Tuesday 14 May 2024

Homeworld 3

Two hundred and thirty-five years have passed since the exiles returned to their homeworld, Hiigara. The Hiigaran Hegemony has since spread across the Inner Rim of the galaxy, defeating the Vaygr warlord Makaan and activating the long-lost Great Network of hyperspace gates to revolutionise galactic travel and trade. But the gates have now started going dark. A vast area of hyperspace dysfunction, the Anomaly, is growing. Karan S'jet, the ancient navigator who guided her people home, has vanished whilst investigating the phenomenon. Two decades later, her protégé, Imogen, is ordered to take control of the new Hiigaran Mothership, the Khar-Kushan, and complete Karan's work.

Few franchises have proven as stubbornly tenacious as Homeworld. The original game launched in 1999 and was a moderate hit, and was rapidly followed by a stand-alone expansion, Homeworld: Cataclysm in 2000, which also did reasonably well. Homeworld 2 sold very disappointingly in 2003 and had a mixed reaction from fans. Combined with complex rights issues, this basically halted the franchise in its tracks for over a decade, until Gearbox saved the IP rights from obscurity and released Homeworld Remastered in 2015. Blackbird Interactive, a company formed by much of the original development team of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, subsequently released the ground-based prequel game Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak in 2016. But what fans really wanted was another space game.

Eight years on, Blackbird have delivered the third numbered game in the series, the fifth mainline game overall and, thanks to the recent release of Homeworld Mobile and Homeworld: Vast Reaches (a VR game), the seventh title overall. Not bad for a series that has only ever sold modestly and remains obscure to the general games-playing audience.

As with its forebears, Homeworld 3 is a space-based, real-time strategy game. It takes advantage of its setting to operate in full 3D, with battles taking place in all three dimensions and both you and the enemy being able to launch attacks from above and below.

As usual, you have a huge mothership, in this game the Khar-Kushan, which operates as your mobile command centre and ship foundry. Resource gatherers collect resources, normally by mining asteroids or leftover salvage, which provide you with income to build more ships. Ships come in multiple classes, starting with fighters and bombers, and then moving up through corvettes, frigates, carriers, destroyers and battlecruisers.

Ships have specific roles and are best deployed as hard counters to specific enemy ship types: assault frigates chew up fighters, ion cannon frigates are excellent anti-capital ship vessels and minelayer frigates can assemble enormous minefields to disrupt enemy attacks. Bombers can be a relatively cheap way of engaging enemy capital ships without threatening your own, expensive capital vessels. You can put ships into different formations and vary their responses to enemy forces, from passively ignoring them to aggressively pursuing and shooting everything in sight. You can also assign ships to guard other vessels, such as sending a group of fighters to escort your resourcers as they head across the map to acquire more funds.

In terms of controls, there's a modern, WASD-based system which treats the camera like it's a first-person shooter, whilst a "classic" scheme perfectly recreates the interface from Homeworld Remastered (itself based on Homeworld 2's system, and mostly similar to the original game). The addition of the third axis can make using the interface slightly clunkier than in other strategy games, but there are a number of QOL options to make the controls more flexible. Selecting one of your formations and ctrl-boxing an enemy formation will make your ships target and destroy everything in that group rather than having to individually click enemy units, for example. The game also has time controls, for the first time in the franchise since Homeworld: Cataclysm, with you being able to slow down events by 25%, 50% or 75%. You can also pause completely and issue new orders before rejoining the fray. This is important in the most frantic and largest battles.

The game has three modes. The first is the story-based campaign, which follows up on the events of Homeworld 2 a hundred and twenty years later, with voice acting, cut scenes and dialogue explaining the plot. For the first time in the series, the cut scenes are pre-rendered in full 3D; the previous games were infamous for their minimalist, hand-drawn and originally black-and-white animated cut scenes. Deserts of Kharak began the process of "glowing up" these cut scenes into full colour and using rotoscoped animation, but Homeworld 3 goes full AAA with them. Well, AAA for 2007; the animation is surprisingly stiff in places and character facial expressions are sometimes cartoonishly exaggerated, which feels a bit off.

