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Homeworld 3 is a little fishy, but that’s only because of the coral reefs

Schools of heavily armed fish do battle inside massive structures in a new hands-on demo

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

A new trailer for Homeworld 3 arrived on Tuesday, showing spacecraft large and small duking it out over the wreckage of massive orbital structures. Polygon played the level shown in that video — remotely, mind you, and without the final bits of graphical flourish like ray tracing — but the experience was nonetheless stunning. This is Homeworld the way I remember it, with its signature three-dimensional space combat lighting up the darkness on my computer screen. But, to hear Blackbird Interactive’s chief creative officer Rory McGuire tell it, it’s actually more like Homeworld the way I imagined it.

“One of the things we were heavily inspired by,” McGuire said in an interview with Polygon, “was one of the ideas that they had originally for Homeworld 2 back in — this would have been like 2001.”

That 21-year-old demo reel, still available on YouTube in various places, shows an assault on a large orbital structure much like the one seen in this week’s trailer. The camera swings in close alongside fighters and bombers, detailing an almost Star Wars-style trench run on the final objective, turrets blazing away in defiance of the attacking waves of enemy ships.

“They showed this feature and they ended up cutting it later,” McGuire said. “This idea of space terrain and this idea of these massive large-scale megaliths that a player could interact with. They weren’t able to make it work technically, and when we started talking about Homeworld 3, we were inspired by that idea, but were also inspired by what we were doing on Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.”

Released in 2016, Deserts of Kharak has been a fixture on Polygon’s list of the best modern PC games, in large part because of its clever use of terrain. The game takes place in a vast desert, with four-wheeled attack vehicles, aircraft, and large land-based carriers doing battle across vast swaths of land. But the game uses subtle hills and rock formations the way other games might use vast mountain ranges: as screens for deadly ambushes and chokepoints for deadly confrontations.

“The terrain featured pretty prominently in that game,” McGuire said. “I heard from a number of fans that they felt that Deserts of Kharak was more 3D than a lot of the Homeworld games, because of the way the terrain worked. And so that original inspiration of Homeworld 2, with what we were starting to really scratch the surface of in Deserts of Kharak, we felt like, What if we go full-on into this?

A fleet stands proudly, defending its orbital depots. Image: Blackbird Interactive/Gearbox Entertainment
Fighters stream toward a dormant gate, a distant star sparking in the distance. Image: Blackbird Interactive/Gearbox Publishing
Fighters stream across an icy planet, debris surrounding a pitched battle inside a crater. Image: Blackbird Interactive/Gearbox Publishing

One of the most complex elements of any real-time strategy game is called “pathing” — that is, making units intelligent enough to get from point A to point B on their own. The big problem with pathing is that mobs of units can look more like a pile of debris rolling down a hill than ranks of trained combatants marching shoulder to shoulder. Additionally, sometimes they can get hung up on, say, a gigantic megalith sitting in the middle of the road.

Not so in Homeworld 3. The movement of the tiny fighter ships that I witnessed during the demo felt natural, almost organic. Without setting any waypoints, my wings of tiny fighters were orbiting their targets, using these floating space structures for cover — darting out to make attacks, then retreating while their weapons recharged. I was even able to subtly augment their formations and their dispositions, causing them to be more or less offensive or defensive as needed.

They reminded me a lot of schools of fish. The observation made former lead gameplay designer, now associate game director, Kat Neale break into a wide grin.

“We always love to refer back to this idea of coral reefs,” Neale said with a laugh. “In the previous Homeworld games, it’s sort of this huge pool that you’re just moving around in and engaging in combat. And it has interesting play spaces, and interesting points of interest that you’re focused on, but really it’s this huge [empty] expanse.

“So adding in these coral reef systems, which provide cover for you as a player, and really encourage this sort of ambush strategy, and being able to kite the other units, and really take advantage of your positioning — and navigation, and movement of ships — it was really important to us. And it sort of came to life right from the get-go.”

The team extended that metaphor even further, giving all of its weapons systems a bit more personality as well.

Concept art for Homeworld 3 titled “Trench Run” shows multiple ships rocketing through a trench. Image: Blackbird Interactive/Gearbox Publishing
A fleet battle showing a player-controlled mothership over a truly massive battleship. Image: Blackbird Interactive/Gearbox Publishing
Fighters raked by fire and flame rocket through the superstructure of a larger vessel. Image: Blackbird Interactive/Gearbox Publishing

“We fully simulate the ballistic systems,” McGuire said, “so a missile actually travels through space, and if it hits something, it blows up. And then [we] allowed the player to use all of this strategically. It took us a little bit to stand it up, but once we got it in it just blew us away with just the richness of possibility and the strategic well that we could pull from.”

Of course, more than two decades after that E3 demo in 2001, the Homeworld franchise is more alive than ever before. A tabletop role-playing game and a board game are on the way from Modiphius Entertainment. Meanwhile, Homeworld Mobile is chugging along on iOS and Android. After so many decades of a franchise they love being essentially dormant, you can see the joy written all over McGuire’s and Neale’s faces as they finally get to share their work with the world. But fans of Homeworld also think of it as a narrative tour de force, a space opera on par with Star Trek or the modern incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. So what kind of story will the team at Blackbird Interactive be telling this time around? During our interview, the pair remained coy.

“If Homeworld 3 picked up right where Homeworld 2 left off — we could do that,” McGuire said. “But we could also speak to the fact that there has been this gap. We’re trying to create an experience that, for a fan that has been waiting, it feels familiar but also fresh and surprising, and that they’re caught off guard by some of the things in a delightful way.”

All he’ll say is that players are searching for Karan S’jet, the powerful fleet commander who left her people on a journey to unlock a series of galaxy-spanning gates.

“Homeworld is a very emotional experience for a lot of people,” Neale said. “That’s what draws you, and keeps you, is this feeling that you’re on that ‘hero’s journey’ — pushing through and succeeding despite everything being against you — and that’s always going to be something that players can relate to. With all of that said, without digging into the details, we want to make the players feel like they’re kind of up to this.”

Homeworld 3 is set to arrive in the first half of 2023, and is currently available for pre-order on Steam and the Epic Games Store. A collector’s edition, which includes three model starships, is also available for $174.99.

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