Once upon a time, playing a Real Time Strategy game was a way of life for every gamer. Playing WarCraft II online via dial-up modems would provide hours of competitive excitement filled with “zug-zugs” and “more work!?” But as much credit titles like WarCraft, StarCraft and Command & Conquer deserve for being the catalyst of the genre’s popularity, it was a little title known as Homeworld that brought a sense of grace to the controlled chaos that was the RTS.
Homeworld, created by the stellar Relic Entertainment, was the first fully 3D real time strategy game. Up until that point, RTS games were limited to the use of flat plains. While airborne and underground units were available, their movements were still restricted to remaining on one plain at any given moment. When Homeworld launched in 1999, I have never played a RTS that was so bold, but so accessible. One might think that the addition of the Z-axis would complicate battle strategy and unit movement, but Relic created such a cohesive system that commanding units across the emptiness of space was absolutely effortless.
The iconic mothership, similar to a command center in StarCraft, was the pivotal point of any Homeworld game. Small utility ships are deployed from here, as are a variety of small fighters, corvettes and frigates to protect the mothership and engage enemies. But unlike the command center, which can be destroyed and the fight can continue (albeit severely handicapped), if the mothership is lost, the entire surviving population of your civilization would be consumed by the vacuum of space. But I do have to note, the first time you lose a mothership is one of the most gorgeous explosions I have ever seen in a game.
The heightened value of the mothership is the underscore of the game’s premise: survival. You are the leader of an entire civilization, traveling the depths of space to re-discover their long lost home planet. In that same mold of being the guide of a people, commanding the fleets of Homeworld is like conducting an orchestra. It is gorgeous, it is deliberate, it is graceful. Frigates and cruisers engage each other with powerful ion cannons, all while small fighters weave in and around the battlespace in a multitude of formations, all while the magnificent mothership looms in the background.
Relic put so much thought and care into the direction of Homeworld that to this day many of the game’s strengths still ring true today. The lighting and particle effects are still very good, the mouse-based controls are the base for how many games utilize mouse and (even) touch interfaces, and say what you will about no sounds in the silence of space, but Homeworld’s use of audio is amazing. The opening sequence that launches the mothership on its mission into the unknown, all to a fantastic choral rendition of Barber’s Adagio for strings is an opening that made a huge impact, even today.
Relic was able to make Homeworld into a beloved and acclaimed title, earning many game of the year awards, consistent recognition as a revolutionary RTS title and spawning a successful expansion and sequel in Cataclysm and Homeworld 2. But that success would become a cloudy future, beginning when Relic joined THQ in 2004. While Relic continued to make solid RTS titles, including Warhammer 40k’s Dawn of War series and the critically acclaimed Company of Heroes, Homeworld would be tucked away in a vault to leave fans speculating if there would ever be a future for the once praised franchise. Even when THQ sank and Sega bought Relic, Homeworld’s rights were retained by THQ as a legacy title, to be sold off on another date.
Thankfully, that date arrived on Monday when Gearbox Software announced that they had purchased the rights to the Homeworld IP, which had been floating in limbo from the former Sierra Entertainment, to THQ, until finally landing at Randy Pitchford and co.’s doorstep. While I love Gearbox and their in-house projects Borderlands, Brothers in Arms and even Half-Life: Blue Shift, they have been facing a bit of scrutiny lately, especially given the poor release of Aliens: Colonial Marines and the terrible attempt to finish 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem Forever. The fact that they primarily create first person shooters and have never ventured into RTS further complicates the recipe. Still, Gearbox has vowed to make a push for the entire existing Homeworld series to be released on digital distribution (Steam, Good Old Games, Gamefly) as soon as possible and hope to begin considering continuation of the series in a year from now (depending on the digital performance of the re-release I’d gather).
While I would love for Sega to step up to the plate and let Relic work in tandem with Gearbox, I doubt that it is in the cards. First, Relic has their hands full with the hotly anticipated Company of Heroes 2 and second, I doubt that anybody would trust another Sega / Gearbox relationship after the Colonial Marines debacle. Maybe Gearbox can latch on to a publisher that will let them take their time with the title, or maybe they can get the team of former Relic developers who are working on Hardware: Shipbreakers, a game that has been widely expected to share core elements of the Homeworld series.