It’s been 20 years since the original release of Homeworld. In those two decades, outside of the original game, the franchise has only had an expansion, a sequel, and a recently released prequel. However, today, that tiny family is set to get a new arrival. But before we get to that, let’s go back and take a look at what made Homeworld so great.
Way back in 1997 in the tiny Canadian town of Vancouver, British Columbia, Relic Entertainment was founded to become the best damn real-time strategy developer in the world. Little did they know it would only take them two years to achieve that goal with the release of Homeworld.
Homeworld starts you out with a backstory of desperation and hope that revolves around the inhabitants of a mostly hot, desert planet that is well on its way to becoming an entirely hot, desert planet. A satellite tasked with probably trying to find less hot, dry places started malfunctioning and scanning the massive deserts that encompassed the majority of the planet’s surface and ended up finding a big broken spaceship-shaped thing buried in the sand.
After the wild and elaborate events that are retconned in the recent Deserts of Kharak game of 2016, it is discovered that this big broken space ship shaped thing is actually a very old broken space ship and inside is a piece of technology called a hyperdrive module. In addition to this, there was a fancy rock upon which was carved a map of the galaxy with one particular area marked “Hiigara” which translated roughly to “Home” as was later found. So with this new information and technology, the Kushan set out to leave their dusty sand world and head on back to the land they assume they’re from.
A hundred years go by and the Kushan have built the piece de resistance, the Mothership. Inside they’ve hung up the fancy rock, bolted in Karen Sjet, fixed up the Hyperdrive module, and gotten it ready to go for its maiden voyage. Now we’re finally getting into the game and boy is it ever an entrance.
The grandeur and glory of this three-kilometer ship are orbited by the camera to the ear flooding sounds of Agnus Dei with a choir doing everything it can to give you goosebumps so hard that Velcro will stick to your arm. My 13-year-old self sat mouth agape as that ship scooted a few hundred yards from its scaffolding and I instantly fell in love with Homeworld.
At this point, I think I have to say that the rest of this will have spoilers for this nearly 20-year-old game, so if you want to experience all of these magical moments for the first time, as you should, go play it. If not, suit up and strap yourself in for this pilgrimage into the past to discover what makes Homeworld so great.
Soon after you take control and get your bearings, familiarizing yourself with the capabilities of your starting ships and getting used to the unbroken ground of a real-time strategy in 3D space, you end your ‘tutorial’ mission with a test of the hyperdrive. With all of the ‘warping’ of sci-fi games and movies past and present, I still find this expanding rectangle and corresponding sound to be one of the most appealing ways to convey this sort of travel.
During this initial test, you learn that a support ship made its way as far as it could go for ten years through normal propulsion and you’re jumping to meet up with it in a matter of moments. Yet when you get there, you can’t find it. You scan and send out some ships to try and locate it, only to discover it’s full-on blown up and your only option is to gather the black box to figure out what went down. You hear their message saying “hey don’t come here, bad guys” but it’s too late and bad guys attack you.
Given the circumstances, I suppose it’s not too surprising to consider the idea of other people in space, but why attack you when you’ve barely even taken the first steps? All you know is that you’ve gotta get home and strap up because you didn’t even make it out of the solar system before people started doing drive-bys.
So you pop on back home through the beauty of yet another blue rectangle and you’re greeted with the now-familiar view of your mothership appearing, silhouetted by the sun in the background. Yet when you turn the camera to see Kharak, it’s scorched and burnt. Agnus Dei starts playing again. The sound of glory and triumph in the initial moments of the Mothership’s launch are now somber and painful. Karen Sjet, with as much emotion, that her now robotic voice can muster, tells you “No one’s left… Everything’s gone… Kharak is burning,”
You left with hope and dreams to discover death and destruction and then return complete devastation. You don’t know why this is happening and you won’t get to try and figure it out just yet because the six cryotrays each containing a hundred thousand frozen citizens to make this journey are under attack.
While the number that you save doesn’t seem to have an impact on the game, you’re compelled to save every one of these popsicle people. You’re also tasked with capturing one of the attacking ships with your salvage corvettes to interrogate the crew and figure out what’s going on. Once you’ve done this, you learn of the Taiidan and how, in developing hyperspace technology, you violated a 4,000-year-old treaty and of course the penalty is mass genocide.
From a gameplay perspective, little of this changes the view of the player who’s aware that the game is about space combat and you’re going to be fighting *someone* in the process. However, rarely in a game are you given such a strong motivator to feel the need for revenge and to get all of these people to a world they can call home. It goes from a desire to just discover a missing link from your past to a matter of surviving in any capacity for future generations.
Yet the gameplay comes back into this by reinforcing the aspect of survival and moving forward by having each mission start with whatever ships and research you’ve accumulated so far in your journey… and a journey is exactly what it is. Every level is, in fact, another jump in the most deadly game of Oregon Trail as you roam across the galaxy to Hiigara. It zigs and zags around known threats and, of course, into even greater unknown threats.
You discover even more aliens such as the Bentusi, who are an ancient race of friendly traders that live exclusively in space and are tied into their motherships much like Karen Sjet. They provide the means for you to progress your research into new weapons and ships in a logical way, much like you do throughout the game. Rather than just randomly conceptualizing wild new weapons and ship designs, the game’s armory grows through trade and scanning or capturing enemies. In your journey, you also find hostile aliens whose only interest is taking you out.
