One carrier is already an imposing sight in the Homeworld franchise, the beating heart and nerve cluster of an entire fleet. Three of them together can feel unstoppable.
At least, they felt unstoppable before I hit the final mission of War Games, a co-op roguelike mode being introduced in Homeworld 3. I recently had the chance to play through a preview of War Games, both in co-op and by myself. Overall, it seems like a solid addition to the game that'll take up even more of my time when it arrives, though there are definitely some wrinkles that need to be ironed out before then.
Work together or die alone
While the main draw of Homeworld 3 is undoubtedly the campaign, War Games isn't something that was just recently cooked up. According to Andrew Oatway, senior designer at Blackbird Interactive, War Games was part of the initial pitch that the studio made to Gearbox Publishing.
A self-described "mad scientist," Oatway was hired specifically to work on War Games, and pulled in elements from the campaign to find the right kind of objectives. This had a kind of synergy where the War Games team and campaign team have pulled designs from each other.
"There's actually been one mechanic that was from the campaign, that War Games took and tweaked and made weird because I do mad science stuff, then handed back to the campaign and used to solve some of their problems," Oatway says.
War Games allows one, two, or three players — the designers experimented with four, but decided on a limit of three due to design complexities — to complete a series of missions together. True to roguelike fashion, these mission objectives are randomized until the grand finale. These objectives range from capturing specific strategic points to escorting civilian ships under attack by the mysterious Incarnate.
As you and any friends you're playing with make it to the next mission, you'll keep your fleet that you've built so far, an element of classic Homeworld design that fits the roguelike structure here perfectly.
You'll also occasionally unlock randomized Artifacts, powerful bonuses that can radically alter how you play. My personal favorite unlocked the Beam Assault Frigate, an Assault Frigate variant that took a while to charge up, but was capable of melting enemy corvettes and frigates into slag.
The more you win, the more you'll progress your War Games profile, reaching higher ranks and unlocking new fleet options. For example, you might want to go with a fleet that starts with a higher resource count, but doesn't have any probes built at the start.
Even just playing by myself was fun, but going through with two other players allows for an unprecedented level of strategic creativity. Do your coordinate your attacks, using the overwhelming force of three fleets to demolish an enemy chokepoint, or do you split up, tackling multiple objectives simultaneously at the cost of not having any reinforcements?
Roguelike games usually involve controlling a single character, but in Homeworld 3, an RTS, multiple players have multiple units to keep track of. According to Oatway, designing maps to be used by multiple players wasn't easy, but the result has been fun to watch come together, especially with Homeworld 3's advanced cover system.
"That's a big feature that my boss Lance [Mueller, game director on Homeworld 3] is kind of constantly gently berating us about, 'Okay, put in more terrain, more ambushes, more chokepoints, make sure there's a reason to put my Strike craft into a tunnel.'"
As they added more and more terrain, the art director would push for that terrain to make sense for Homeworld. Now, they've got an experience where "the thing that looks cool is also a fun strategy thing."
While I played on the same three maps every time for this preview, I'm told there'll also be further variety in the final game, including additional maps thrown into the rotation. Oatway also tells me that while a "run" is three missions long for now, that could change before launch.
Still a ways to go before launch
While War Games is a lot of fun even right now, there's definitely room to improve before launch. I ran into a handful of bugs over the hours that I played. Most were minor, with a Resource Controller not obeying orders for a moment or so, but one particularly gnarly instance made a fight borderline unwinnable.
In the second mission, while playing in co-op, every enemy Incarnate frigate spawned at the same point at the same time, instead of being spread over the map or receiving reinforcements periodically. While it was certainly amusing to watch our three fleets get shredded by 40 or so enemy ships clustered together, it's definitely something I hope the team can fix before launch.
Even outside of that glitch, Oatway admits that the team is still trying to fine-tune the difficulty so it fits the number of players overall. Right now, things lean towards being a bit easier if you're playing in co-op, especially in the third mission. Oatway's goal is to get to the point that "Mission 3 is a bit less of a bastard if you're playing solo and a bit more of a bastard if you're playing in co-op."
Oatway also takes time to shout out the "incredible" quality assurance team, some of whom keep asking to make the game harder and harder.
At launch, Homeworld 3 will have an optional Year One pass players can purchase, which will add to the War Games experience. Exactly what the pass will contain isn't locked in right now, but the team is looking at "a lot of things you'd expect," such as new maps, objectives, and starting fleet combinations.
According to Oatway, it's about finding more "axes of variability" to provide additional variety, as he mentions looking at StarCraft 2's co-op mode and Risk of Rain for inspiration. Post-launch support for War Games will also be the start of a "conversation" with players, with the team looking to see what is and isn't working as intended, and reacting appropriately.
In addition to this content pass, Homeworld 3 is fully embracing mod support through a partnership with mod.io. Details are scarce right now, but Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox want players to create and share to their heart's delight.
"You can never underestimate players," Oatway says. "They will solve your game so much better than you can."
"Finding ways to keep it fresh and challenging, but also not this brick wall barrier to entry...I'm actually looking forward to that challenge."
Homeworld 3 is currently scheduled to launch at some point in February 2024 on Windows PC. It'll be available through Steam and the Epic Games Store.