The story starts off very nicely, with a mystery unfolding over the fate of Karan and the nature of the Anomaly. Unfortunately, Imogen later develops the ability to talk to the main antagonist via a hyperspace connection, and she is a deeply underwhelming villain. The Taiidan Emperor, the Beast, Makaan and the Kiith Gaalsien, the villains of the prior games, were all worthy adversaries with some real menace and presence, but the Incarnate Queen is prone to histrionics and petulant fits which remove a lot of menace or tension. This is annoying as the story holds a lot of promise, and the way it is integrated into the mission design is often very good, such as having to defend a ship trapped in ice as it breaks free, or constructing an insane defence around a hyperspace gate to deal with an incoming enemy fleet of stupendous size (think of the battle for Zion's dock in The Matrix Revolutions). A mission where you have to guide your fleet through a colossal asteroid storm, navigating from safe zone to safe zone, is incredibly atmospheric. Another mission has you hiding like a submarine in an ice flow but surfacing to launch surprise attacks on passing enemies.

So the story goes off the boil, but the mission design remains extremely impressive, with some of the best missions in the entire franchise to be found here. It's not terribly long campaign. This is not unusual for Homeworld, which has always had controversy over its modest campaigns, but at just 12 story missions, Homeworld 3 is a startling four missions shorter than the original Homeworld. On normal difficulty, you'll probably put the story away in under 10 hours. For a full-priced release in 2024, this is eyebrow-raising in the extreme.

We have the standard multiplayer/skirmish mode as well, which is fine. More interesting, and possibly the ultimate test of the game's longevity, is the WarGames mode. This mode can be played solo or in co-op, and sees your fleet taking on escalating enemy forces whilst trying to complete objectives. As you go through the missions, you gain experience which allows you to build better fleets next time around. Failure is assumed; there's a roguelike element of learning from your failure, as experience remains in place and allows you to unlock new ships and options for the next run regardless of success. It's a pretty good mode and it has to be said the maps it uses are frequently gorgeous. Map design is in fact extremely strong through all of the game's modes.

The apparent killer feature of the game is, oddly for a space title, terrain. The story sees you investigating vast, ancient megastructures left behind by a long-extinct alien species known as the Progenitors, with battles taking place in close proximity to them. You can send fighters skimming along the surface of these structures or through tunnels in them to jump out and surprise enemies, and even use makeshift cover. This is a splendid idea, but after a while you kind of forget about these options. Your larger ships can't use terrain in this manner, so you usually end up forming a single large fleet and sending it around curb-stomping most opposition without too much trouble, without having to micromanage the terrain.

Homeworld 3 ends up as a reasonably worthy follow-up to the earlier games in the series and I ended up preferring it to Homeworld 2, at least in terms of gameplay. The story is one of the weaker in the series, replacing the epic themes and scope of the original games with something more rooted in a smaller number of individual characters. I am also not in love with the cliffhanger ending, which teases a sequel or later expansion that might never come.

The single-player campaign is also startlingly short. Yes, in 2003 you could get away with a single-player campaign that was 10 hours or less in a full-price game. But it's not 2003 any more. The multiplayer and skirmish modes are fine, but the WarGames mode is the game's secret sauce, being interesting and challenging with some stunning vistas and level design. That said, WarGames will probably, at best, double or triple the time investment of the campaign. I don't see it being something people will play for hundreds of hours on end. Although Homeworld 3 is obviously graphically far superior to 2017's Battlestar Galactica video game, Deadlock, that game did a much better job of combining a tense story campaign with dynamically-generated side-missions to create a much more engrossing campaign which gave the player more control of what was going on across not just a few hours but dozens of them.

Homeworld 3 (****) should be of interest to established fans of the franchise and anyone who likes exploring the central core appeal of good science fiction, namely 1) the wonder of exploring the cold vastness of the cosmos and 2) having really big spaceships which explode in a cool manner. Whether the game is worth buying at full-price is a little bit questionable, given the extremely modest campaign length, but the WarGames mode is different and interesting, and is especially fun for co-op multiplayer. If you're a total newcomer to the franchise, you'll be better served by picking up a copy of Homeworld Remastered from Steam for a more modest price for a lot more content. The Homeworld franchise's return can be said to have been a success, but not an unqualified one.

The game is available now on PC.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

No comments: