It might be time to admit that I am a terrible commander. I’m the Prince of Orange and deep space is my Waterloo. A hundred fighters, dozens of frigates and one particularly determined capital ship have just vanished into fiery puffs, leaving nothing but scattered wreckage and shattered dreams. Yet I will send more brave men to their space graves until my enemy is crushed or there is no one left to die for me.
This has largely been my experience so far in Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld, considered to be one of the finest real-time strategy games ever made. I was never committed to this style of game, being much too concerned with a boots-on-the-ground approach to war; that is, until I spent time with Medieval II: Total War in 2008. The veil was lifted, and I suddenly held the lives of thousands in my hands and they would die for me in pointless wars forever. At the time of my revelation, I had long since missed the glory days of Homeworld, and it remained quietly in the corner avoiding eye contact. But with my newfound fascination with the genre, I decided to look into the more critically acclaimed entries to get a taste of what I’d missed.
I dabbled in a wealth of titles, from Dawn of War to the Command and Conquer franchise, even dropping a few hundred hours into X-COM, but all the while hearing enamoured whispering surrounding the Homeworld series. I kept myself at a distance, but was always curious, hoping to find the right time to venture into space and learn what the obsession was all about. Finally, with the release of the remastered versions of both the first and second game, I took a plunge into the unknown, avoiding its online component due to my distaste for ‘sportsmanship’, ‘fairness’ and ‘fun’.
Homeworld lets you instantly know that it’s a special game, oozing mystery, excitement and holding your attention with a unexpectedly poignant story. One minute I’m performing routine tests of the capacity of my mother-ship, the next my home planet is burning as I rush to save the lives of the last remnants of our people, finally migrating into the great beyond with no home and a galaxy against me.
For so long, I didn’t even realize the forces I was commanding were human, so alien is the atmosphere. The sombre tone is delightfully suffocating; you never feel safe and you always feel alone. This mood is greatly assisted by its excellent musical score, which mixes eastern themes and threatening ambience to great success, leaving a memorable sting to narrative events and an added thrill to the frantic combat. Even though the game is nearly 16 years old, I refuse to spoil the events of the story; it’s an intergalactic road trip that is so very worth experiencing first hand.
The gameplay is less surprising, using a traditional base-building, research and attack formula. You start the game with the enormous mother-ship, which is both your greatest asset and your most crippling weakness. It must be defended at all times, as its loss means game over. One major difference from the droves of base-building RTS’s is that Homeworld has unit persistence; whatever you build sticks with you if it survives to the next mission, including resources. A real sense of attachment develops towards your ships (I’ll always keep you in my heart, Fighter Group Four) and a with it a weariness of wealth, unlike many other examples of the genre where you build for your objective, not for your future.
A large variety of ships to manufacture is a welcome inclusion, from the humble but hardy frigate, to the mighty capital ships which increase in size exponentially through the course of the campaign. The first game features five classes of vessels with different fire power, manoeuvrability and strengths. Fighters and frigates excel against other smaller craft and are also effective at harassing powerful ships, screening larger vessels and allowing them to tiptoe into an effective position, delivering a devastating sucker punch to distracted foes. Meatier ships such as destroyers are used to draw the attention of the enemy, and pound the snot out of anyone who looks at them funny or makes any ‘exceeded critical mass’ jokes. New varieties of ship unlock as the game progresses, eventually turning battles into a frantic matter of identification and risk assessment as you fight to keep up with the numerous factions you face.
While it took a considerable amount of time, my eventual understanding of the rock, paper, scissors combat came from a rinse-repeat practice of ‘build something new, throw it at everything and if it survives, build more’. I admittedly suffered a a few crippling, shell-shock-inducing defeats before I was able to progress with any success. But in a testament to how finely crafted the game’s pacing is, I never felt frustrated: the tools of success were laid out right in front of me, I just had to pick the right one. Bringing a frigate to a capital ship fight eventually registered as a bad idea in my mind the fourth time I scored an own goal genocide, and the mechanics of the game began to feel natural and fair.
Visuals in the Homeworld remastered collection are greatly enhanced. New high resolution textures and environments have been created from the ground up to modernize the engine, but the original settings are also available for the more conservative of players out there, similar to Bungie’s Halo re-releases. The 1999 version, while most certainly showing its wrinkles and unsightly nose hairs, is still pleasant and evocative. Much of this success can be attributed to Relic’s understanding of which assets to prioritize, avoiding anything that would distract from the core themes and overall design. All you see in game are ships and sky-boxes, and every inch of a scratched metal hull or a war-torn planet in the distance is crafted with passion and skill. There are no blocky, poorly animated faces, no flat landscapes or blotchy looking foliage. Without these hindrances that age older engines rapidly, Relic has allowed Homeworld to hold its own, even after all these years.
Eventually, like most strategy games of this type, I settled into a routine of collecting resources and building a wall of the largest ships available waiting for the right time to bulldoze any position, but Homeworld’s charm never dissipated. Sending an ambassador to an unknown alien ship always filled me with suspense and dread, seeing a new type of battleship that was double the size of anything I had available never failed to cause panic, and the sudden silence at the end of a violent confrontation was still eerily peaceful. Homeworld’s gameplay may be starting to feel outdated, but even now, after hours of time in the commander’s chair, I can hardly stop myself from going back to its hostile universe so I can fall back into complete immersion.
I was 15 years late to the Homeworld party, but upon timidly putting my foot in the door, I’ve found the music is still playing, lampshades are firmly secured to heads and celebratory vomit flows like wine. My few gripes with the game, such as the unstoppable tactic of throwing everything you have at a single ‘match winner’ target, or ships often defiantly holding the opinion that ten inches to the left of where you sent them is by far a more advantageous position, are lost beneath the blanket of atmosphere that Homeworld offers. Its praise is well deserved, and if you have any fleeting interest in the genre or setting, you owe it to yourself to sit down in a dark room, turn up your speakers and embrace the pleasure that is Homeworld. That is, until your most expensive battle cruiser decides to belly flop an asteroid.