tweaks) it’s staved off the ravages of technological age far more naturally than many other games of that era have. Hard angles, painted metal, no faces – these were things even aged graphics cards could handle well. In terms of strategy games which ‘need’ remastering, Homeworld was probably somewhere at the bottom of the list. But in terms of strategy games which really, truly benefit from remastering – well, this is a chart-topper.
Light, shadow, texture and high resolutions are part of it, of course, but they wouldn’t mean much without scale. Small fighters are insects, the mothership is this enormous obelisk, the stellar backdrop is palpably infinite-feeling, and the camera zooms all the way in and out to show how all these things compare to each other.
Combine this with a celestial score (plus, of course, the rightfully iconic, still-powerful usage of Adagio for Strings at the start of Homeworld 1) )and starkly industrial sound effects and you’ve got space. It’s a universe away from the squat, constrained worlds of almost any other real-time strategy game. I know it can be ugly to bust out hyperbole in a game review, but I’m extremely tempted to say that Homeworld was and is a masterpiece of visual design.
The new textures help, though even then some still look blown up and blocky when you get in close, but it’s the crispness that the Remastering most benefits from. Resolution and anti-aliasing (plus assorted less obvious shader tricks) mean these looming industrial shapes, these man-made visitors to a vast and empty space, look that much more 3D and tangible, that much less like simple game models.
They’re colourful too, borrowing respectfully from Chris Foss rather than Star Wars, and this with their unusual shapes (broadly avoiding any jet or shuttle inspiration) take on true character. That’s needed, because while Homeworld’s a game about saving people, it usually avoids showing people. That it lets its spaceships take centre stage is a huge part of why it’s stood the test of time. A 1999 face is much trickier to scrub up than 1999 metal is.
Far from the only reason, though. There’s much that Homeworld does which subsequent and contemporary strategy games do not, and it remains an expert lesson in how to make an RTS feel so much bigger than its individual levels. Each one connects directly to the last, feels like the next stopping point on this dramatic journey into the unknown, while whatever units and resources you’ve made (and kept intact) carry over between levels. The carry-over ships probably won’t last too long, but when a new level begins and you see them come out of the (gorgeous, cuboid) lightspeed warp along with your mothership, they feel like old friends.
This is a journey, rather than a series of conquests. It’s difficult to overstate how different that feels from the norm; now that I’ve come out of the game to write about it, I feel this slight, gnawing guilt that I’ve left my ships and my people out there, waiting for me to come back and help them travel onwards. I close my eyes and picture the mothership hanging there, so massive yet so vulnerable without me.
The minimalist interface, while spit’n’polished here, still feels ahead of its time too. Homeworld wants us to concentrate on the game-space, not the menus. They live on the edges of the screen, designed to be brought up and hidden with logical hot keys, and able to disappear entirely when you want to take in the vastness of it all (and the pace of the game entirely allows this).
There is, perhaps, an over-reliance on memorising hotkeys or abstract icons, which can make truly getting to grips with the game a slow affair, but I’d certainly rather it this way than have half the screen occupied by gerbil-sized icons and some goon’s disembodied head gawking at me. There are definitely some duff icons, and some oversights such as not being able to click on your population list to select all ships of that type, but in the main the UI feels modern and design-led rather than functional. That’s unusual enough for today’s strategy games (Endless Legend being a particular exception), let alone in 1999.
Likewise, making the map something you switch to (with spacebar) rather than a persistent screen element both keeps space free and means you look at the game rather than condensed replication of it. It’s on the fiddly side, at least if you’re coming to this from a traditional, ground-based RTS, but this isn’t so much to do with Homeworld being old or unrefined as it is trying to achieve so much more. Space is 3D, after all, and while I couldn’t say this was the most elegant method imaginable of representing and controlling movement across all planes, not obfuscating it with too many elements and icons goes a long way to making it feel natural.
Pacing, too, feels rare. Nothing happens quickly in a Homeworld game – construction is drawn out, even the quick-to-build smallest ships performing a casual undocking manoeuvre before they’re ready to use. Nothing can be destroyed instantly; a fight is never over until it’s over. Slowly sending parts of your fleet across space to meet your enemy or set up a mining outpost can sail very close to patience-testing, but the game gets away with it because it’s selling a slow-burn mechanical war set in a limitlessly vast environment, not a few burly blokes duking it out in the hills.
I keep wanting the use the word ‘celestial’ again – Homeworld really does feel like galvanised galactic gods waging war across the aeons.
While all this means it gives space and time to breathe and plan, that too a rare thing for the genre, mastering Homeworld is not at all easy. At times I struggled to select the right ship, or spent too long referring back to the controls menu, or sent craft to a completely different place than my angle on the map had suggested. I don’t think I can say that’s a criticism, but it is a warning.
This comes from a development mindset which made far less concessions than today’s, and that presumes patience and dedication from its audience. By God I don’t want every game to do that, but it is wonderful to see it happen here, because it weaves so completely into the sci-fi nautical fantasy Homeworld seeks to create.
So, to answer those starting questions:
1) Yes, and then some. A few textures and some noticeably absent shadowing is all that gives the 16-year-old truth away. Part of this is down to careful replacement of textures and shader effects, but a lot of it is down to the less is more ethos of the original. It’s also well-optimised enough that I was able to max out everything and run it at 4K (via dynamic super resolution stuff in drivers; I don’t have that posh a monitor) and get around 80 frames per second. The sole exception was depth of field, which dropped me to 25 frames if left on. I should also mention there’s a much-appreciated UI scaling option, which keeps the game playable if you’re running at high res on comparatively small screens. All tech witter aside, this is as beautiful an electronic sight as I’ve seen any time in the last few years. Almost every wrinkle is gone.
2) Yes, far more so than I’d expected (based on distant memories of how fiddly Homeworld had seemed to me when I first played it). From a UI point of view it’s remarkably elegant and cohesive, and from a strategy point of view it makes every moving part absolutely count, taking it to a place where it feels like the fantasy it’s evoking, not just a strategy game set in space. In a time where so much real-time strategy has adopted this manic, hyperactive mindset (even though it requires more precision and practice than Homeworld ever did), these games feel like epics.
I’m not sure the Homeworld games were first built with the expectation that they’d stand the test of time like this, but because there was so much care, because there’s been nothing quite like them since, and because the remastering has been sensitive, this package comes across as beautifully timeless, and as essential as real-time strategy gets. Welcome home.