Space battles between ships are not limited in the same way as navy ships here on Earth once surrounded each other in the seas. From Ender’s Game to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, this idea has been explored in the media, but far fewer games address the added layer of complexity that comes with combat with three-dimensional spaceships. With Homeworld 3, developer Blackbird Interactive and publisher Gearbox Software are taking up this challenge.
Homeworld 3 tries to push the boundaries of strategy games, bringing together everything that made the original games special and marrying them with modern game design and hardware capabilities.
I recently had the chance to play through two missions in Homeworld 3, experiencing the enhanced space combat and features of this sequel. Both missions were set from the start, and while this is just a small taste of what’s to come, 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, taking on space pirates and other threats years after the events of Homeworld 2. Fighters weave through in tight formations, circling the enemy cruisers and dodging missiles through the void of space and massive structures. .
Jumping into my game session, the scale of Homeworld 3 is immediately displayed. A vast space is dotted with asteroids all around, and the game makes good use of its 3D setting. In classic RTS games, pointing and clicking is one thing, but it’s quite another to fully navigate the Probes far beyond your starting point. It’s easy to get lost in the vastness of beautifully realized space, and it easily sells the idea of how small your mothership is even in the grand scheme of things.
Homeworld 3 features an intuitive new 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 them. Using the new cover system, I was able to weave groups of fighters around huge chunks of debris, blocking missiles and closing the gap to where the fighters’ close-range weapons could fire.
It was amazing to pull it 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 respectively at Blackbird Interactive, it’s clear that the developers had to spend a lot of time improving the AI to the point where it was possible.
“We focused on trying to push as far as possible to make the ship’s AI feel smart and responsive when interacting with the environment while keeping the strategy in the hands of the player,” Neale explains. “That was definitely one of our most important and complex points to focus on, and I think we’ve done a good job of identifying how to make it really immersive while not losing the strategic components that the player is. supposed to love.”
“It was fraught with technical pitfalls,” adds McGuire. “Ships maneuvering in 3D space around convex and concave polygonal objects weren’t done. It’s not like there were a few examples. It just wasn’t done.”
Build a game for everyone
Even with the new modern control scheme – a classic option is also available – it can be a bit overwhelming, although the developers have noted that the full game will include a tutorial.
There’s also a tab full of accessibility options outside of the usual game settings, and while I haven’t had too much time to tinker with optional modifiers, I’m told it’s something that the team takes seriously to ensure that anyone who wants can play Homeworld 3.
“Accessibility was one of the top conversations that kept coming up. BBI (Blackbird Interactive) as a whole is pushing towards this cohesive suite of accessibility options that we seek to provide to all of our games, as far as possible,” Neale said.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be new types of challenges. While the missions in this preview were mostly straightforward, it looks like that won’t be the case for other parts of the campaign.
An iconic feature of the Homeworld franchise is the idea of a persistent fleet. Specifically, players enter a new mission with the fleet they had at the end of the previous mission. This means the weight of gaining or losing a ship is magnified, and it hammers home the idea that it is your fleet, with each success or loss based on what you can achieve not just for one mission, but for the campaign as a whole.
Details are scarce at this time, but McGuire says the team will use 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 a lot of cool experimentation with space and 3d terrain that kinda bugs you and creates a lot of interesting strategic situations that you just haven’t experienced in a strategy game before, and really play with ‘How would 3D combat play out in space?’” McGuire teases. “I think gamers are going to be really blown away by that. The sense of a space strategy game that Homeworld had in the 90s, we’re taking it to a whole new level.”
A long way to go before launch
There’s still a long way to go before launch. Although the game doesn’t have an exact release date at the moment, Homeworld 3 is expected to hit PC sometime in the first half of 2023. When this game does arrive, it will be nearly 20 years away from Homeworld 2. In McGuire’s words, “It can’t just be OK, it has to be awesome.”
We’ll have to see how the final product pans out, but for now it’s clear the developers are passionate about creating a game that the community and newcomers alike will love.
“We have a team full of Homeworld veterans,” says Neale. “Everyone is dedicated to making it the Homeworld experience that the community is looking for, and with that, there are very high expectations there.”