Retrospective: Homeworld

It's full of stars.

There are games that we love to play and then there are games that we love to... well, just love. Above all others Homeworld has established a place in my heart that will likely only ever be relinquished should its achievements become the norm rather than the rare exception in gaming.

Released in 1999, it tells the story of the people of Kharak, an isolated planet at the far edges of the galaxy. Upon the discovery of a relic buried deep underground, they come to learn that they are in fact exiles on their planet. For over 60 years, the population unites and devotes itself to building a starship capable of carrying them home. You enter the game as this Mothership prepares to make its maiden test flight.

You could write an entire article about the further intricacies of Homeworld's story alone - unlikely alliances, the voyage of self-discovery - but it would only tell half the story of the game's success, and for those who haven't yet experienced it, the journey is one that should remain Relic's prerogative to tell.

What propels Homeworld into the stratosphere though is the meticulous design, polish and deployment of everything else to enhance that storytelling. It's greater than the sum of its parts, and these combined efforts set the game apart not only from its genre contemporaries but gaming as a whole.

Take your units. Returning from your first hyperspace test-jump to discover you've unknowingly breached an ancient treaty banning your people from interstellar travel, units are transformed into real, emotionally vulnerable people. We've become so accustomed and even numbed to cigar-chomping marines vowing to kick whatever clichéd ass might be called for that the brief and plaintive commentaries from your Homeworld units under fire become almost heartbreaking.

3

All wings report in.

With your planet destroyed in retribution, all that remains now above Kharak is the Mothership and half a dozen cryogenic chambers containing the remnants of your population. The game becomes a race against death to secure whatever chambers can be salvaged as they're picked off one by one, a hundred thousand lives at a time.

The original mission having collapsed, your military commanders now speak with cracked voices and hollow shock. The game becomes a journey not through a series of maps, meeting arbitrary objectives along the way, but towards survival itself.

Never mind that you can save and reload freely at any point should you find yourself overwhelmed or under-resourced. Such is your emotional investment in the struggle of these people that, when that first opportunity to begin the long road towards revenge presents itself, getting it right and delivering justice at the first attempt is an imperative rather than an option. Alert, upright and with nerves on fire, you gain the same thousand-yard stare that you sense in your pilots. This matters.

A great part of this skilfully directed emotional play is the music. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey relied on Also Sprach Zarathustra for its showpiece, a choral recording of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings is the overriding theme for Homeworld.

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