Hegemonia's solid, innovative gameplay and technically impressive graphics may seem very appealing to space strategy fans, but it's too bad that the game isn't more accessible and more polished.
What's in a name? In the case of Hegemonia: Legions of Iron, it sets the tone for a game that's solid in concept--though one that isn't particularly accessible to those who don't read the manual and that never loses its European accent, even though Dreamcatcher did drop the "a" from "Haegemonia" for the US release. Hegemonia may look a lot like Homeworld and the recently released O.R.B., but it doesn't conform completely to the kind of conventions that these 3D space strategy games set. The game trades tactical depth for broad strategy, much like the developer's Imperium Galactica space empire games. However, Hegemonia is essentially the first real-time space empire game that lets you sit down and play a quick multiplayer match. But while this hybrid concept mostly works well, the game suffers from a lack of polish and from stripped-down combat balance.
It's not often that we see a real-time strategy game that's both solid and unconventional. But Hegemonia didn't just appear out of nowhere. It's been well over two years since Digital Reality produced Imperium Galactica II, which distinguished itself from classic space empire games like Master of Orion with a heavily scripted, story-based campaign and with effective real-time mechanics. Elements of Hegemonia's presentation, particularly on the strategic overview screen and in the colony management screens, are highly reminiscent of Imperium Galactica II, but certainly the pacing, missions, and combat are all more like what you'd expect in a traditional real-time strategy game.
One of the most appealing things about a 3D space strategy game is the ability to lead sizable space fleets into 3D battles. Like Relic's groundbreaking game Homeworld, Hegemonia has a robust graphics engine that lets spaceships fly not only along a 2D plane, but anywhere in 3D space. In Hegemonia's case, this feature isn't all that important for getting a tactical or strategic advantage, but it does make the game's setting much more believable--the game's excellent graphics help make you feel as though you're actually fighting battles in the middle of outer space.
All of Hegemonia's maps are composed of at least one big, impressive-looking star system, complete with a star that will burn up your ships if you get too close, plus a number of planets set in concentric orbits. The single-player game starts off quite specifically in Earth's solar system. You can choose to start the game playing on the side of either Earth or Mars; according to the game's story, the two planets are at war. The fact that the game has three species--the humans, kariak, and darzok--is one clue that this early human war doesn't last much longer than a series of tutorial missions, but even in later missions, having to defend the solar system and its easily recognizable planets does make success seem more urgent.
Hegemonia's missions are heavily scripted around story events. This helps keep the campaign from devolving into simple wipe-out-the-enemy missions, and even when conquest becomes your eventual goal, you'll still go through a good variety of steps to get there, like having to first protect a spy or destroy enemy production ships. There are a few missions with secondary objectives that can provide an additional ship or a hero that can come in handy, but they're generally an exception. The main problem with the scripted missions is that the specific objectives aren't always clear from the briefing, and at the start of the game, it's easy to miss the list of objectives that's on the initially unimportant empire information screen. We encountered a couple of frustrating scripting bugs that forced us to retry missions without ever knowing what had gone wrong the first time. It also doesn't help that, while there are a few good plot developments, the game's talkative characters are quite drab. The talking-head sequences feature lots of generally comprehensible but awkward English with occasional French and German expressions.
Hegemonia hasn't made any strides past Homeworld's innovative gameplay structure in making it easier to make precise ship movements in 3D, but fortunately, the game rarely requires any sort of precision. Travel between systems is accomplished via wormholes, not tricky hyperspace jumps, and every map has lots of landmarks that can be moved to directly with a right-click, rather than by manual control. The game has two main views, a tactical view that can be zoomed in to see ship battles in great detail and a strategic view that's also in 3D but fudges some of the detail necessary for close combat to instead provide a higher-level view. The strategic map is mostly useful as a quick 2D reference, as ships are represented by simple 2D icons, and ships' and planets' radar ranges are clearly marked, but even in this view, you may need to rotate and zoom the camera to select units that are near each other. Unfortunately, the strategic map doesn't have Homeworld's useful top-down perspective, and it can often flop into an awkward angle after switching views.
The game's interface works well once you get used to it, but it does have notable limitations. When you do need to use manual 3D movement, it's extremely awkward. It's also very difficult to see the Z-axis marker relative to the plane you're viewing. Given that one of the game's most attractive features is having multiple star systems in a single map, it's too bad that you can't select a ship in one system and right-click on a location in another system to have it move there. You can assign your ships to control groups, but they work only in the star system you're currently looking at. Movement between star systems is limited to flying to a wormhole, then having to come back to the connected wormhole later to gather your ships once they've moved through it. Switching between wormholes, while also checking on your faction's production and research, can become cumbersome when Hegemonia's action becomes hectic.