Thoughts: Homeworld Remastered

homeworld_drones

The Homeworld Remastered Collection is a packaged rerelease of space strategy classics Homeworld and Homeworld 2. I didn’t like Homeworld 2 the first time around, and so this is largely going to be a review of the remastered version of the first Homeworld.

Gearbox strikes again.

I dunno, my saying that does seem slightly unfair. Your typical rerelease of an older game won’t go to the effort that Homeworld Remastered does. It’ll just tweak the game so that it works on modern operating systems at modern resolutions, stick an “HD” on the end of the title, and then push itself out onto Steam and other digital storefronts, happy in the knowledge that it’s bringing in maximal profit for minimal outlay through the sheer power of nostalgia. As you can probably tell, I’ve acquired a rather jaded view of this whole business of selling old rope for money, and so Homeworld Remastered being released in its current state comes off as all the more disappointing, since for the first ten minutes I played it it seemed like it might be the one game to break that mould.

With Homeworld Remastered Gearbox have made a real attempt at making something worth buying, you see. Instead of sharpening all the textures up a bit and then calling it a day they’ve gone to extreme lengths to make this Remastered version look like it’s something that has a legitimate reason to be released in the glorious space-year 2015. The game has received a complete graphical facelift. Everything from the ships to the skyboxes to the beam effects has been overhauled and upgraded, to the point where Homeworld Remastered looks better than 90% of AAA games you’re likely to play this year.  The stylised, hand-drawn cinematics and the voiceovers that accompany them – such an integral part of the flavour and feel of the Homeworld universe – have been redone with the original actors, and even the music’s been resampled at a higher bitrate from the original recordings. All of this marks Homeworld Remastered out as something unique: you don’t expend this amount of time and resources on a rerelease of a series that’s over a decade old unless you have a genuine passion for it. It’s a real labour of love, and it shows. It looks incredible. It sounds incredible.

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It is also, alas, totally broken.

In recent years Gearbox have acquired something of a reputation for pushing out cynically licenced games that are… how can I put this… somewhat technically challenged in order to make a quick buck on the strength of their licenced property. Homeworld absolutely doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the likes of Duke Nukem Reloaded and Colonial Marines, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s just as bug-ridden as either of those games were at launch, and that these bugs are things that did not exist in the “classic” version of Homeworld. They’ve been introduced during the game’s graphical upgrade, and the reasons for this become apparent once you do a little reading into the under-the-hood retooling Gearbox did in order to make that upgrade possible in the first place: the entirety of Homeworld has been ported lock, stock and barrel into the Homeworld 2 engine so that they only had to overhaul one game engine instead of two.

This is the sort of thing that sounds like a good idea from a development point of view. Homeworld 2 is the more recent game. It’ll be easier to make the needed changes in that engine.  And they’re basically the same game anyway, right? It’s not like Homeworld 2 was a radical change in direction for the series; it had many of the same ships shooting the same guns in a slightly more high-definition interface. Surely the second game’s engine isn’t going to be such a bad fit for Homeworld?

That’s what you’d think, anyway. And that’s clearly what Gearbox thought. Unfortunately for them (and for me), the second Homeworld did some seemingly-subtle mechanical streamlining that renders its engine an extremely bad fit. Take fighters, for example. Fighters in Homeworld 2 were no longer built individually; they were built as a permanently grouped fighter wing and behaved as a permanently grouped fighter wing. The Homeworld 2 engine has no analogue for the grouped fighter behaviour of the first Homeworld, where fighters would maintain formation in a dogfight and would pivot to face a capital ship as they were doing a drive-by strafing run a la Babylon 5/Battlestar Galactica, because Homeworld 2 doesn’t have a concept of the fighter as a single entity. The best it can do is to treat a single fighter as it would a lumped squadron; it’ll maintain formation with other fighters until they make contact with the enemy, and then the formation dissolves into a huge blobby mess as the squadron behaviour takes over and it’s every fighter for itself1.

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This is half of why fighters in Homeworld Remastered are so useless. The other half is to do with how Homeworld 2 models weapons fire via a pure chance-to-hit system. This, again, is very different from how the first Homeworld did it – my memory on this is a little fuzzy, but Homeworld 1 certainly gave the appearance of modelling individual projectiles and the path they took through space. If your projectile hit an enemy ship it took damage. Homeworld 1’s system made certain formations very effective, as your ships were in firing positions that were flat-out better as they allowed you to concentrate fire. It also made the Evasive fighter behaviour worthwhile; throwing in a group of fast Scouts in Evasive to distract the enemy was a legitimate tactic. None of this works any more in the Remastered edition, however, and it’s all thanks to the chance to hit rolls: it doesn’t matter where your fighter is or how fast it’s moving, all that matters is whether the thing shooting at it makes its CtH roll. If it does, you’ve got a dead fighter. As for shooting at other things, since most of the power of fighters was in their movement and positioning they’ve ended up being pretty devastatingly crippled in this new incarnation.

