Original Release: 2015, Platform: PC, Developer/Publisher: Gearbox Software, Image Source: Steam, Thanks to Gearbox for providing our review code.
When my review code for the Homeworld Remastered Collection arrived in my email on Sunday, I squealed like a little kid on Christmas morning. I love Homeworld. It’s been one of my favorite games since I first pulled it out of a bargain bin in 2003, and Gearbox’s re-release has been probably my most anticipated game launch in years. So let me just get it out of the way and say that if you’ve been looking forward to this like I have, you won’t be disappointed.
The remastered edition of Homeworld 1 (I’m going to start playing 2 after I write this review) is good. It’s better than good. Wrapped up inside Gearbox’s re-release is an experience that’s almost as epic, majestic, unique, and captivating as the classic we all fell in love with at the turn of the century.
The quantifier there, of course, is almost. But we can talk about that more in a moment.
For those new to the franchise, Homeworld is a real-time strategy game that follows the story of the Kushan. A race of people living on a barely habitable desert world, their culture is shaken to its core after they discover the ruins of a spaceship that reveals that their ancestors actually came from another world. Intent on finding their homeland, they build a gigantic mothership and plan a mission to seek out the planet of their origins. Their plans fall to pieces, however, when a hyperdrive test brings down the wrath of an interstellar empire hell bent on halting their quest. With their civilization left in ruins, the last Kushan survivors flee to the stars where they must fight against the odds to survive and uncover the secrets of their long lost home.
Homeworld‘s story has always been one of its biggest draws for me and I can happily report that it remains perfectly intact in the remaster. Its hand drawn cinematic scenes have never looked better and the dialogue and soundtrack do a wonderful job of forwarding the plot while also creating some surprisingly genuine drama. You wouldn’t think you could care so much about a bunch of faceless spaceships, but I’ll be damned if I don’t find myself personally invested in the fate of the Kushan every single time I play this game. The whole thing is just incredibly cinematic and manages to strike a chord of epic scale and grandeur that’s unfortunately somewhat rare in this genre.
Sadly, while Homeworld Remastered keeps the story intact, it makes some big and, in places, unfortunate changes to the original’s gameplay formula. Its basic shtick -fully 3D space-based RTS- is still there and working, but Gearbox clearly made efforts to bring the game’s overall experience closer in line with its sequel. And while this might not bother others as much as it did me, I was frequently left me feeling like it forced Homeworld to sacrifice a lot of what made it special and, in my opinion, better than Homeworld 2.
Most notably, the remastered Homeworld throws away the original game’s tactics system in favor of the less nuanced one from Homeworld 2. Where before you could order your units to adopt passive, evasive and aggressive stances, you’re now restricted to passive, guard and aggressive. This might not sound like much of a change, but there are times where it makes the combat feel significantly different.
Formations, for instance, are now essentially useless. In the 1999 version, formations were huge. You could order your units to take an aggressive stance and they’d hold a formation come hell or high-water. In the remaster, they abandon their formation the second you give a movement order, regardless of their current tactic assignment. This is especially detrimental to the fighter combat which, in the past, was basically all about knowing how to use tactics and formations. I can’t count the number of times in the classic game that I’d enter a fight outgunned but wind up winning because I knew when to focus my fighter’s power into a cohesive unit and when to let them off their leash to dogfight and behave more evasively. In the new version this closer control is almost completely absent, transforming fighter fights into a free-for-all where you’ll most commonly just click a button and be left to wait and see if your guys wind up on the winning side.
The game’s fighting units have been completely re-balanced, rendering many of them far more fragile than they used to be. Unfortunately, this has the effect of ruining several of Homeworld‘s most versatile ships. In the original game even the most basic strike craft were effective from the early parts of the story campaign right up to its the very end. A squadron of Interceptors, with deft commanding hand, could take down a Heavy Cruiser if given the time. In Remastered, I found them to be almost useless. If I sent them up against capital ships they’d get shredded and even against other strike craft they routinely suffered such tremendous casualties that investing in them felt like a waste. My experience with some of the game’s capital ships was very similar. Once you’re able to start producing destroyers and cruisers, the frigate class becomes cannon fodder. In the 1999 version, a well-led squadron of frigates could hold their own against even the most powerful ships in the game. They’d be lucky to last even a few minutes in the re-release.
I can understand why Gearbox most likely did this. The changes made to the ships, again, seem to have been aimed at bringing them closer in composition to the ones in Homeworld 2. And while I don’t necessarily agree with it, I can understand the studio wanting to make things more homogeneous or, especially when you consider that the Remastered Collection includes a brand new multiplayer game combining the various races from Homeworld and Homeworld 2. It’s also worth acknowledging that the Homeworld 2 engine used in this remaster probably came with technical limitations that would have made a closer remake more difficult. Even so, these changes, as I experienced them, ultimately caused more problems than they solved and definitely lessened my enjoyment to an extent.
Which isn’t to say that things haven’t improve in other areas. The upgraded visuals are gorgeous and the new, cross-game user-interface does a lot to make your various duties as a commander run more smoothly. I likewise loved how it now automatically collects all of the remaining in-map resources for you at the end of each level; a serious time-saver. There are a few levels in the story campaign where environmental hazards don’t quite mesh with the ship re-balancing, but outside of those everything works well enough to be fun.
At the end of the day, while I still very much prefer the way the original Homeworld did things, I honestly can’t complain too much when I consider the late nights I’ve recently spent lighting my bedroom with ion beams and exploding ships. There wasn’t a single evening this past week where I didn’t have to force myself to stop playing at some unreasonable hour of the night because I was just having so much fun. Homeworld Remastered may not be a perfect recreation of its source material, but it’s still pretty danged fantastic.
Come back next week for my review of Homeworld 2 Remastered, followed a week later by Homeworld: Cataclysm. In the mean time, feel free to PM me any comments or suggestions you might have for Good Old Reviews.