It occurs to me that I’m very excited about the upcoming Homeworld remastered collection, and have had it pre-ordered for almost a year, without really talking about what it is, or why our readers might want to check it out. I’ve been a fan of the series since its inception, and can’t wait to unbox my collector’s edition this upcoming Wednesday. The trek this series has taken over the years ironically mirrors the plot of the games in many ways, and yet there remains a core fan-base that has rarely wavered in hoping for a new entry.
Originally released in 1999, Homeworld completely revamped real-time strategy development at the time by utilizing features such as full three-dimensional space combat, branching campaign paths, and fleet persistence across the entire campaign. Homeworld: Cataclysm was originally developed as an expansion by an outside company, and then released in 2000 as a stand-alone title. Finally, fans got a true sequel, Homeworld 2, in 2003; that year, the source code for the original was also released to aid the mod community.
For more than a decade, though, there hasn’t been a new entry into the franchise, largely due to financial woes facing the various publishers who owned the IP. The two core games were developed by Relic – the same developers behind W40K: Dawn of War and Company of Heroes – for Sierra, but in 2004 the dev team was acquired by THQ. Sometime in 2007, THQ worked out a deal to acquire the rights to Homeworld from Sierra/Vivendi, but that same year saw many key Relic members leave to found Blackbird Interactive.
The trail goes cold there for nearly six years, up until THQ filed for bankruptcy in 2013, when both Relic and the Homeworld license went up for auction as the company’s assets were unloaded. Relic was acquired on January 22, 2013 by Sega. Many Homeworld fans were sad to see the series and the developer split up again, but it may have been for the best; Relic’s largest release since then has been Company of Heroes 2, which has been much-maligned due to a relatively short, full-priced base game followed up by exorbitant amounts of paid DLC.
April 15, 2013 was the final date for sales of THQ assets, and Homeworld fans had not been idle in their hopes to see the franchise live again. A Kickstarter campaign by indie devs Team Pixel raised $70,000 toward bidding on the IP, but that amount was dwarfed by the final winning bid of $1.35 million by Gearbox. This left many people, including myself, wondering just what exactly the house that Borderland built would do with our beloved series.
The answer came in July 2013, when Gearbox announced their plans for “HD remakes” of Homeworld and Homeworld 2; those have since been converted into the Homeworld Remastered Collection. The collection includes upgraded versions of both the original and the sequel, as well as optimized versions of the games as they were initially released. This last part is of great interest to fans, as it has become increasingly difficult to keep the titles compatible with newer operating systems and graphics cards.
Unfortunately, Homeworld: Cataclysm is currently absent from the collection, with reports that the original source code and assets for the game have been lost. The original developer, Barking Dog Studios, was acquired by Rockstar in 2002 and became Rockstar Vancouver, who brought us Bully and Max Payne 3. In 2012, the studio was merged with Rockstar Ontario, and somewhere in all those years and transitions the Cataclysm files apparently disappeared. Gearbox has stated they would certainly like to release an updated Cataclysm, but I personally would rather that time be invested in a new title at this point.
In the summer of 2000, I got the GOTY edition of Homeworld, which came with a special soundtrack CD (something I am still glad to own to this day). We had moved into a new house a few years earlier, and I finally had my own room, with my own PC that my dad and I were tailoring to be a gaming rig. I also distinctly remember that I had the game discs with me during my summer trip to spend time at my grandparents’ house, and was thrilled to discover that it could run on their computer.
That time period was highly influential for gaming in general, and for my own experience in particular; I rarely bought games at release, enjoying instead to wait until there was some sort of collected edition of the base title and its expansions. Notable examples of the trend include the Half-Life Platinum Edition, the Diablo II, StarCraft and Warcraft III “battle chests,” and MechCommander Gold. I also didn’t get games nearly as often, and invested more time into the titles I did have. I miss those days sometimes… but we’re getting off-track!
I said earlier that the series’ ups and downs mirror the plot of the games in some ways, and I guess the same can be said of my experience with the franchise. Homeworld opens on the desert world of Kharak, where for the past century previously warring clans have been united by the discovery of the “Guidestone,” a galactic map showing a path away from Kharak to a planet marked only with an ancient word: Hiigara, which means “home.” From that point forward, all effort was put into preparations for the seemingly impossible task of crossing the galaxy and returning to Hiigara. A massive mothership was constructed, and neuroscientist Karan S’jet allowed her nervous system to be joined with the ship’s computers, becoming its core.
