Is ‘War Games’ Homeworld 3’s secret weapon?

First impressions of its roguelike-inspired co-op multiplayer mode.

Blackbird Interactive / Gearbox

If one thing kept me coming back (and back) to Homeworld, it was skirmish mode. Setting up a quick (“quick”) battle against the CPU would often rob me of a whole weekend while at college. Homeworld 3 sees a new mode arrive on the second sequel, a roguelike-inspired multiplayer co-op called War Games. It pits one, two or three players against the enemy in a series of randomized challenges where you only progress if you can survive. I’ve spent the last few days playing an early build of the mode, and it’s impressive enough, especially given the fact I find the phrases “roguelike” and “multiplayer co-op” to be a massive turn-off.

Each campaign starts with a predetermined fleet – you get the choice of one early on, and more options are unlocked the more XP you accrue. You then have to run through a trio of missions, each one in a new environment, until you defeat the opponent’s carrier. These missions include escorting friendly transports from one side of the map to the other, rescuing captured civilians or attacking enemy positions. You need to balance your attacking and defending needs against the drive to research ship upgrades while managing resources – which are more scarce here than in previous Homeworld titles.

During each campaign, players will collect artifacts, which are randomized bonuses for your ships. These include a boost, like faster ships or more effective weapons, but at the cost of defensive stats or each vehicle’s responsiveness. Once you’ve completed your mission, you’ll get the option to hang around to repair your fleet and load up on resources. But doing so risks you becoming quickly overwhelmed by the enemy, which constantly increases their attacking intensity the longer you’re around. As soon as the objectives are done, a big hyperspace jump button will hover over your screen, encouraging you to get the heck out of dodge.

An image from Homeworld 3: War Games demonstrating the artifact system.
An image from Homeworld 3: War Games demonstrating the artifact system. (Blackbird Interactive / Gearbox)

It’s possible to play War Games solo, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s far more enjoyable with other people, with more emphasis on coordination and cooperation. As a traditional loather of any multiplayer game, this is one of those rare times where I’d rather play with friends. Not to mention that War Games is the sort of experience where it feels really good to share the mental load.

It’s not clear how much War Games is indicative of how Homeworld 3 itself will play but it’s hard not to want to draw a conclusion. If you’ve got decades of muscle memory then the differences here are more than a little jarring, at least in the short term. It does benefit from nearly 20 years of improvements, with stellar graphics that lean even harder into the ‘70s sci-fi aesthetic the games have always gestured toward. One part of Homeworld 3’s evolution is the combat, which takes place not in open space but amongst the destroyed remains of alien megastructures. It’s here that I struggled the most: It’s hard to identify the pin-pricks of your ships against the texture of these magnificent backdrops.

Screen capture from Homeworld 3: War Games showing some ships in front of a dense background of space debris
Screen capture from Homeworld 3: War Games showing some ships in front of a dense background of space debris (Blackbird Interactive / Gearbox)

The announcement of War Games is but one part of a drip feed of announcements to build hype for Homeworld 3’s launch. (Series prequel Deserts of Kharak is currently free on Epic Games Store.) The latest story trailer has outlined the shape of the plot, which is set a generation after the events of Homeworld 2. Opening the hyperspace gates heralded a bold new era of peace and prosperity, but not everyone was as happy with this state of affairs. A series of missing ships and anomalies saw Karan S’Jet and the Pride of Hiigara investigate, but the ship never returned. Now, several years later, new Fleet Command Imogen S’Jet will be installed in a new mothership, but her shakedown cruise is interrupted by a new enemy, the Incarnate.

Homeworld 3 is broadening out its narrative focus to look at how all of this impacts people below the very top. Blackbird Interactive has promised we will see inside the mothership for the first time and how these missions affect the individuals sent out to fight them. New character Isaac Paktu is a seasoned battle commander who will be leading missions, and both he and Imogen will have their backstories fleshed out with short stories published on the Homeworld website. Given the rather sterile way that Fleet Command of old would notify you of a lost unit, giving the characters on the front lines more development should help boost the stakes.

As for War Games, you can imagine its combination of co-operation and punishment will catch on with a small but deeply hardcore portion of the fanbase.