They make a desert and call it a game

Discussed in this essay:
  • Homeworld Remastered Collection, Relic Entertainment/Gearbox Software (2015)
  • Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Blackbird Interactive (2016)

There are games we love, and there are games we want to love. The former category are all those games we were sucked into in the first hours of play, or after careful study revealed something even deeper than we first realized. Our relationships with these games aren’t unlike the relationships with the great loves of our lives: formative, abiding, and fondly remembered for many years, even after you’ve gone your separate ways.

For me, the Homeworld series definitely does not fall into that category. No, the Homeworld games are that really hot person I dated for a few months in graduate school, with whom things didn’t work out because there fundamentally wasn’t anything beyond the first, intense, mutual attraction. You try it anyway for a while – because with a game this sexy, how could you not? – but in the end, you have to admit it was always more about the aesthetic than the game itself.

I will say it now, and I will say it proudly: I am sick to death of pretty games. I don’t want to hear another word about polygon counts, anisotropic filtering, rendering passes, camera techniques, or anything else. What I do want is a game which I can play.

When Gearbox announced that, having acquired the rights to the old Homeworld series,1 they would be tastefully updating it to run on, and take advantage of, modern graphics cards, as well as re-releasing unaltered games for that original look-n-feel, I was pretty pleased. Even though I often rail against the modern tendency to milk the fiscally irresponsible 18–35 demographic’s sense of nostalgia2 instead of creating anything new, I am also nothing if not a sucker, and bought the Remastered Collection on the day of release.

I defend this decision in a couple of ways: first, I knew exactly what I was getting. It was no more or less than promised,3 and for that Gearbox deserve real praise. The twenty-first century needs more carefully-controlled ambitions executed well. My second defence is an art-historical one. By bringing old games to modern platforms and matchmaking services, we pull them out of the damnatio memoriae that so much “new media” suffers at the hand of Moore’s Law and messed-up intellectual property legislation, and back into the light where people can actually interact with them. At a reasonable price point, I consider this a legitimate endeavour.

But playing these games again also reminded me of their problems, and about the difference between a really good real-time strategy game and one that I really wish was better. Part of the problem is that Homeworld (1999) was released before there was any such thing as a “pro” scene, or a lot of talk about a game’s “meta”.4 Like the good old days of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness or Command and Conquer: Red Alert, really the only thing to do was play campaigns or comp-stomp in skirmish modes. If you could organize a LAN party, awesome, but that wasn’t something people were doing every night of the week.

Homeworld 2 (2003) didn’t really stray far from this template. It was fundamentally still single-player, and although Sierra offered an online matchmaking service for a time, you could tell where all the effort went. The fact that the game included a “pause and give orders”5 mechanic in single-player shows that it was not really designed around effective micro-management of units,6 and the paucity of multiplayer maps (and the relative lack of imagination in that set) didn’t help much.

But lest you think I am all down on these games: Homeworld 2 was a good game. I say that in all seriousness. The series has an impeccable sense of style, even though the writing is almost 100% undiluted cliché. But I’ve been stomaching that my entire game-playing life, and at least the actual gameplay mechanics are fun and different. If every RTS not being as polished as a Blizzard game means that we can have games very different from ones that Blizzard makes, then I accept that. And I accept that deep down, Homeworld and Homeworld 2 come from the “Command and Conquer” side of the RTS centum-satem line. I only wish that in addition to all the cool-as-shit art and the hotkeys that really let you take in the spaceships blasting each other to shit, they had realized what enormous potential a 3D battlescape and the rich mix of units presented for gameplay with a real crunchiness, and pushed that a bit further.

Still, not all art can be great, and sometimes we settle for “good”. And at a certain point, we must let bygones be bygones.

Except we can’t, because now we have a new Homeworld game. For when Relic perished, many of the original Homeworld developers moved on to form Blackbird Interactive, and began working on a “spiritual successor” to their cult-hit franchise, originally called “Hardware: Ship Breakers”. Billed as “Homeworld on the ground”7 they quickly generated some buzz, and then vanished. After talking to Gearbox, who brought them on board for the “remastering” of the classic games, this game emerged as “Homeworld: Ship Breakers”, the prequel to the original Homeworld that it had always intended to be, but for legal reasons Definitely Was Not. Released, finally, as Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (literally last week), I admit that I could not spend my €45 fast enough to get my hands on this game.

Did I think it was a bit overpriced? Yeah, actually. Was I expecting an earth-shatteringly good RTS? No, definitely not. Am I happy with it now, having played the campaign and a bit of skirmish/multiplayer? Ehrm. Hm. I guess not.

The thing is, this is a genuinely different RTS. It is not any of the *-craft games, it is strategic,8 it is fun. I’ve actually had more fun with it than Starcraft 2, which is a more polished game in pretty much every respect (although the writing in both is terrible). It’s also beautiful and atmospheric and revels in the desert landscapes that have been so carefully crafted – but then, Desert Golfing is all those things as well, and for a fraction of the price.

