The original Homeworld became an instant classic of the real-time strategy genre when it first came out in 1999. As our reviewer of the 2015 Remastered Collection, Wayne Santos, put it, this was because few games like it operated in true 3D space – meaning you could place attacks on the Z-axis – and fewer still challenged you by carrying over units from battle to battle, both of these design characteristics lying at the heart of what made Homeworld a deep, rewarding and unique experience.
Now, about twenty years after that first game was released, Homeworld 3 is a hugely anticipated title that seeks to step on the giant shoulders of its predecessors and steer the franchise into a new direction.
At gamescom 2022, my appointment with Homeworld 3 started with an elaborate presentation of the history and planned future of the entire franchise. To cut a long story short, in 2004, and so about a year following the release of the second Homeworld game in 2003, (what was then) THQ bought Relic Entertainment, the studio responsible for the first two titles. This purchase meant that THQ became the new rightful owners of the Homeworld IP but, during this time, no further game in the series was made.
Homeworld was in jeopardy in 2013 when THQ filed for bankruptcy, and the company was forced into auctioning off its remaining properties. Fans and other members of the community rallied to save the franchise and there was also hope that SEGA, who bought Relic that same year, would snatch up the rights. Eventually, though, it was Gearbox who made off with the coveted prize.
There were concerns at the time about the fact Gearbox had never developed an RTS before but, perhaps in recognition of this very fact, Gearbox allowed Blackbird Interactive (BBI), which is a studio founded in 2007 by former Relic members and key developers of the first two titles, to use the Homeworld IP to create what has eventually become Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak – a prequel to the first game.
The positive reception behind Deserts of Kharak’s release in 2016 paved the way for BBI to start working on more Homeworld projects. The first one I was shown was Homeworld Mobile, which seeks to bring the same dynamic 3D RTS combat the franchise is known for onto phones. Set 15 years after Homeworld 2, what makes Mobile different is that it is intended to be an MMO experience, even though players will be able to still play on their own as well. The game will be free to play at launch, which remains to be given a date, but Android users from select markets – including Canada and the UK – can fire up the Open Beta now.
This presentation all led to Homeworld 3, the first numbered franchise entry in about 20 years and a title many fans did not dare to hope for. The game’s lead producer, Sarah Tam, spoke about how Homeworld 3 is designed to be a ‘premium AAA’ 3D RTS with support for DLC but no in-game purchases and no microtransactions. She then introduced Lance Mueller, the game director.
Lance Mueller spoke about how technological limitations kept the original developers from fully achieving the vision behind the first Homeworld and its sequel but that now, with this new entry, BBI is finally armed with the tools to deliver an uncompromised experience: “…the technology just wasn’t there…now, with the technology where it’s at, with Unreal 4 allowing us to do what we couldn’t do before, visually, and then the technology underneath allowing us to do the pathfinding for the giant megaliths you see…”
He also mentioned that Homeworld 3 is looking to bring back everything that fans of the franchise love about this series. This means that players can expect that this new entry will retain the iconic 3D visceral cinematic combat and persistent fleets.
However, what makes Homeworld 3 different from other entries in the series can be summarized in one word: terrain. To give a first example of what this means in practice, players will be able to destroy enemy ships and then use the remaining debris as cover from incoming attacks. Or, in one other alternative, players will be able to use the various ship remains of an extinct galactic civilization in order to hide from and then ambush unsuspecting hostile forces.
Another important new feature is the simulation system underneath the game: “We have a pretty amazing simulation underneath the game”, Mueller explained, “…that is running every single projectile and moving them / interpolating them so as to go from where they’re fired to their destination target…if anything gets in the way, that actually hits, and it [the game] will recognise that hit. A lot of RTS games, they do a calculation on shoot – whether or not that thing’s going to hit – and that thing is actually an effect – it’s not a real thing. So, for us, it was super important to have that anticipation of like, if you see something, a missile flying across…and then that missile hits the terrain instead of your fighter you’re going to feel super amazing that you were in there and that guy did his job, and now you can tell him [to] back off or bring in another group of fighters to engage and flank that unit.”
Two more additions include a streamlined and accessible AI, which Mueller made clear is still a work in progress, and a new roguelike mode that you will be able to play with friends. Not much else is known about this new mode, but Mueller assured me that there’s more information about it to come early next year.
Following the presentation, I was invited to get an hour of hands-on time with Homeworld 3 and play the second and third missions of the campaign. These were the same missions featured in the official extended gameplay trailer that was released for gamescom:
Before starting to play, however, I was told that a lot of the story beats in the demo are temporary and that they are subject to change, and so there’s not much more I can say about the game’s narrative other than what is already known: Imogen S’Jet is tasked with facing The Anomaly, a new threat to the galaxy that has begun to swallow planets, and with solving the mystery behind the disappearance of Karan S’Jet – her predecessor and protagonist of the first two games.
My impression after playing the game for an hour is that Homeworld 3 is in a great state but there is still work to be done. For context, this is the first time I’ve ever tried any of the Homeworld games – despite having played quite a few RTS games over the years – so I do not have the expertise to compare with previous titles, but what I’ve played here has me assured that this is a labour of love and respect for the franchise.
“…Homeworld 3 is in a great state but there is still work to be done.”
This being said, Homeworld 3 manages a good balance between being both reverent and innovative. To praise the most important new feature, I loved making use of the terrain at hand in order to hide my troops and then attack at the most opportune time. I also appreciate the level of detail put into the ships, as I was able to zoom in close to the action and both observe and hear the turrets on one of my fighters as they were firing. Mueller stated to me that “every single one of them [the ships] will have excruciating amounts of details…you’ll be able to zoom in and that is all super important to us and that you could do in the previous games.”
However, I also have some problems with the demo. To begin with, it was frustrating trying to move units on the Z-axis, particularly when trying to have them go through enormous derelict ships. It did not help that the pathfinding needed some work as well, as the easiest way to coordinate my fleet around the terrain was to order them to move from one asteroid to another instead of issuing them to clear a lot of distance with one single command.
Granted, I was essentially thrust into the demo with little guidance and no tutorial to boot, so it’s hard to assess whether that was a real problem or just part of the process of me understanding the game. This being said, I also had trouble with the game’s UI, as it seemed to me to obscure quite a few important functions. Nevertheless, none of these problems stopped me from seeing the demo to its end. My final concern about Homeworld 3 is that its AI was a bit of a pushover. To be fair, I do not know exactly what difficulty I played on and Mueller and his team did say that the AI still needs work, so it would be harsh to issue an early verdict, but I am still somewhat concerned that this is the state of the matter given how long the game has been in development for.
At the end of my 60-minutes with the game, despite acknowledging that there was more work to be done, I left the demo feeling positive. This is because Homeworld 3 shows great potential and because it seems like it is in the perfect hands with Mueller, who told me that the original Homeworld was one of his favourite games growing up and that it is his ‘absolute dream to be part of this franchise’. ‘We are really building this game for the fans’, Mueller concluded in a short interview I had with him and Tam after the demo.
It’s been a long wait, and the road is still long for the game itself, but if it all goes to plan, Homeworld 3 might just be yet another excellent entry in the franchise and a much-needed shot in the arm for the real-time strategy genre as a whole.