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Homeworld 3 review: a lavish and often gripping RTS that is overly reliant on playing the hits

I was tempted to exclusively call it the 'mommy ship' so consider yourselves lucky

An enemy ship gets a good lasering in Homeworld 3
Image credit: Blackbird Interactive/Rock Paper Shotgun

Spacefaring RTS Homeworld 3 is good sci-fi. Monolithic structures scorched with plasma burns. Sleek spacecraft. Alien sunrises. It’s also good sci-fi because its characters converse through reams of inscrutable but cool-sounding space science, and at no point does a grinning quipster tell a scientist: “Whoa there, professor. Why don’t you try saying that again... but in English!” Basically, if your wishlist for Homeworld 3 has tone and atmosphere at the top, rest easy. At no point did I get the sense that Blackbird ever took making the first proper Homeworld in eight years lightly.

Homeworld 3 is also, on balance, a good time. I say ‘on balance’ because it took me about two-thirds of the 13-mission campaign to start comfortably navigating the controls, by which time other, more fundamental issues started to crop up. Unit disposability and clickmania eventually takes over from the measured tactical play these wonderful ships deserve. Also, the ‘normal’ campaign is mostly a glorified tutorial, which means some story beats didn’t hit as hard. (“The mothership can’t take another hit like that!” command screams, as an asteroid knocks off roughly 3% of my total health.)

Through all this, though, Homeworld 3 never failed to keep me pacified with dramatic, lengthy cutscenes, incredible vistas, gripping moments, and thoughtful details. It all left me with a solid appreciation that didn’t quite translate to a rip-roaring videogame time, but I’ll get into all that in a bit.

The game begins as scientist Imogen S’Jet is preparing to enter the Hiigaran mothership, Khar-Kushan, as its navigator. This is a process where she’ll effectively become one with the enormous vessel, both physically and through a psychic link to the entire fleet. A Bad Space Happening known as ‘The Anomaly’ is spreading, disrupting gate travel and destroying ships. Now, previous Homeworld navigator Karan S’Jet has gone missing. Well, don’t just sit there like a 2D chump! Get out there and command some ships to move around in 3D space and find out what’s happening.

A dogfight takes place around ancient structures in Homeworld 3
Dogfights are spectacular, but tactics can give way to reaction speed. | Image credit: Blackbird Interactive/Rock Paper Shotgun

It’s this 3D movement that, alongside your fleet of units carrying over between missions, differentiated the series from its contemporaries back in ‘99 when the first game released. Asteroid coming your way? A foolish flat-plane dwelling Warcraft orc would have to work-work on their headbutting skills, but you can just swoop underneath. Outnumbered in a dogfight? Ambush the fleet from above to get at those vulnerable topsides. This extends to formations, too, where command groups can be set to fly and fight as spheres or defensive walls. Later, you’ll unlock minelayer frigates, able to lay diamonds or boxes of explosives to secure chokepoints on multiple elevations.

Of the 13 missions, one is a tutorial and introduction, but none of the other twelve fall back on the RTS skirmish staple of defending a base until you’ve built up a force, then sallying out to crush the enemy. I actually wouldn’t have minded this at least once, since such missions are a good sandbox to try out different fleet compositions, but I think their absence comes down to providing tension in a series where you don’t actually build a base in any traditional sense. You’ll have up to five resource gatherers and your mothership for unit production, and any sort of defensive perimeter comes down to making sure none of them get blown up. Otherwise, missions usually offer up some twist on point capture, frequently with a big showdown at the end. There are hard limits on both individual ship type and ship classes, like frigates or strike craft. So resource management and high level tactics are often focused on how to effectively split your fleet to cover objectives, defense, and regular assaults so you don’t get overwhelmed.

Remember Beat Saber? I bring it up because it’s my go-to example of a control system so recognisable and straightforward that anyone, whether or not they’ve held a controller before, can enjoy themselves with it in about fifteen seconds. Homeworld 3 is whatever the opposite of that is: a control system utterly specific to itself. It’s not unintuitive in the sense of being confusing or superfluous, it’s just, well, not intuitive. Understandably so, in some ways, since it must support an unusual set of actions. This isn’t a negative assessment, it’s just a new experience that will trip you up for a few hours, maybe longer.

When I did finally get proficient, using the default ‘modern’ control scheme, it was hard not to lean into the fantasy of flicking levers and and turning dials at the helm of some gargantuan battleship. Homeworld 3 makes you use your mouse and keyboard differently. It’s neat in a “this is the closest I’ll ever come to owning the Steel Battalion controller without selling a kidney” way. It’s just not immediately natural. Or, eight-hours-in natural, really. So, there’s your value proposition: you get two campaign playthroughs. One on normal to enjoy the story and learn the controls, one on hard to actually play the game.

Choosing an artefact upgrade in Homeworld 3's War Games mode
Rougelike co-op 'War Games' mode lets you pick upgrades between missions. | Image credit: Blackbird Interactive/Rock Paper Shotgun

Is it a bad thing to have a game’s controls constitute part of its challenge, especially if you’re effectively playing a character taking on the terrible psychic weight of controlling an entire fleet of unbelievably advanced ships? That asteroid field, for example, would be even less of an issue if navigation was so user-friendly it wasn’t even a consideration. Something to ponder, maybe, while you're grappling with the often useless ‘click on empty space to bring up a 3D radial thing’ because ‘empty space’ is hard to find in a pinch due to all the background terrain. The ‘movement plane’ grid, which gives you a flat adjustable surface to vector movement across, is often the only reliable option.

