Saturday 23 December 2017

Wertzone Classics: Homeworld Remastered

Over sixty years ago, the Kushan people of the desert planet Kharak made a remarkable discovery: a vast, wrecked starship in the desert, and around it the ruins of a four thousand-year-old city. The Kushan confirmed what their scientists and geneticists had long suspected: they were not native to Kharak. They had come from somewhere else in the galaxy. Using technology reverse-engineered from the wreck, a hyperspace core located in its ruins and a Guidestone emblazoned with a curious map, the Kushan have built a vast starship. Their mission is simple: to find their true homeworld.

Originally released in 1999 as the debut title from Relic Entertainment, Homeworld was a video game way ahead of its time. Featuring a remarkable 3D, real-time graphics engine and a gripping storyline, the game told the story of an entire people racing to find their way home, hounded by enemies they don't understand and accused of crimes their ancestors committed millennia earlier. It was followed by two successors, Homeworld: Cataclysm (2000) and Homeworld 2 (2003), but Relic was bought out by Sega and switched to making Warhammer 40,000 games (namely the popular Dawn of War series) and, later, the WWII Company of Heroes series. The Homeworld IP, left behind with dying publisher THQ, was forgotten about.

Or so it seemed. By 2015 THQ had gone bust and the Homeworld IP had been bought by FPS titans Gearbox, several members of whom were massive fans of the original game. Helpfully, many of the team who made Homeworld and Homeworld 2 had left Relic to set up their own studio, Blackbird Interactive, and had begun making their own strategy game which was basically as close to Homeworld as they could get without violating copyright. Gearbox teamed up with Blackbird to retool that game as an official Homeworld game - the excellent Deserts of Kharak - and also fully remaster the original games into a new package, fit for modern gamers.

Homeworld Remastered is the result. This re-release combines Homeworld and Homeworld 2 into one package and significantly updates both titles. Homeworld has been moved into the superior Homeworld 2 engine, given a massive graphical face-lift and had its user interface revamped. The result is nothing short of a revelation: a game that plays identically to how it did in 1999 but with cutting-edge graphics. Pushed to the maximum and played on a 4K monitor and graphics card, it's possible that Homeworld Remastered is the most graphically jaw-dropping game currently in existence. Not bad for a franchise not far off from entering its third decade.

If you haven't played any of the Homeworld games before, an in-depth tutorial explains the basics. Your Mothership is your headquarters and base (stationary in the first game, mobile in the second one), from where you build fighters, capital ships, probes and asteroid-mining craft. Your resource gatherers mine asteroids and gas clouds for resources allowing you to build ships and research new technologies.

The game is controlled from a 3D perspective, with you giving ships orders on where to move and how to engage the enemy. Your ships can move in all directions, including attacking from above or below to surprise the enemy, and several story missions in fact depend on you attacking from outside the usual plane. You can amass your fleet in strike groups of mixed types of craft: the AI is good enough that when you click on an enemy fleet, your ships will engage the appropriate enemy craft (so fighters will target bombers, bombers will target heavy capital ships, battlecruisers will target everyone etc). You can also pause the game and issue orders whilst paused if the action gets too hectic (as it invariably does).

The fleet you build is persistent through the game, so all the units that survive one mission will automatically show up at the beginning of the next one. Your resources are also persistent, so you start each mission with the resources collected from the last one. Slightly controversially, the remaster also automatically harvests up remaining resources from the last mission, allowing you to move on rather than having to sit around and wait for your miners to do their thing (which on some missions took an hour or more after the objectives were met) but also meaning that mining becomes a bit pointless as the game continues, since you automatically just hoover up everything and start each successive missions with more money than you can ever spend.

The real meat of the game, though, is space combat. Your fleets consist of several ship types: fighters, bombers, corvettes, frigates and heavy capital ships. As the game continues the enemy improve their ships so you have to as well, gradually building more versatile and fiercer fleets.