But new game, same flaws, let’s be honest. Multiplayer, despite the fancy matchmaking and possibility of ranked matches, feels like a total afterthought. Two nearly-identical factions, with a lot of the fun/interesting unit abilities switched around and made less cool as compared to single-player, only five maps,9 no way to rebind keys, and region-locked matchmaking that you aren’t notified about.10

The campaign story11 is still vague and handwavy, and the fact that a long time ago in a galaxy far away is populated by “Nathan” and “Rachel” is pretty careless.12

That said, the missions are really fun. In fact, I haven’t had a single player experience I liked this much in a long time: “classic” difficulty was hard. I replayed the last mission on easy just so I could see the ending before having to go to bed late on a Sunday night. (In the event, I should not have bothered: the ending13 consists of “yay the game is over!” and nothing else, which has reportedly confused the hell out of people new to the franchise, and is idiotic when the cool ending is a layup that the previous two games have already cleared your way to the basket for.)

And I will admit, the game has moments when it reaches a metaphorical hand up, and for just one moment, touches the sublime face of the Gaming Diety. Somewhere around Mission 3, when I was defending a wreck site that I had to scan for artifacts, my patrol was pinned down by enemy forces. Air support is called in, and just as my little dudes in their desert jeeps are about to taste the 50-degree gypsum powder for real, the sound of screaming jet engines fills the sky, and a rain of explodey death comes down on the bad guys like that scene in Apocalypse Now. I did that over and over again in the campaign, and you know what? It literally never got old.1415

Why can’t we have more of that? Well, for one, this is an old-school game from an old-school team. The gaming world has moved on in the last thirteen years. Most of my time spent in video games is social, and I hardly ever play games alone. I want to share those “airstrike you back to the stone age” moments with friends, and to sideline that experience and put a triple-A price tag on it is too much to ask. Perhaps there are more content patches incoming, and perhaps Blackbird is really as interested as they claim in fostering a multiplayer community.

Still, I’m not holding my breath. I’ve been through this cycle too many times, and I am perhaps too cynical. I have learned that the real path to happiness is accepting situations for what they are, rather than what you would like them to be. It was never going to work out with that smoking-hot graduate school colleague, and the Homeworld series will probably always be relegated to “cult” status. That’s okay, I guess. But I can’t help but find myself wondering if Warcraft III is on sale.

  1. Well, to the two games developed by Relic anyway. Apparently Cataclysm was a different set of intellectual property imaginary objects, and has thus been consigned to the dustbin of history, despite having a reputation as a rather good improvement over the original game. [back]

  2. Although as of this writing, Homeworld 2 is just over twelve years old. Can we reflect on how psychopathically short the cultural attention span has become when we are “reviving” works from just the last decade as if they were lost treasures? [back]

  3. Well, minus the as-yet-to-arrive bug fixes. [back]

  4. Starcraft (1998) was released the year before and really created that space, but not overnight. And anyway, Sierra’s online matchmaking was nowhere near as sophisticated as even the late-90s More than good RTSes, Blizzard made a truly excellent online service, and that is what is responsible for its success. [back]

  5. Which I confess I did not know about until literally yesterday, when people were moaning in a comment thread somewhere about how this feature was missing from Deserts of Kharak[back]

  6. To paraphrase Larkin, “micromanagement began / or at least it did for me / in the year 2003 / with the end of the sodomy ban / and release of Warcraft III”. Micro was pretty much codified in gameplay mechanics by Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002), and then instantly gave birth to the MOBA, which has outstripped all the RTSes put together in terms of attention. [back]

  7. Or, as I originally thought of it, “finally, Homeworld with some fucking terrain”. [back]

  8. Although I keep seeing it billed as a “tactical RTS”, and I have no idea what that means. What RTS isn’t tactical? [back]

  9. Seriously. Five. As in “I can count all of the multiplayer maps on one hand”. More have been promised, and for free rather than as DLC, but I mean Jesus H Christ. Are we so obsessed with “ship early ship often” that we can’t even try a little? [back]

  10. These games were never popular enough to warrant region-locking the multiplayer. As it is, logging in from Europe and Asia you are present with, er, one or two game lobbies. That everyone is switching their Steam download servers to the US to find games only makes the problem worse. [back]

  11. As a supplement to the “sick of pretty games” comment, let me add: I do not care about your Bible/Tolkein/Asimov rip-off of a story, or your crappy world building. Give me a game that I can play[back]

  12. All the more since at no point in the other games do people have the names of perky Californians. [back]

  13. Don’t you dare bitch about spoilers in a prequel[back]

  14. That is, until you unlock the cruise missle ability on the Mothership, er Pride of Hiigara, I mean the Galactica, uh, your main ship. Remember the first time you launched a tactical nuke in Starcraft? Yeah, it is that much fun. Repeatedly. BOOOOOM[back]

  15. The game also has (thankfully very rare) moments when the whole “everything is basically a tank” schtick descends into something like “Parking Simulator with guns”. Both the macro and the micro AI is servicable but not fantastic. [back]