Making video games is hard. It’s a long, complex process that can involve hundreds of people making thousands of decisions, all in the hope of creating a coherent product at the end. And while as a player it’s impossible to know the reality behind a game’s production, sometimes individual decisions do stand out in their power to make a major impact on a title.
Homeworld, a space-based strategy game first released in 1999, is one example of this. Whoever’s call it was to make the spaceships emit colorful light trails in their wake made a pretty amazing decision, because it helped solidify one of the most distinctive art styles in the history of gaming. Homeworld rendered space warfare as gorgeous, balletic battles, with every movement made by your fleet etching rainbow lines against a backdrop of psychedelic nebulae.
At least, that’s how I remember it looking. And that’s how Homeworld Remastered Collection, a new re-release of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 that’s out tomorrow, looks. It brings the two games up to date in meticulous detail, while also including the original versions so you can see how far we’ve come.
As it happens, we’ve come a long way.
"It’s funny how nostalgia works. We think it looked like it does now, but back then," says Brian Martel, chief creative officer at Gearbox Software, the studio that handled the remasters. "We were actually trying to have it feel like you always remembered it." Homeworld Remastered includes major visual updates like vastly improved ship textures and lighting, alongside neat touches like an effect where resource-collecting spacecraft appear to suck the life out of asteroids. But, like the new versions of Halo and Halo 2 included in The Master Chief Collection, it’s never overdone to the point where you forget what game you’re playing.
"Our goal was to make sure that the feelings of the original games would stay true to the originals when updating," says Martel. "So we knew we had to keep the ships the same for sure. Since the ships were the stars of the game, they had to be amazing. And then after that, it was all about getting the best modern rendering capabilities into the engine."
Homeworld still stands out for its beautiful spaceship design, but boosting the fidelity ran the risk of altering the blueprints too much — a fear of which Gearbox was cognizant. "We tried very hard not to alter it much at all," says Martel. "We tried to infer a lot of the details from the low pixel information in the original textures. And then lastly we ran the ships by [original art director] Rob Cunningham, and he gave the artist on the Remastered team tons of amazing and helpful art direction." Gearbox also updated the cinematics and audio of the two games, which were constrained and compressed to fit onto CDs back in the day.
There wasn’t much like Homeworld when it came out in 1999, and there isn’t much like it today either. It’s a real-time strategy game, a complex genre that has always been most at home on PCs with precise mouse control and near-unlimited keyboard commands. And Homeworld adds another layer of convolution by expanding into the third dimension, meaning you have to deal with moving your ships up and down as opposed to shuffling soldiers along a flat plane.
But despite this, the game remains remarkably simple to pick up and play. I’m not going to say it’s never clunky, or that I’ve never sent a squadron of fighters into the middle of nowhere rather than directing them straight to their target, but original developer Relic did an amazing job of creating a fluid, unique system that holds up well today. The interface itself has been overhauled for the remasters, however, taking influence from modern sci-fi to provide a sleeker experience overall.
Although Homeworld Remastered Collection does include the two original games (minus 2000’s Cataclysm spinoff), there’s no feature to switch between old and new graphics à la Halo: The Master Chief Collection or Grim Fandango Remastered. "We know in the end it would just compromise the experience due to [the] technical considerations of running both engines at the same time and create too many limits for a feature a player might use once or twice," says Martel. But you can boot into the old versions just fine, and the re-release represents the first time they’ve been available in some time. "Since they haven’t appeared in the original form on digital distribution, we wanted to make sure that people could always have them as they were," says Martel, who adds that "archiving them for the future as much as possible" was also considered important.
If Homeworld Remastered Collection does well, we could be seeing a lot more of the franchise. Gearbox bought the rights to Homeworld after former owner THQ went bust, but the studio is typically known for first-person shooters like Borderlands and Brothers in Arms. Blackbird Interactive, meanwhile, is a developer founded by members of Relic, and it’s making its own new strategy game called Homeworld: Shipbreakers with Gearbox’s blessing. What does Gearbox plan to do next with the IP? "Let’s see how it is received, and we will evaluate after that point," says Martel. "We love the franchise, and there are no limits to the amount of games from all genres that we could imagine setting in the Homeworld universe."
A Homeworld first-person shooter might be difficult to imagine right now, but let’s save that thought for another time. Homeworld Remastered Collection is a loving tribute to a strategy classic — the original game may be a decade and a half old, but its remaster is no less striking or innovative today.
Homeworld Remastered Collection will be released for Windows PC through Steam tomorrow.