Homeworld 3 review: long awaited sci-fi sequel is an unsatisfying saga

The Khar-Kushan mothership gets ready for hyperspace travel in Homeworld 3.

“Homeworld 3’s vast galaxy clashed with the limits of a poorly paced campaign and buggy missions.”

Pros

  • Exciting space combat
  • Glorious visuals
  • Seamless interface and camera

Cons

  • Disappointing story
  • Buggy behavior
  • Multiplayer is mixed

It’s been more than 20 years since we last saw a mainline entry in the Homeworld franchise – not counting remasters (2015) and Deserts of Kharak (2016), of course. Now, the long wait for fans is finally over with the upcoming release of Homeworld 3. The latest sci-fi, real-time strategy (RTS) game from Blackbird Interactive promises thrilling space battles, with you in control of a fleet ofships.

Set 100 years after the events of the second game in the series, Homeworld 3 offers an experience that’s both familiar and fresh. There are certain improvements to graphics and camera controls, things that modern-day audiences would love, as well as concepts and mechanics for veterans. Sadly, a litany of issues mar what could have been a remarkable return to its vibrant universe.

From history to myth

Homeworld 3 continues the story of the Hiigarans. Those who are new to the series need not worry, as there’s a “History of Homeworld” cinematic in the Extras menu that fills you in on the details. Under the leadership of Karan S’jet, the Hiigarans were able to reclaim their planet, all while fending off incursions from tyrannical empires. A century has passed since those victories, and Karan herself has passed from memory to myth. Now, Karan’s successor, Imogen S’jet, aims to guide the Khar-Kushan fleet as its navigator.

This kick-starts Homeworld 3’s campaign, one that introduces the threat of the Anomaly. A series of disturbances across the galaxy has seen the collapse of parts of the Hyperspace Gate Network, with planets destroyed and entire star systems darkened. It then leads to the introduction of a new threat: the Incarnate faction.

Homeworld 3 shines thanks to its real-time strategy gameplay.

After playing the remastered Homeworld games and Deserts of Kharak, albeit briefly, I was interested in seeing the narrative arc develop in Homeworld 3. Upon completing the campaign, I walked away disappointed as the story is a step down compared to its predecessors’. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that the narrative arc relies on tired old tropes, a rather comical villain, and objectives that feel far removed from what’s at stake.

Though the story disappoints, Homeworld 3 shines thanks to its real-time strategy gameplay. Borrowing from its predecessors, the game gives players control of a Mothership, the aforementioned Khar-Kushan, which is able to construct a variety of spacefaring vessels. These include everything from utility options like Resource Controllers and Probes, to fast Interceptor strikecraft, bulky Carriers, and massive Battlecruisers.

The idea, which is

similar to Rock, Paper, Scissors, is to use units that have a tactical advantage against opposing targets, while hitting them from the flanks or rear. For example, you can have Assault Frigates or Destroyers take the brunt of the damage, while Torpedo Frigates and Railgun Corvettes “snipe” enemy craft from further behind the line. Then, as you slowly draw in opposing squadrons, you can command Interceptors and Fleet Bombers to swoop in from a higher altitude.

The new navigator, Imogen S’jet, listens to an intel transmission in Homeworld 3.
Gearbox Publishing

The single-player campaign, which consists of 13 missions, presents an interconnected romp from one end of the galaxy to another. The idea is to build up your forces while preserving existing units, as they’re carried over from one mission to the next. Protecting the Mothership is also of utmost importance, since losing it leads to an abrupt game over.

There’s a missed opportunity to reinvent the wheel here. Given that units carry over to succeeding missions, I wondered why concepts such as veterancy (commonly seen in other strategy games), combat/heroic perks, or even some RPG flair (at least for the campaign only) weren’t included. Outside of basic upgrades, even ships that survived from the first mission until the very end still felt like generic units. There’s nothing wrong with a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to an RTS. However, given the long wait for a mainline entry to the series, I was hoping for more intriguing step forward that coincided with the concept of building up a massive fleet with veteran units.

It doesn’t help that the campaign is poorly paced. The first two missions serve as rough tutorials, even though a separate tutorial already exists. Certain sections are fairly short, with objectives that are simple and straightforward, making you think that completing them would open up a bigger battlefield in the void — but then you realize that the mission is over.

Sci-fi strike force

Underneath its hood, Homeworld 3 sports both technical feats and problems. On the positive side, it looks absolutely stunning. Grand battles and ship dogfights in space are a wondrous sight to behold. There are plenty of jaw-dropping locations and maps such as derelict gate networks, frigid landscapes, and technologically advanced superstations. Perhaps my favorite is a mission that takes place in an area with hazy nebula clouds. The Mothership and all my units were hidden from view, but so were enemy forces. Near the end of the mission, all hell broke loose, leading to a dazzling display of lasers, cannonades, and explosions.

That strength is further complemented by modern camera controls, allowing for freedom of movement when looking at your fleet and surrounding areas. The user interface is more streamlined, with build queues for your Mothership (and Carriers) that have drop-down segments, as well as a population tab so you can quickly check and group ships of a particular type. Tactical pause is also a welcome feature in the campaign, as it allows you to stop the action so you can marvel at the sights or issue additional commands. It’s even possible to slow down time instead, giving you a window of opportunity to react to things as they occur.

You’d think that an RTS title that emphasizes tactical gameplay would have fluid controls.

While those components give the sequel some shine, other problems weigh it down. Naturally, you’d think that an RTS title that emphasizes tactical gameplay would have fluid controls. Sadly, that’s where Homeworld 3 veers off course.

A good example is how you can select a Resource Controller and click on a node. The utility unit will siphon resources only from that lone deposit, and then turn idle even though there are other nodes nearby. You can also hit the “H” key to auto-harvest materials. This makes the Resource Collector fly off to distant clusters that are surrounded by enemies, as opposed to safer areas. There were even times when I had to reload my save because I couldn’t click on deposits. And maps with a bright hazy glare made it hard to see the resources themselves.

Apart from having to babysit Resource Controllers, I’ve noticed egregious pathfinding problems and combat AI woes. In most RTS games, selecting a unit and right-clicking would cause the unit to move to that location. In Homeworld 3, however, right-clicking can sometimes cause the movement disc interface to appear randomly (which means you have to left-click on a location instead). Miss or cancel that prompt, and you might not notice that your units didn’t move at all. There were also moments when I would click on a unit, but it would get deselected a split-second later for no reason, as well as instances when units simply refused to attack visible targets. The whole endeavor made me feel less like an admiral micromanaging various spacecraft and more like I was just trying to chase down a bunch of unruly cats.

The Khar-Kushan’s fleet attempts to pass through an asteroid field in Homeworld 3.
Gearbox Publishing

Unit stances (i.e., behavior) also need a bit of work. There have been times when I had squadrons set to Neutral Stance (i.e., attack on sight, but don’t pursue), but they’d still wait idly by even if there are hostiles in the vicinity. Aggressive Stance isn’t that helpful either, since units are more likely to engage entire enemy groups on their own.

I hit one portion of the campaign where all these problems came to a head. It was during a mission called The Lighthouse. The goal was to cross an asteroid field by hiding behind larger chunks while avoiding smaller rocks that would crash into your ships. Units were supposed to destroy smaller asteroids once they moved within range, and yet there were several instances when they didn’t follow this action. I couldn’t tell if this was due to weapon range or something else, but unit behavior was fairly inconsistent. Issues like that put a dent in promising sci-fi set pieces.

It’s War Games!

Apart from the campaign, Homeworld 3 offers a couple of multiplayer game modes to test your mettle. The first is Skirmish, which lets you pick Hiigaran or Incarnate forces to battle those controlled by the AI or another player. The other is War Games, a combination of sequential, bite-sized RTS missions and roguelike mechanics.

Homeworld 3 did keep me engaged for a time thanks to gorgeous visuals …

The goal in War Games is to complete three short missions per run. Along the way, you can obtain Artifacts, which provide bonuses to ships of a particular type. These boons also carry over onto your next run. Co-op is enabled, too, which means up to three players can join forces to tackle the objectives. Skirmish and War Games matches even net you experience points for your profile, unlocking cosmetic options and starting fleet compositions.

I mostly played Skirmish and War Games solo. I did not find these modes as engaging primarily due to the aforementioned bugs and the lack of ship variety. War Games engagements, which were filled with countless foes that spawned in waves, are messy chaos at best. Meanwhile, the roguelike nature and randomized rewards weren’t that interesting. Although I was able to try co-op for War Games while playing with other reviewers, either I or my teammates got disconnected in the middle of those matches. Sadly, this meant I didn’t receive rewards or XP for that time. Hopefully, those issues will be hammered out quickly.

The Incarnate and Hiigaran motherships face off in a multiplayer match in Homeworld 3.
Gearbox Publishing

Homeworld 3 did keep me engaged for a time thanks to gorgeous visuals and exciting tactical combat in the vastness of space. Performance-wise, I didn’t notice too many hiccups. With an Nvidia RTX 3080, Intel i9-10900K, and 32GB of RAM, I was able to select high graphical settings without a hitch. Unfortunately, the campaign’s story is a huge step down from previous installments. Missions, whether in the campaign or in multiplayer modes, are plagued by innumerable issues related to unit pathing, controls, and commands. It’s a disappointment that was 20 years in the making.

Homeworld 3 was reviewed on PC.

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