If there’s something that stands out this year more than most, it was the year that remasters really started to come into their own. It wasn’t just that games from the 1990’s or the early 2000’s were being resold in their original form. They were getting updated, they were getting the treatment they deserved.
The Homeworld Remastered Collection isn’t something that I thought would exemplify that; it was a product from Gearbox, the studio known for milking Borderlands dry, the studio known for making the Aliens franchise synonymous with ripping customers off.
Let’s be frank for a moment: we are unlikely to ever see a game like Homeworld ever again. Even Blackbird’s reboot of the franchise, Homeworld: Shipbreakers, isn’t likely to reuse all of the same systems and stylings of Relic’s RTS classic.
The gaming landscape has changed. Hell, it wasn’t ready for Homeworld when it first shipped. That’s not to say the game wasn’t a success, but it was certainly something that couldn’t be easily repeated. Even Relic themselves went away from the complexities of strategy in three dimensions. By Dawn of War 2, they were abandoning traditional RTS mechanics entirely.
Because of that, in part, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the Homeworld IP was being sold at bargain bin prices. You’d have thought it might be bundled together with Relic as a package deal; SEGA, after all, bought Relic during the THQ firesale for US$26.6 million.
Homeworld, on the other hand, was nearly picked up by a crowdfunding campaign. Fans raised around US$70,000 to bring Homeworld back to life, but they were pipped at the final post by Gearbox.
The final amount: US$1.35 million. For an IP that was about to be purchased for tens of thousands, it was an extraordinary bet.
Games like this simply don’t exist any more
The bit that stuck with me the most was remembering how the amount of enemy units in the missions didn’t change depending on your performance prior. You carried what you had from one mission to the next; if you only had a few frigates and corvettes left, then that’s what you started the next mission with. Consequently, if you didn’t bother to harvest out the map before moving on — you didn’t get extra resources going forward.
Nobody would design an RTS game like that these days. Hell, the concept of mining resources, guarding your harvesters … these concepts have basically vanished from modern strategy titles altogether. They don’t fit the reward loop that games in 2015 rely on. If you want resources, go kill something. That’s how you get your gold these days. You don’t earn it through mining.
But that’s small fry when it comes to managing the formations, movement and distance of your fleets. Developing attack patterns, prioritising the right enemy fleet, making sure you had the right mix of fighters, corvettes, bombers, assault frigates, support craft, capital ships … it’s a level of complexity that simply doesn’t exist.
Gamers don’t want to spend 45 minutes to an hour on a single mission, waiting an extra five or ten minutes to repair their fleet at the end of a fight. That’s a waste of time, developers would say. The public would never accept that, surely.
Is it any wonder I had doubts about whether Gearbox would treat Relic’s classic with the reverence it deserved?
There’s just something about space
And yet, somehow, someway, Gearbox managed to find the right level of respect for everything. Dealing with the interface was undoubtedly a challenge, and although it wasn’t perfect — there were some scaling issues in particular — using the sequel as the basis for the UI upgrade was the best choice they could have made.
The actual remastering work was top-notch too. The game now has a timeless look to it, something that will hold up in 5 or 10 years. The textures will never be as detailed, the engine trails never as intricate, the explosions never as visceral, but it will be playable. The soundtrack will retain its melancholy nature; the strategy will retain that touch of class, almost elitism, above the rest of the genre.
Homeworld is a thinkers’ game, not an APM frenzy — although those with quick fingers and quick minds can still benefit. But getting the formation, the composition, the timing and the positioning means so much more.
I know there are many fans who are bitterly disappointed with the port, and the decision to remaster the original Homeworld with the interface and engine of the sequel has put some fans permanently offside. But, as Ubisoft found with their HD re-release of Heroes of Might and Magic 3 earlier this year, not all classics are saved for eternity. Gearbox wasn’t given access to the entirety of the source code, and its that Homeworld: Cataclysm expansion will ever see the light of day without the help of fans.
Remastering the game into a single engine undoubtedly made the project more viable for Gearbox, but it also caused irreparable damage to parts of the game. Frigates in HW1, for instance, failed to function correctly because they were suddenly using the pathfinding AI from the sequel. Frigates had been updated in the sequel so they had rotating turrets that could hit a target from any position, but in the original the turrets were fixed and the ship had to face its target to function correctly.
The collection was beset with plenty of crashes, too. The collection comes with the original titles, but those barely functioned any better than the remasters. Windows 8.1 hadn’t caused many problems — at the time; I haven’t tried it since updating to Windows 10 — for me, but Homeworld 1 and 2 was one of the first times where I felt like I’d genuinely made a mistake by upgrading from Windows 7. Although, as it turned out, plenty of people on Windows 7 were having problems of their own.
Battles are still a thing of beauty in Homeworld
Nothing quite hit the nostalgia for space I had as much as the Homeworld did. I remember watching my brother play through the original as a kid and the thought that I was watching something special, something that I wouldn’t see anywhere else. And the full force of that spirit comes through in Gearbox’s remaster.
Nobody will make a game like this again. For one, it’s too complex for the modern market. It demands too much of your time. It demands too much patience. The learning curve is a little too steep. And the mission structure is insane for the way games are designed in 2015. Nobody would ask that much of the player.
So for me, the remaster was a chance to say goodbye. It was a chance to look back at, in many ways, the pinnacle of what strategy games could be. It was Relic at the height of their powers, even if those powers will never be fully appreciated in this day and age. But we have something that, for the most part, works in 2015, something that shows us what a 3D RTS was truly like.