Considering the subject matter, you'd think that large-scale sci-fi games that let you command huge fleets of starships in space would be far more common than they are. The very idea of commanding vast fleets of space-age fighter jets and battleships and conquering the galaxy has captured the imaginations of authors, TV producers, and filmmakers for years and has given rise to popular TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and movies like Star Wars. But creating a huge 3D version of outer space in a computer game, modeled down to every last little asteroid and spaceship, is an extremely ambitious task, and it was only first achieved a few years ago in Relic Entertainment's groundbreaking space strategy game Homeworld. Fortunately, developer Digital Reality is no stranger to this sort of challenge, having previously worked on the grand space strategy game Imperium Galactica II. The company's next project is a very impressive-looking strategy game called Hegemonia: Legions of Iron, a game that will have some of the best features of conventional real-time strategy, 3D tactical combat, and even some role-playing elements. Fortunately for us, the game's publisher, DreamCatcher Interactive, was kind enough to pay us a visit and give us a firsthand look at the game.
The story behind Hegemonia is rather simple, though it does tie in to the actual game mechanics. The game will take place far into the future, when human settlers of Earth have established colonies on Mars. After some years, friction builds between the Martian colonists and the Earth government and culminates in full-scale war--but the war is abruptly cut short by the appearance of a mysterious alien race that attacks both Earth and Mars and requires the warring factions of humans to put aside their differences and ally against their common enemy. Interestingly, that's why the game's lengthy single-player campaign, which can be played as the Earth incumbents or the Martian colonists, converges into a single structure. The first mission of either campaign will be entirely different, though afterward, the missions will eventually run together, since both factions will be fighting on the same side.
But the first thing you'll notice about Hegemonia probably won't be its campaign. That's because Hegemonia is actually a very impressive game, visually. Though we were assured by DreamCatcher that the game will scale itself to work on a fairly middle-of-the-road system with a GeForce3, the game is at its best on a high-end system with a powerful graphics card. Hegemonia will take advantage of all of the new features in DirectX 8.1--including vertex shading, pixel shading, and the latest lighting effects. The developer is also taking great pains to model a surprising amount of detail into the game.
As you might expect from a game like this, Hegemonia's graphics engine will use level-of-detail scaling that will let you command your fleets from a zoomed-out camera angle or zoom in extremely closely on your ships at any point in time to see the individual rivets and mounted weapons on each of them, much like in Homeworld. However, Digital Reality is also fully modeling all other objects in space, including individual starships and asteroids, as well as entire planets. Each planet will actually have a regular orbit and rotate on its axis and go through full day-night cycles--you'll even be able to see large-scale lighting on the dark side of the planet as its inhabitants start turning on their nightlights.
The Stars, My Destination
Of course, no good space strategy game would be complete without starship combat, and the developer is taking great pains to ensure that Hegemonia's battles will be exciting and will look spectacular, but won't be tedious or require lots of micromanagement while moving ships in 3D space. Hegemonia's battles will all be squad-based; you won't be forced to baby-sit individual ships to keep them on course. Instead, the game will have a streamlined squad-behavior interface that will allow you a great deal of freedom in what sort of orders you'd like to give your ships. Though you can set them to attack, proceed defensively, and hold their ground, as you'd expect from a standard real-time strategy game, you'll also be able to give your squads specific orders, like targeting an enemy ship's weapon systems to capture it, rather than destroy it. You'll need to come up with creative solutions like these to succeed in Hegemonia's single-player campaign, which will include search-and-destroy, capture, and colonization mission objectives, among others. Each of your squadrons will earn experience points from their battles; you'll even be able to recruit hero pilots that will grant ability bonuses to their squadrons. Interestingly, as long as some members of a squadron survive, that squad will gain full experience for their accomplishments, so it will be best to pull out depleted squads and repair damaged ships and replace destroyed ones.
But the problem with making a game that takes full advantage of 3D space is that human beings don't actually think in terms of three dimensions. That's why the standard overhead view is so common (and so popular) in most real-time strategy games and why it wouldn't work for a game that takes place in 3D space. As such, Hegemonia will have two additional views in addition to the default real-time 3D space view: a tactical map and a 3D grid. The tactical map is a fully zoomed-out version of the main view that lets you see the large sections of the universe at once. The map is a handy way to issue your orders to multiple fleets of ships--you'll need it later on in the campaign when you'll be commanding massive armadas of fighters, destroyers, and corvettes. And the 3D grid will break out the tactical view into a colored grid that can be rotated in all three dimensions--ordering your ships to move on different axes will be as simple as shift-clicking your destination. You'll actually want to make good use of 3D movement in order to set ambushes and pincer attacks against your enemies both in the campaign and in multiplayer.
The details of Hegemonia's multiplayer modes are currently still being worked out, though the developer intends to at least include direct competition and head-to-head competition for up to 16 players. Multiplayer play will probably emphasize two of Hegemonia's other important elements: interstellar wormholes and research. Though wormholes, which provide the means for starships to quickly jump back and forth between different parts of the galaxy, will be useful in the single-player game, they'll be crucial for getting the drop on your opponent in multiplayer. Also, though research will play an important role in the single-player game, since it will let you develop more-powerful ships and weapon technology, it will actually be a very real element of your planning in a multiplayer game. For instance, if you tend to research ion-based weapons and you happen to find out that your opponent is focusing on proton-based weapons, you'll be able to develop armor for your ships accordingly. The best way to come across this information is by researching spy technology, which will let you get inside information on your opponents' research paths--though in both the single-player and multiplayer games, you'll actually be able to scavenge technology from destroyed ships. Hegemonia will have about 200 different technologies to research, though you'll be limited by a set number of research points and will have to make hard decisions as to where you want to spend your resources.
Hegemonia looked extremely impressive at E3 and looks even better now. The developer has completed much of the single-player campaign and is currently focusing on the multiplayer game. The game is on track for a November 2002 release.