Homeworld Remastered embodies the space opera genre at its most sweeping and epic, even if its story and characters are a little half-baked, and some of its gameplay mechanics are a bit unbalanced.
The collection is made up of the remastered versions of two distinct games with four years in between their respective releases. 1999’s Homeworld and 2003’s Homeworld 2 were very different games, but Gearbox has done an admirable job in modernising their UIs, graphics, and controls to make them seem like a game in two parts.
Homeworld, in its day, was feted for its innovative three dimensional approach to real time strategy, but also for its involved lore and sweeping galactic scope. The narrative scaffolding of the campaign is a by-the-numbers space opera, with galactic empires, generations-long interstellar voyages, enigmatic alien civilisations, ancient relics from progenitor races long vanished, and a central quest for a lost home planet.
Honestly, it isn’t a particularly novel premise for a space opera. And the characters and plotlines, such as they are, are paper-thin abstractions, like the bare-bones elements for a coherent campaign than fully-fleshed elements for any literary purpose. But what this narrative structure does is provide the structure for gameplay moments that feel positively gravid with operatic importance.
A powerful example of that sort of feeling is in an early Homeworld mission, in which the mothership of the player-led Kushan species, built as an exploratory vessel to search for that species’ lost homeworld of Hiigara, returns back to their current planet to find it a burning, lifeless cinder, bombarded to oblivion by in a seemingly capricious act by a previously unknown antagonist. Adagio for Strings plays as the player surveys this almost existential ruin, keenly aware that the mothership is the last remnant of the Kushan species and culture.
The player finds that floating cryo-trays containing the cryogenically frozen would-be colonists for the expedition have survived the bombardment, and the mission is a race to collect the cryo-trays and return them to the safety of the mothership before the enemy finds and destroys them. The mission requires that 4 out of 6 pallets are returned to ensure success. But every time a pallet is destroyed, the player is told that 100,000 Kushan colonists have perished. By creating this moral and emotional impact through spare storytelling, the game turns the simple act of rescuing trays to succeed in a mission into an almost moral imperative.
Later on, as the player builds up a fleet and marshals huge capital ships and cruisers to bear on the enemy, you are still keenly aware that each loss of a ship is the loss of a significant proportion of the species’ people. Amidst the epic battles with clouds of fighters and capital ships slugging it out in the pastel beauty of the Homeworld cosmos, I found that I had the compulsion to play conservatively, in order to protect the Kushan people.
This narrative compulsion is also exacerbated by gameplay requirements, at least in the first Homeworld campaign – where resource scarcity and fleet persistence between missions ensured that the player had to play conservatively to ensure that as much of their fleet survived each mission to make it to the next. The campaign was cleverly constructed to emphasise this principle, not least in the use of salvage as an important mechanic. The best way to beat the campaign is to employ salvage corvettes to capture enemy vessels and convert them into player units, in keeping with the narrative of scarcity and privation in the face of the massive numerical advantage of the enemy.
Both the campaigns of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 contained this element – of narrative informing gameplay conditions and hence gameplay choices – but Homeworld was probably the better campaign. Resource scarcity was not an issue in Homeworld 2, and this led to missions devolving into epic engagements of attrition with the enemy. Homeworld 2’s plot was also a little bit less compelling than the first, with the plot embracing more mystical, macguffin-powered elements that departed from the more stolid, primal themes of the original.
That said, Homeworld Remastered isn’t without its problems, mostly in the gameplay and mission design. Chief among these is the annoying enemy scaling system, in which the size of the enemy fleet scales with the size of your own. In the Homeworld campaign, I spent many hours painstakingly capturing ships and carefully building a huge fleet, only for the subsequent missions to quickly become impossible due to the size of the enemy fleet that grew commensurately to my own. It’s a state of affairs in which player effort is not rewarded by the satisfaction of bearing down on one’s opponent, but is instead punished by making missions impossibly difficult.
The AI in both games is also somewhat abysmal, like the computer was playing on autopilot. There is almost never any strategy to the enemy’s actions, just a series of pre-canned actions that the player just needs to memorise to beat. The computer can also be easily tricked by feints and other simple gambits, sending out their fleet in a disorganised stream to chase a single scout and perishing slowly in the grinder maw of the ambush you’ve set up. It feels less like outsmarting your opponent and more like what it is – exploitation of a very simplistic rules-based system once you know its few organising principles.
These are issues that have persisted through the remastering process, and feel a bit out of whack with more modern game design philosophies and tech. But, after everything, these problems pale in the face of the sense of import and anticipation I felt when playing the collection. Strategy has a certain way of seizing your thoughts away from the computer screen – I had moments doing everyday, real-world things where I suddenly found myself thinking of ways to tackle the next Homeworld mission, and finding myself in anticipation of going home to try out my gambit. In a way relatively few games have, Homeworld has that slightly addictive element to it, one that compounds itself with its narrative-driven gameplay to provide a classic space opera RTS experience that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 ion frigates