It feels like a lot of reviews these days begin with a small history lesson. This one is no different.
Homeworld by Relic Entertainment was first published in 1999 to deservedly rave reviews. The game approached space strategy in a revolutionary 3D fashion and offered up some serious eye candy in the form of large fleets battling in an epic setting.
Homeworld tells the story of the Kushan people, who find a crashed spaceship in the middle of the desert. The ship contains new technologies, but also a star map pointing to the legendary Kushan homeworld - thus the name. The Kushans unite in an effort to return home, and everything is fine until their massive Mothership comes online. From there it is all downhill, as the homecoming turns into a battle for survival.
Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld 2 continued the story, but then the franchise went adrift. THQ bought Relic in 2004, and then acquired the rights to Homeworld in 2007. Many of the Relic founders and Homeworld developers chose to leave and find a new studio of their own though, leaving behind the franchise if not the genre.
As we know, THQ went bankrupt in 2013, and when the dust from the auctions finally settled, it turned out that Gearbox Software had bought Homeworld. The new owner promised HD remasters of the Homeworld games for 2014. They punched past that original date, but here we are today, with the Remasters released.
Gearbox may not have originally inspired a great deal of trust in the Homeworld crowd, and the delays certainly didn't help with that. This mistrust was luckily misplaced though, as Gearbox has done a spectacular job in modernising these gaming classics.
The Homeworld Remastered Collection could have been "the usual", meaning an old game with a slightly better resolution. We've seen a few of these lately, but fortunately Gearbox wanted something more, and has restored these strategy milestones with profound love and craftsmanship.
The graphics are obviously the first thing that the player notices. The old version was getting rather rough for 21st century eyes, so Gearbox has simply redone it all. Even the cutscenes have been redrawn, though naturally with respect for the original style. Space is at once stark and beautiful, and it is easy to lose yourself in just enjoying the visual aesthetics of a 200+ ship battle.
The resolution now goes all the way up to 4K, but the improvements are obvious on smaller resolutions as well. Homeworld's ship design was excellent to begin with, but now all of the details are finally visible. The effect is rather striking, especially when ships get battle scars from the hits they acquire.
Paul Ruskay's music was key in establishing the somber atmosphere of the Homeworld games. Ruskay preferred ambient and world music to the usual orchestral fireworks, and there is a definite Middle-Eastern vibe to his compositions. Gearbox could have just slapped a crunchy transfer of the old tracks onto the remasters, but instead they ended up getting the original tapes from Ruskay himself.
The voice acting has been treated with similar piety. The original voice of the Mothership, Heidi Ernest, was unable to perform in Homeworld 2, so she was invited back 16 years later to record her version of the lines for the Remastered Collection. I can not readily recall when something like this has been done for a game remaster.
Homeworld and Homeworld 2 remain separate games in the Collection, but they share the same, successfully modernised user interface, which improves the flow quite nicely. The game mechanics have also been combined, which means (among other things) that refuelling has now been ejected from the first game as well. As Gearbox hasn't meddled with the mission structure itself, one may still encounter apparently pointless tankers in some of the missions.
In short, the Homeworld Remastered Collection is the best remaster that I have ever seen in games. This is the standard that everyone should try for when resurrecting old classics, instead of just giving them a little gloss with a new shader. Gearbox has done excellent work, and thanks to their efforts the games look and feel completely modern and fresh.
Of course it does help that both Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were excellent games to begin with. Gearbox hasn't fiddled with their actual content because it didn't need tweaked with in the first place. Both games feature a rather tragic storyline, especially for the genre, and war is presented as a terrible burden instead of glorious conquest. Those who enjoy metaphors and the like need only turn the word homeworld into homeland, and direct their gaze to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.
H1 and H2 also remind us of ye good olden days, when games still had to feature a full single player campaign that wasn't just a tutorial for the multiplayer. The package features over 30 missions, which will keep the average player occupied for quite some time. There are also skirmish matches.
Although the action is mostly exciting and challenging, the mission designers have enjoyed a rather unhealthy relationship with surprise twists. These are of course dramatic, but they usually end up wiping out the player's fleet, forcing them to start the mission again. When the twist can then be anticipated, it no longer offers an additional challenge.
One of the more interesting twists in Homeworld was and still is the fact that the player has to survive the whole campaign with the same fleet. New ships are naturally built along the way, but the resources to do that with are finite. Thus it is quite possible to screw yourself over and hit a brick wall due to your fleet no longer being able to beat the enemy. At least the game is friendly enough to autosave every mission, if the player doesn't have the sense to do it themselves.
Thus, the old core content still stands up to scrutiny today, and the glossy new coat of paint isn't there to serve as a distraction from it. There is the obvious lack in the form of Homeworld: Cataclysm of course, but since the code is genuinely missing, we can't really blame this one on Gearbox. The studio has promised to reassess the situation if the code resurfaces.
The Collection also includes a new combined multiplayer mode, which has definite potential to it, but as it is still in beta, and as such a nice little bonus, I won't get any further into it here.
I can recommend the Homeworld Remastered Collection to all fans of the space stategy genre with nearly no reservations. There has been some buzz on the forums concerning events not firing correctly, but I didn't see any of this during my run. I did have to refresh the drivers on my graphics card for the game to even start, but really, that is not unheard of in PC gaming.
Also, if there are still those in the audience who feel that everything was better in the old days, don't worry. The Collection also includes the original versions of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 for your pleasure.