Homeworld Remastered preview: two classics looking their best

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I first played Homeworld in 1999. Sixteen years on, I remember my hours with the space strategy sim about as well as I recall the topics of my first college classes that year, which is to say barely at all. And so it's with a mix of fear and nostalgia that I enter Gearbox's little preview room for Homeworld: Remastered at PAX South—fear of looking like an idiot, and nostalgia for a part of my past that's been rejuvinated in a way I'll never be.

I needn't have worried. The two younger writers with me have never even heard of Homeworld before, and the Gearbox team itself, which acquired the rights during the big THQ selloff in 2013, seems more occupied with showing me how pretty the remastered version is than showing me gameplay. But boy, is it pretty. Gearbox has two tables set up in the small curtained room, each with two screens. On the left screen, there's the remastered version; on the right, there's the old version, and the team makes sure both start in unison. They're undoubtedly proud of their product: they'd probably shown this stuff 10 times before I showed up, and even so, I swear I hear one of them make a little clap as the cutscenes buzz to life.

The coordinated dance is a smart movie. Had I not seen the two side by side, I'm not sure I would have noticed how much had changed. Memory and imagination have a way of filling in the little details unattainable by the technology of 16 years ago, and the remastered version thus looked like the Homeworld I remembered, while the right screen looked like a rough draft.

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Same vision, new sights

It's a testament to how literally the team has taken the "remastered" concept. About four minutes in, the two versions are still in a rough unison (although, fascinatingly enough, the original version seems to take slightly longer to load), and yet I see differences in every detail. The first mothership the camera zooms in on looks fine enough in its 1999 form, but on the remastered screen, the light of the stars bounces off its hull and it's pocked with the scars of past battles or passing debris. Tendrils of nebulae akin to the Pillars of Creation worm their way through the orange backgrounds; in 1999, they looked more like they could be smears on the screen.

If I'm disappointed in the slightest, it's because the earlier opening cutscene had a hand-drawn look filled with bold black strokes, sort of like it was drawn by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird back when they were imagining amphibious mutant ninjas. The images are the same right down to their duration on the screen, but the new version seems a little too neat, too computer generated.

But on to the next table—after all, the cutscenes are such a tiny part of the experience. Homeworld is a game about space combat on an armada scale, and few games have done it better in the intervening decade and a half. To younger eyes, I imagine it looks a bit like EVE Online after the makeover, but Relic's game was created on the eve of CCP's sandbox, and its focus on coordination means it delivers a much different form of strategy.

Far too much strategy, it seems, for us to bother with in the 30 minutes I have with Gearbox. They've already set up an impressive battle on one of the other computers, forgoing the need to spend hours to build a fleet of my own. My interaction with the remastered version is actually limited to watching one of the guys with me select a bunch of ships with his mouse (including his mothership), and attacking the ships array on the other side of the void. The battle goes downhill almost as soon as it begins, and we laugh as his ship erupts into a spectacular explosion that looks like a small supernova. I can tell by fiddling with the original version next to me, though, that little has changed in the way of gameplay, although one of the team members tells me they've simplified some commands for the new version.

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And boom, that's it. They shoo me out, and it's time for the next group to come in. It's hardly the most involved demonstration I've ever seen, but it's enough to establish that it's exactly what Gearbox said it is: a remaster. Fortunately, it looks like a good one, particularly since they've "merely" modernized the old games (a massive undertaking in itself).

You can pick up both the remastered and original versions of Homeworld 1 and 2 for $35/£27 on Steam on February 25, and doing so will also get you into the Homeworld Remastered Steam Multiplayer Beta. That's a good deal if you've never played them before, and from what I've seen of the remastered versions so far, I suspect they'll be worth it.