That’s just the most egregious example of something that worked well in Homeworld being totally broken by the transition to the Homeworld 2 engine. There are plenty of others, such as the game not being particularly sure if you’re allowed to dock your ships with carriers/the mothership any more. I couldn’t do it, but the AI apparently could, which lead to a comical moment when I captured the enemy carrier in mission 5, and after my engineers had hurriedly repainted it in my colours it evicted two whole squadrons of enemy fighters that had been lurking inside that I then had to kill. Because they’ve drastically altered the balance of the game through trying to fit the square peg of Homeworld into the round hole of the Homeworld 2 engine, parts of the campaign are now insultingly easy while others are even harder than when I went through them the first time2. There’s even – hnnnng – autoscaling of the number of ships you face based on the size of the fleet you bring into the mission, which is the part of Homeworld 2 that I hated the most.

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And then there’s the stuff that’s flat out bugged. The bugs I have encountered include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Resourcers disappearing into thin air. This has happened twice, and on both occasions the resourcers were guarded by a squadron of fighters behind my mothership well away from any battle lines. I heard no “We’re under attack!” chatter, and neither did anything show up on the sensor map. One moment the resourcers were there, and when I looked back they had vanished.
  • Salvage not working properly. In mission 3 you’re asked to salvage an assault frigate as one of the mission objectives. I duly sent my salvage corvettes in to capture it, but the assault frigate remained stubbornly immobile once they’d attached themselves to the hull. I checked its stats: its movement value had set itself to minus 2 billion3. I had to restart the mission to get it to work properly. Later on I tried to salvage some resourcers only to have to exact same thing happen, so it wasn’t an isolated incident.
  • The game not letting me use the carrier I captured in mission 5 as an actual place where I could build ships. I couldn’t select it in the new drop-down build interface, and so I ended up telling it to follow my resourcers around so that they could use it as a drop-off point, since this was all it was good for.
  • Triggers not firing properly. The worst example of this was the thing that made me stop playing Homeworld Remastered: on mission 9 you have to kill a ghost ship that projects a field that takes over any capital ships that wander too close. The idea is that you’re supposed to use fighters and bombers to take it out, so I duly lured its protecting fleet away with some long-range shots from my destroyers and sent in the bombers – who proceeded to bathe it in plasma fire for twenty minutes without making so much as a dent. As far as I could tell the ship had an invulnerable flag that wasn’t turned off until a certain cutscene had happened – and despite reloading the mission twice I couldn’t get it to trigger, so I couldn’t progress any further into the game. Sucks to be me, I guess.

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My experience with this remastered edition of Homeworld 1 has ended up being fairly abject, then. The irony was that I never thought that much of Homeworld 1 as a game; its visuals were stunning (at the time) and its story and atmosphere were engaging, but the actual gameplay always came across to me as awkward and stilted.  After playing this remake, though, and seeing just how possible it is to thoroughly stuff it up, I’ve come away with a new appreciation for all the things Relic got right that I didn’t notice until I saw a version of the game that didn’t have them. As I said before I think Gearbox really do care about the Homeworld series and they’ll hopefully put in the hours required to fix the game, or at least patch out the worst of the bugs. At the moment, though, I’d have to warn you not to buy this collection hoping to play through an updated version of Homeworld 1, as I did. You’ll only end up disappointed.

As for the rest of the collection, it’s actually pretty good news. Despite my deep and abiding hatred for it I played several missions of Homeworld 2 to see if that had any bugs, but that at least seemed to work flawlessly. Which is unsurprising, really; at the very least I’d expect Homeworld 2 to work in an overhauled version of its own engine.  The collection also helpfully comes bundled with the original versions of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, and it’s good to have those games available via a digital distribution channel. They still work pretty good on Windows 7, even – I played Homeworld Classic for an hour to confirm things worked the way I remembered and I wasn’t just imagining half of these bugs, with no problems beside the odd bit of stuttering and an odd aspect ratio. The only remaining sore point is the sad absence of Homeworld: Cataclysm (by far the best Homeworld game)  for which the source code has reportedly been lost.  As a whole, the Homeworld Remastered Collection is a very strong package. Just so long as you like Homeworld 2.

