Space battles between ships aren't restricted in the same manner as naval vessels here on Earth once circled each other in the seas. From Ender's Game to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, this idea has been explored in media, but far rarer are games that tackle the additional layer of complexity that comes with fighting with spaceships in three dimensions. With Homeworld 3, developer Blackbird Interactive and publisher Gearbox Software are stepping up to that challenge.
Homeworld 3 is trying to push boundaries for strategy games, bringing together everything that made the original games special and marrying it to modern game design and hardware capabilities.
I recently got the chance to play through two missions in Homeworld 3, experiencing the improved space combat and features in this sequel. Both missions were set early on, and while it's only a small taste of what's in store, I'm already impressed with what could be one of the best PC games of 2023.
One pilot's wreck is another pilot's cover
Homeworld 3 offers the fantasy of being in complete control of your own fleet, tackling space pirates and other threats years after the events of Homeworld 2. Fighters weave in tight formations, circling enemy cruisers and dodging missiles across the emptiness of space and massive structures alike.
Jumping into my play session, the scale of Homeworld 3 is immediately on display. Vast space is punctuated by asteroids all around, and the game makes great use of its 3D setting. In regular RTS games, pointing and clicking is one thing, but it's another thing entirely navigating probes far above and beyond your starting point. It's easy to get lost in the vastness of gorgeously-realized space, and it easily sells the idea of just how small even your Mothership is in the grand scheme of things.
Homeworld 3 features a new intuitive cover system, where ships moved near objects of sufficient size — including asteroids, monolithic structures, and even the fresh wreckage of other ships — will use those objects as cover. During the second mission I played, pirate cruisers used torrents of missiles to shred anything that charged at them. Using the new cover system, I was able to weave groups of fighters around hulking chunks of debris, blocking the missiles and closing the gap to where the fighters' short-range weapons could fire.
It felt incredible to pull off, and I'm amazed at how well this system seems to work. Speaking with Kathryn Neale and Rory McGuire, associate game director and chief creative officer at Blackbird Interactive, respectively, it's clear the developers had to spend a long time improving the AI to the point that this was possible.
"We focused in on trying to push as far as we could to get the ship AI to feel smart and responsive when you are interacting with the environment while also keeping the strategy in the hands of the player," Neale says. "It was definitely one of our biggest, complex points to focus in on, and I think we've done a good job of identifying how to make it feel really immersive while also not losing the strategic components the player is meant to love."
"It has been fraught with technical challenges," McGuire adds. "Ships maneuvering in 3D space around convex and concave polygonal objects has not been done. It's not like there's a couple of examples. It just hasn't been done."
Building a game for everyone
Even with the new modern control scheme — a classic option is also available — it can be a bit overwhelming, though the developers did note that the full game will include a tutorial.
There's also a full tab of accessibility options outside of the usual game settings, and while I didn't have too long to tinker with optional modifiers, I'm told it's something the team is taking seriously to ensure that everyone who wants can play Homeworld 3.
"Accessibility was one of the forefront conversations that kept coming up. BBI (Blackbird Interactive) as a whole is pushing towards this cohesive suite of accessibility options that we are looking to provide to all of our games, as far as we can," Neale says.
That doesn't mean there won't be new kinds of challenges. While the missions in this preview were mostly straightforward, it sounds like that won't be true for other portions of the campaign.
An iconic feature of the Homeworld franchise is the idea of a persistent fleet. More specifically, players enter a new mission with the fleet they had at the end of the prior mission. That means the weight of gaining or losing a ship is magnified, and it hammers home the idea that this is your fleet, with every success or loss depending on what you can pull off not just for one mission but the campaign as a whole.
Details are scarce right now, but McGuire indicates that the team will be using the more advanced processing power of modern computers for scenarios that simply weren't possible two decades ago.
"[In] some of the later missions, we do lots of cool experimentations with 3D space and terrain that really mess with your head a little bit and create lots of interesting strategic situations that you just haven't experienced in a strategy game before, and really play with 'How would 3D combat elapse in space?'" McGuire teases. "I think players are really gonna be blown away by it. The sense of a strategy game in space that Homeworld had in the 90s, we're taking it to just a whole other level."
A ways to go before launch
There's still a ways to go before launch. While the game doesn't have an exact release date right now, Homeworld 3 is currently scheduled to arrive for PC during the first half of 2023. When this game arrives, it will be almost 20 years removed from Homeworld 2. In the words of McGuire, "It can't just be OK; it needs to be awesome."
We'll have to see how the final product shapes up, but right now, it's clear that the developers are passionate about making a game the community and newcomers alike will love.
"We have a team full of Homeworld veterans," Neale says. "Everyone is dedicated to making this the Homeworld experience the community is looking for, and with that, there's super-high expectations there."
The next entry in the Homeworld series is on the way, and it's being designed to appeal to longtime fans while not alienating curious newcomers. Time will tell just how well this turns out, but our early impressions are positive.
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