Homeworld Remastered Collection Review: Gearbox Remake Maintains The Sci-Fi Strategy Series' Iconic Excellence

By Matthew Buzzi , Updated Mar 18, 2015 05:10 PM EDT
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Homeworld is widely regarded as a space strategy classic, best-in-genre for many and a trend-setter for games to come over the next decade. After playing the game (and its sequel) for the first time in Homeworld Remastered Collection, it's easy to see why. I missed out on the titles around the time of release, but this remake lovingly preserves the original games while also offering remakes with modern design and visuals, keeping the iconic mystique and excellent gameplay intact.

Homeworld Remastered Collection includes Homeworld and Homeworld 2 in their original forms, which allowed me to experience the titles as they were in 1999 and 2003. This preservation is helpful to someone who never played before: by playing two games held in such high esteem for the first time, you not only get to appreciate how much better the remastered versions look and play now, but it becomes clear that Gearbox made specific efforts to keep the spirit of the franchise alive. The visual design, campaign narrative, music, and sounds all carry through from the originals to the remakes, allowing you to enjoy what made the games great in the first place, blended with modern sensibilities.

And make no mistake--Homeworld Remastered and Homeworld 2 Remastered (the standalone) remakes included in the collection) are the superior versions of the games. This should be the gold standard for remakes--every detail and piece of inspiration is carried over, but the titles simply look and play much better than their forebearers. Players who hold nostalgia for the original games (and thus have a more comfortable knowledge of how to play them) may debate that point, but I find it difficult to argue that the new user interface and upgraded graphics are not objective improvements.

What looked good visually at the time looks stunning now--there are many beautiful scenes in the game, particularly when your ships are lit from behind by a sun or nebula. You might think the blackness of space doesn't provide an attractive background, but the designers know how to use one set piece such as a star or planet to create a dramatic, visually appealing scene. The menus and construction options are much cleaner, with less clutter and more efficient layouts. Homeworld 2 did a lot to improve on Homeworld, but the remastered versions of both use one clear interface for building ships and controlling fleets that any modern player will immediately understand. It's refinement of a dated system, and it's for the better. This extends to the controls, which were frankly difficult and cumbersome to handle in Homeworld when compared to Homeworld Remastered. Navigating height and depth in the vast stretches of empty space is a difficult design challenge, but the grouping controls and strategic view help keeps fleets organized. It takes some getting used to, but the difference between the new UI and going back the original is night and day.

There is of course a portion of the audience that doesn't particularly care how Homeworld Remastered Collection stacks up to the originals: plenty of players want to know if there's a great strategy game here that they have yet to play, and the easy answer is yes. I fell partially into this camp myself--I was of course curious about the classic titles and how the remakes compared, but it ultimately mattered whether or not these new games are fun, deep, and worthwhile. What you're getting are simply two strategy games that stand apart from others in terms of gameplay and narrative. The latter is not something that is usually associated with the genre, which is why it's so noteworthy: the campaigns in both Homeworld Remastered titles have a readily apparent feeling of grandeur and mystique.

There's real conflict introduced to the player early on, and you feel helpless in the cold reaches of space. Not everything is explained in an obvious way in terms of the story, which is exactly how it would be for a threatened group of spacefarers unfamiliar with the intergalactic community. Space holds an inherent feeling of mystery to us, and the somber story portrays that feeling well, supplemented by a very fitting score. The music ranges between eerie ambience and sweeping orchestral swells, matching the lulls and frantic action that come and go throughout the missions. More quiet moments are tense and require wide-scale planning--anything can come out of the darkness at any time--and combat sequences require micromanagement and quick thinking. Your fleets look wonderful as the fighters and bombers spin and swirl in combat, leaving glowing trails of color as much larger capital ships flank the enemy on your command. Other games such as Sins of a Solar Empire have captured a similar visual treat, but there's a certain artistry and design to the excellent flow of Homeworld.

The campaign structure isn't perfect, and my main complaint would be the way some missions leave you in a very disadvantageous position for the next. You could argue this is both realistic and an intentional challenge--and to a point, I would agree. Lose ships in a difficult fight, and your persistent story fleet should be weaker next time around. But, in my experience, this became something of a punishing problem a few times. Holding out on defense in one mission for a long period of time more or less required me to sacrifice ships to survive before escape, which is a fun and intense premise. In my multiple attempts, though, I was able to keep alive only a few ships (if any), and the subsequent mission has enemies attack you immediately. With no fleet to defend my mothership and no time or resources to build more, I was stuck in a loop of failure that I could do nothing about. It took a lot of trial and error (and loading older save files to better prepare) that felt more like cheating the game than good design, and while it's possible it was poor play on my part, you really can only do so much in certain scenarios.

A similar pattern across other missions (though not as harsh or dire as that example) reinforced my belief that the game was unfairly laid out in some circumstances. On the positive side, the objectives are usually quite varied and unique. One early Homeworld mission requires you to blast approaching asteroids out of the way of your mothership while it sits still so you can jump out of the region. Others will force you to fight and defend or seek out and destroy, and while the waves of combat itself remains similar each time, the context ups the ante and makes each battle feel important.

The skirmish (against computer opponents) and multiplayer mode for Homeworld Remastered Collection is a newly-created hybrid of Homeworld and Homeworld 2. It most closely resembles the latter (fighters and bombers units come in multiples instead of just individual ships like in Homeworld 2, etc), but unifying the games into one mode was a smart choice. It removes confusion and nuanced differences by opting for what is simply the best version of competitive play. You can customize the look of your fleet for the color palette and emblem of your choice, and take on as many opponents as you'd like. Online communities are often big and passionate parts of strategy games, and Homeworld Remastered gives you the tools to supplement the campaigns.

***

Homeworld Remastered Collection is a success on multiple fronts. Those looking for fantastic strategy titles will be satisfied with the stunning visuals, a varied campaign that provides a narrative incentive to keep playing, and tight tactical combat and resource management. For those hoping to recapture the fun and joy they experienced with the originals more than a decade ago, rest assured that Gearbox has taken care to maintain the prestige of the series. In fact, the new caretakers of the franchise have only added to it.

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