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  1. Don’t even think about trying to use Defenders in sphere formation, since the engine flat out can’t handle it.
  2. Homeworld has one of the most notoriously difficult single-player campaigns in strategy gaming history. At one point it sticks a fleet of 200 ion cannon frigates between you and your mission objective. I kind of missed that.
  3. Putting on my DB hat for a second this is amusing to me because it’s the lowest possible number allowed by a signed 32-bit integer, which is obviously what’s being used to store the ship’s stats .
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10 thoughts on “Thoughts: Homeworld Remastered

  1. I don’t get how can you make small scale RTS in space. Where is terrain, chokepoints?

    Also “lost code” again, like for Heroes 3 add-ons? Come on, it’s not like those games were made in 80′s. Didn’t people have any freaking VCS back in 2000? No one bothered to save release version code on some CD-R?

    This review reminded me of your review of Total War Rome 2. BTW had you try it since? Or Atilla?

    • innokenti says:

      You’d be surprised how easy it is to leave all this stuff. Especially in the 90s. And CDs aren’t all that reliable as a storage medium to be fair – unless you have some dedicated archiving going on, you can’t hope for much to be saved. At least with stuff at point of release you have preservation through mass distribution, but for something like source-code which typically is restricted, it’s harder.

      And then the company goes out of business. So.

      • Well, maybe now it’s easier. I’m dropping my finished project sources in Dropbox as archives just in case. Also last year I’ve contacted a guy who wrote some plugin for my IDE in 2007 to adapt it to last version of IDE and he could easily find it and send to me.

        It’s just strange to me that no developer keeps the code and SVN servers have no backups in those companies. Deus Ex Human Revolution did it recently: Director’s Cut lacks patches made for DXHR so it’s DXHR 1.0 plus some content.

    • Hentzau says:

      I haven’t gone back to Rome 2, no. My initial experience with it left too bad a taste in the mouth. I am eyeing up Attila – which sounds like the Napoleon to Rome’s Empire — but given what I said at the end of the Rome 2 review it’d be poor form for me to buy it now when there’s such a glut of other awesome games around right now for me to play. I suspect I’ll get around to it in April-May.

      Also the Homeworld level designers actually did a really good job keeping things interesting with a different challenge on each level. Since there is no terrain in space it’s mostly to do with what type of enemy you’re facing and how they’re laid out.

  2. innokenti says:

    Ah, yeah, so this explains the fighter stuff. Didn’t get all that much into Homeworld 1 Remastered after the release, but might just replay 2. It was my favourite one anyway. (Although as you say, Cataclysm was very good).

    It’s a shame they didn’t work in a bit more balancing and tweaking to make Homeworld 1 behave a bit better, or otherwise adapt it to play more like 2 where needed flawlessly.

  3. Byronic Fate says:

    I enjoyed it enough, but things were definitely missing. Fleet formations are so wide-shaped and useless. You can’t get cloak generators close enough to cap ships to save your life. The sphere formation doesn’t go around it’s guarded target any more. The resource distribution seemed really bizarre. Ships wouldn’t maneuver properly on diamond shoals. Fleet formations have no effect. Changing the tactics of your fighters does nothing.

    • Hentzau says:

      Oh god Diamond Shoals. That was painful – my two stolen destroyers bugged out completely and spent the entire level wandering around down and to the left of the mothership, while my frigates repeatedly interpreted “Shoot this asteroid” commands as “WHY NOT FLY INTO THE ASTEROID ON A SIGHTSEEING TRIP”.

      That being said, you’re right. It is still enjoyable in spite of all of this. I really hope Gearbox fix it.

  4. Given that I somehow missed out on the original (and therefore have no preconceptions of what it should be like) do you recommend taking a look at this anyway?

    • Hentzau says:

      Yes. Maybe not now (wait for Gearbox to push out some patches first) and maybe not for £22, but you should pick it up at some point – most people don’t have the viscerally negative reaction to Homeworld 2 that I did, and that works fine and looks stunning. I think the Remastered version of Homeworld is broken enough that you’d notice some of this stuff even if you’d never played it before, but you also get the classic version of Homeworld packaged in if you don’t mind 1999-era graphics and UI.

  5. SomeGuy says:

    Above average single player, but not very good for multiplayer, I’d rather play Starcraft 2

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