I’m going to stop talking about the story at this point, because I really hope some of you pick up the remastered collection, and I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice to say that I, much like the people of Kharak, had no idea what lay in store for me when I installed Homeworld. Rarely has a game affected me as deeply as this one, and listening to the soundtrack as I write this, certain music cues still bring a smile to my face or send a chill down my spine. I can still remember finishing the game and watching the ending cinematic play out, feeling simultaneously elated and forlorn, knowing that something unique was drawing to a close.
This sense of gravitas is largely imposed by the way the campaign is structured, and then further reinforced by the events of the story. Once the mothership departs Kharak, bearing 600,000 cryogenically frozen colonists across the galaxy, the game does an impressive job of making you feel very isolated. Although you encounter other beings and cultures over the journey, large amounts of time are spent surrounded only by the starry depths of space, watching your resource collectors mine asteroids or your scouts fly patrols, with only the excellent ambient music as accompaniment.
Homeworld also eschewed many current trends in terms of resource collection, base building, and unit management. Rather than hitting “reset” on your units and resources between missions like in StarCraft, Relic borrowed from games such as XCOM and utilized a persistent fleet from start to finish. This choice really drives home the import of your journey, and forces you to make hard choices when it comes to sacrificing or even abandoning units. The latter choice comes at the end of a few missions where you’re tasked with defending the mothership for a certain amount of time, and then jumping away before being overwhelmed. The mothership is stationary during the campaign, as it has no sub-light engines, only a hyperspace drive; if it gets destroyed, the campaign is over, end of story. Inversely, many smaller ships lack hyperspace drives, and must be docked on a larger ship to complete the jumps.
Remember the times on Battlestar Galactica when the fleet was ambushed, overwhelmed, or otherwise in jeopardy, but there will still Vipers and Raptors away from the ship, and jumping away would mean stranding those pilots? Or when the Rebel fleet was being picked apart by the second Death Star while the shield generators were still up, but the commanders knew they’d never have another chance to destroy it? Those are the choices Homeworld forces you to make on a regular basis. With limited resources added into the mix, making the wrong choice too often can and will make it impossible to beat the game without starting over.
Thankfully, the full-space 3D movement and balanced combat system allow for a wide variety of tactics, from hit-and-run blitzes to full-scale fleet engagements. The tactical map and movement controls are perfectly suited to the task, though there is a bit of a learning curve in effectively positioning ships; you’ll also simultaneously be learning the game’s rock-paper-scissors balancing system of fighters, corvettes, and capital ships. Once the system is well in hand, though, it’s extremely satisfying to strip an enemy patrol of their fighter escorts, and then have your corvettes outrun the bigger ships while your own fighters come in from above and below to pick them apart. This allows for people who are better tacticians than they are resource-managers – such as yours truly – to accomplish a lot with relatively small fleets.
I didn’t ever play multiplayer against anyone online with the original Homeworld, although I did enjoy skirmishes against the AI; I preferred to simply play through the campaign multiple times, and the same can be said of Cataclysm. When the full sequel was released, though, I was living in a dorm with a phenomenal internet connection and a very active LAN community. To be honest, I never completed the Homeworld 2 campaign – something that I’m excited to rectify with this new release! – because it was more fun to play with everyone else. The sequel introduced some new mechanics, such as deeper research trees, ship upgrades, and unique unit types; the balance had been purposely adjusted to have more multiplayer appeal, and it paid off.
Over the years, I have done my best to keep working copies of Homeworld on my system, but the aforementioned difficulties with newer tech are starting to catch up. The core fan-base has remained even more dedicated than myself, with an extensive mod community; in fact, one of the mods for HW 2, known as “Homeworld 2 Complex,” is so popular that many people are waiting until it is available for the remastered version before they pick up the collection. That’s one of the reasons Gearbox decided to include the original versions of the games, and I imagine they’ll sway a considerable number of “purists” by doing so.
Gearbox is also working with the Blackbird Interactive team – those who originally left Relic – on their new project, “Shipbreakers.” Always intended as a spiritual successor to Homeworld, the game is now an official part of the IP, and is set to take place before the events of the first game. Between this development and the remastered collection, the hope for most fans is that Gearbox is trying to reinvigorate the franchise and get people on-board in anticipation of a genuine sequel. The work that has obviously gone into this new collection can be observed in the videos linked below, and I for one am very happy with how things are finally shaping up for the Hiigarans, Karan S’jet, and all of us who have journeyed with them these fifteen years.
The Homeworld: Remastered Collection will be released on Steam on Wednesday, February 25.