I won’t reduce the tonal pros and usability cons of these controls to a flat ‘neutral’. Each represents something notable. Controls all learnt, though, I’m not convinced there’s all that much depth in combat, or enough depth so tactical decisions seem like a priority over reaction speed. Maybe I’m asking too much here. RTS combat more or less always orbits some form of rock, paper, scissors, and Homeworld 3 has more incentive than most to play the hits. But the game offers such a convincing and absorbing simulation elsewhere that it primes you for a similar level of involvement where plasma meets hull. Yet I got through normal difficulty with the same tactics I developed for Warcraft 2 when I was ten: overwhelm with a big ball of units, and if you’re up against something particularly nasty, focus fire it down. Hard difficulty feels more substantial, as other mission objectives become more of a challenge with deadlier foe compositions.

There is some nuance to the clicking. Queuing the movement vectors for bombing runs is demanding in the heat of battle, and satisfying when pulled off. Each ship class has a hotkey ability that can transform an engagement when timed correctly, and arranging multiple command groups in different formations can be hugely powerful. I think a big issue here is that anything smaller than frigate class tends to start dropping like space flies a few seconds after starting a dogfight, which makes complicated maneuvers feel a bit pointless. Early on, when you only have a few ships available, you fight a frigate with tiny strike craft, and you’re told the armour on the back is weaker. You micromanage a few attack runs, therefore, and feel like a space genius. But things soon get far too hectic for this to be realistic unless you want to be paused all the time - and since pause isn’t available in roguelike co-operative Wargames or PVP modes, I got the sense it’s just a concession for the campaign. Relying on it feels like a crutch.

A strike craft prepares for an attack run in Homeworld 3
You'll want to take any opportunity to zoom right in to individual ship's views of the action. | Image credit: Blackbird Interactive/Rock Paper Shotgun

Another issue with ‘playing the hits’ is that it passes up the opportunity to meaningfully evolve the things that made previous Homeworlds special. Take that contiguous fleet: why not develop your relationship with them further through things like experience levels and promotions? I’ll get to this in a moment, but the plot here is so focused on a few characters to the detriment of the Hiigarans as a people that your little pilots just end up feeling disposable. There’s an early scene where Imogen first realises she can feel the pain of every pilot in the fleet that dies in battle. I’d love to feel that too, but I’m having trouble summoning up empathy for any of the dozens of identical recon ships. A bit more survivability on both sides so dogfights lasted longer would make individual losses feel a lot more consequential. I’d love to tell your family what happened, firstname bunchahullpoints, but I’m afraid I have no idea how you died.

Zoom out, though, and Homeworld 3’s tone and atmospheric mix of somber duty and awed wonder is quite the special thing. Sci-fi storytelling always has a bit of a challenge in avoiding the cerebral becoming sterile. The Homeworld setting has a little of the space feudalism and techno-spirituality of Battletech, but it also strikes me as too interested in the how of it all, the technology, to fully slip into science fantasy. That intangible loneliness is still there though. That Homeworld feeling of being the head of a fleet of hundreds of vessels of unfathomable size, but still being very small and very alone in a vast unknowable space. As one cutscene captures masterfully, it evokes the more terrestrial wonder of deep ocean exploration.

The actual plot, while frequently gripping, triumphant, and tense, is missing something: Homeworld told the story of an entire people. This tells the story of, like, four people. They’re a likable bunch, well acted, but they’re cast in what’s ultimately a fairly rote heroes vs. villains plot. I’d have liked to play a story less character-driven, more about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ than the few heroic ‘who’. This would have allowed space for little story snapshots of some individual pilots, and for tragedy and death and real stakes. Here, you meet the main characters at the beginning, and none of them really go through any sort of growth. It lacks the somber poetry I associate with the series.

Imogen S'Jet prepares to navigate the mothership in Homeworld 3
Imgogen S'Jet is a strong protaganist, but the story's focus on just a few characters weakens it. | Image credit: Blackbird Interactive/Rock Paper Shotgun

This isn’t to say I disliked everything about your tiny pilots. I'm a fan of how mid-mission chatter is handled, for one. I’m told Deserts of Kharak did this too, but Homeworld 3 gives you little pockets of conversation from your ships, updating you on how their thrusters are performing or other such minutiae. Some of these lines are designed to give you vital information during battle, such as if you set command groups, and one of them starts losing ships, you’ll get a “group 4 is in trouble” voice line. It gets pretty extensive. Although I could do without being told “group 1 is taking heavy losses” when really all they’ve lost is two of the cheapest ships. The dramatic advisor that cried wolf, and all that.

Homeworld 3 leaves me in the strange position where I want to play more of it, but I’ve basically had my fill of the campaign, I’ve got no interest in PvP, and War Games mode is silly difficult in single player. It’s like having a set of really nice brushes but no canvas, so to speak. I guess this is probably where mods come in - the game is supposed to be launching with built in support and tools on day one. I get that "It’ll be great with mods" doesn’t come across as a ringing endorsement, but to reiterate: Homeworld 3 is a pretty good time in a very good sci-fi setting. I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly, but I’m also hoping it finds enough of an audience that it paves the way for a more experimental sequel or expansion in the future - and if you've been longing for 21 years for a followup to Homeworld 2, I can’t see you being too disappointed.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer.

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