The single-player storyline is excellent, unfolding with unmatched atmosphere. The Homeworld games have some of the best music ever created for video games and the game's use of Adagio for Strings is particularly fantastic. The voice acting is also exceptional, with a special word of appreciation for the late Campbell Lane, whose role as both the main narrator and the Bentusi is superb. RIP, sir. Some people will find the game's lack of any recognisable characters - the cut scenes take place either using the in-game engine so only showing the ships, or in 2D black-and-white cut scenes - a bit weird, but it also allows your imagination to run riot.

The game's art design and direction remain unparalleled. Heavily influenced by 1970s SF artist titans Chris Foss and Peter Elson, Homeworld's ship designs are among the best ever conceived for video games, with clunky, retro designs and excellent use of colours. Watching space light up with a furious fusillade of ion beams remains as awe-inspiring now as it was eighteen years ago.

The package contains two games, and it should be noted that Homeworld and Homeworld 2 are somewhat different games in tone: the first game is more rooted in survival and the nitty-gritty of building alliances with the races you encounter, destroying enemy forces in a pragmatic manner and pressing on to the homeworld. The second game is a bit more mystical, diving into the Kushan religion and revealing it has a basis in an actual mysterious alien race who left strange artefacts around the galaxy, artefacts which may hold the key to defeating an invading alien force. The second game is still very good, but the number of missions revolving around finding the Sacred Key of Maguffin to unlock the Portal of Exposition is a bit on the high side and doesn't entirely feel in keeping with the tone of the first game. Weirdly, since Homeworld 2 came out before the rebooted series even started, the games mirror the two halves of the Battlestar Galactica remake (although Homeworld 2's ending is excellent, unlike Battlestar Galactica's).

There aren't too many other downsides: Homeworld is perhaps a little too easy and Homeworld 2 isn't going to put too many veterans of the first game off, although it does have some notable difficulty spikes (the most infamous have been nerfed through patches over the years, thankfully). There were also some teething problems with Homeworld being moved into the HW2 engine, particularly the fact that formations didn't work properly. This was fixed some time ago, fortunately. The biggest problem is one not really in the developers' control: since the original source code was lost years ago, it wasn't possible to remake Homeworld: Cataclysm in the same manner, so it isn't in the package. Fortunately, GoG have been able to resurrect the game and re-release it in a compatible format for modern PCs. Due to World of WarCraft copyright-related reasons, however, they've had to rename it Homeworld: Emergence. This is slightly frustrating as, although it has a far cheesier plot, Cataclysm/Emergence arguably has the best gameplay of the series.

What you get with Homeworld Remastered are two of the very finest space-set real-time strategy games of all time, spruced up to the maximum with their classic gameplay and unmatched atmosphere left completely unchanged. Frequently available very cheaply in Steam sales, I would argue it's a required purchase for any lover of science fiction or strategy gaming.

Homeworld Remastered (*****) is available via Steam now. Gearbox and Blackbird have mooted making Homeworld 3, but this will depend on the sales of Homeworld Remastered and Deserts of Kharak.


Anonymous said...

Homeworld are phenomenal games and remastered editions are simply beautiful. Worth noting though: HW1 remade with HW2 engine not only effed up formations, but changed firepower stats and the feel of battle considerably. The original HW1 was much MUCH harder than the remastered one. For example, ships are much squishier which makes massed frigates almost useless (as opposed to the original where they remained potent threats to even the strongest capital ships when employed in sufficient numbers). Light craft are also fairly useless now as they die far too easily to incoming fire... Something about underlying math and RNG of the new engine I think.

So while the new HW1 looks spectacular now, I'd still say the original is (far) superior as a gameplay experience, especially for those who enjoy a good tactical challenge.

Adam W said...

Absolutely fantastic games. Sadly the Mac version on Steam was completely broken for me. Mission five would freeze at a particular cut scene without any hope of a fix so I sought a refund. A huge shame as the games are so strong.