The “Kadeshi” hide out in a nebula and use hyperspace inhibitors to trap you inside and then for some reason decide to “cleanse” you buy blowing you up. Upon defeating them, however, you make the discovery that these aliens have a relic of a ship that is nearly identical to the wreckage you found in the desert of Kharak. They were the same group of refugees from Hiigara, just like the Kushan, but took a different sociological and ultimately religious path after deciding to hideout in this nebula.
The way that this slowly paints a picture of the mysterious lost events that lead to the beginning of the game makes Homeworld’s story feel almost like a film noir, which is certainly aided by the black and white cutscenes throughout. It takes the gameplay of a straightforward real-time strategy and augments it with a sense of urgency built entirely around the player’s will to hit that next hyperspace jump and see what curiosities are found and questions are answered.
As you progress in Homeworld, the story continues to unfold, further illuminating your ancestors’ escape to Kharak. You also continue to build an increasingly strong fleet and learn that your actions, or more so the actions of the Taiidan in committing genocide, have begun a rebellion.
This adds another layer to the story and one that is seemingly necessary considering the stated scale of the Taiidan forces. Finally, you’re not all alone against the universe. It starts to feel less like a desperate attempt to dive face-first into a gauntlet and more like a war that you might win.
While the later missions of the game are more limited in their strategic difficulty since your fleet is probably quite powerful at this point, one thing to consider is how a wayward mission could leave you with a significantly weaker fleet going forward. In my first playthrough of the original game, this made the final few missions extremely difficult. Though that difficulty didn’t come in to play during the remaster, the idea of it looming over my every action made me consider each ship to be much more important.
As you move into the final mission it puts you right in front of Hiigara. After all of the trials and tribulations, the destruction and loss, the drama and discovery, you’ve finally made your way across the galaxy to your Homeworld. The battle that ensues is not easy. The Taiidan throw everything they have at you and it’s only possible to strike back after the rebellion shows up to aid you.
When you do strike the final blow and destroy the enemy fleet, you’re shown the beautiful ending cutscene describing the outcome and aftermath. You’ve saved your people from wasting away on that hot desert planet and given then a new home in a lush vibrant world that you were forced to flee from thousands of years before.
Homeworld was a groundbreaking game in its time. It was visually impressive being 3D at a time when real 3D and 3D accelerator cards were only just becoming common. It stood out from its contemporaries in a way that few other games have ever achieved. Not only did it shine graphically, but it established a type of gameplay that wasn’t prominent in real-time strategies, one that had you hauling every unit you ever built from mission to mission. It did all of this while weaving a narrative thread that felt as good or better than much of the science fiction of the period.
A story was written to evoke a full spectrum of emotions that would give the player a drive that wasn’t just to ‘beat the game’, but to seek revenge, to explore the mystery of their past, and to save the last of dying race of people.
Relic tied all of this together with a soundtrack by Paul Ruskay that lifted every sequence so perfectly that it went on to win Best Soundtrack of 1999 for PC Gamer and Eurogamer. He tapped into the powerful vocal adaptation of Adaggio for Strings in Tears of Karan, his rendition of Agnus Dei, the song was used throughout the game pivotal moments of both joy and tragedy. It used its long somber rising and falling notes to key the listener into knowing that what is happening is important.
The soundtrack sets the tone for drifting in space with low bassy notes that are synonymous with space games of all sorts. He also used upbeat tribal sounding drum tracks and high pitched whines to instill the urgency of the combat. With all of these pieces combined, Homeworld became a cohesive titan of high-quality game design.
Thankfully, with Gearbox’s remaster of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, another generation got to experience this engaging story and timeless gameplay. While Homeworld‘s only expansion, Cataclysm, was not remastered due to the source code being lost, it was ultimately re-released on GOG under a new name, Homeworld Emergence. This means that today, nearly 20 years after the initial release of Homeworld, you can play every game in the series on modern hardware.
The remastered versions have wonderful updates to textures and run exceptionally well even on less-than-stellar PCs. I can’t recommend enough experiencing these games and everything they have to offer. Homeworld is a game that left a marker in my life that I’ve always looked back to with appreciation. It’s one of a handful of games that defined my interests for years to come.
I’m certain every gamer has a collection of games that fit in that category, but for me, Homeworld stands out even above my other favorites as a title that showed me that games can be more than a sum of their parts, they can be more than beating the boss, saving the princess, or getting the high score. They can be a work of art that sticks with you for the rest of your life.
The saga of Homeworld didn’t end here though. A great expansion and sequel built upon the wonderful writing and gameplay creating a series that would last until 2003. Outside of Deserts of Kharak though, the series ended with Relic being bought by THQ and moving on to other projects. However, on August 30th of 2019, Blackbird Interactive announced Homeworld 3, a game set to take place in the story following the events of Homeworld 2.
It’s currently being crowdfunded on fig but isn’t set to be released until the fourth quarter of 2022. So while we wait for at least another three years, I’ll have plenty of time to clear one or two games from my backlog and maybe make videos for the other Homeworld games. You’ll just have to wait and see…