Developer: Blackbird Interactive
Publisher: Gearbox Software
Genre: RTS, Strategy, Single Player
Platform: PC (Steam download)
Rating: RP (Rating Pending), sci-fi violence
Release Date: January 20, 2016
One of the most loved space opera games in the last 20 years, Homeword by Relic Entertainment was a game changer. Not only did it redefine how real time strategy space battles should be played, but it also reminded everyone the importance of linking an epic story to the experience for the best results. It did a lot of things right – impressive graphics (at the time), an incredible soundtrack and artistic cut scenes. Even though it was incredibly short by today’s standards in missions, it also offered great multiplayer. Unfortunately, the sequel games – Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeword 2 – did not do as well or seem as moving as the original. In fact, Relic Entertainment was losing a lot of steam when HW2 was released. It wasn’t too long after that Sierra went through some really rough times, abandoning good IPs to die in obscurity.
Skip forward to 2015, in which some of the veteran people who worked on the Homeworld and Company of Heroes games got together to create the company Blackbird Interactive. They wanted to do a massive RTS game involving giant ground juggernauts, small roving jeeps and all sorts of aircraft. Luckily, they were able to pair with Gearbox Software to obtain the license to produce the game with the Homeland theme. Their game became the prequel to the first Homeworld game, and they desired to attempt to revive the wonder and fun of the original. Thus, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak was born.
The game centers around the northern Coalition of tribes on Kharak. Their planet is slowly succumbing to the expanding deserts, and water is becoming extremely scarce. They were the first to go into space, and send up satellites. They believe that the only hope for the Kushan people is to expand to the stars. The Gaalsian clans in the desert, however, have a specific religious belief that leaving the sacred planet for space is a violation of the holiest creed of the Sajuuk. The Coalition’s satellites pick up a strange anomaly (called the Jaraci Object) in the middle of the biggest desert, so they send an expedition to investigate. The expedition disappears, but the action sparks a war between the people of the desert and the north. Four years later, enter protagonist Rachel S’Jet (ancestor of Karan S’Jet). She helps the Coalition start a second expedition as the desert tribes push into her people’s territory to lay siege on their cities. What she encounters on her way to the Jaraci Object … well, that’s part of the fun I won’t spoil for you.
Gameplay revolves around controlling a large desert carrier called the Kapisi. Much like the Homeworld of old, you must build more ground units, air units and research technology to bolster your army as you travel across many maps on your way to the final objective. Of course, you’ll run into your primary enemy – the Gaalsian – who will send wave after wave of units to stop you. It slowly escalates with every mission, just as it did with the original game. You’ll quickly adapt to the rock/paper/scissors ideal put into place. Veteran Homeworld or other RTS gamers will find themselves enjoying the game for its wonderful pacing and balance. I really enjoyed the balance and smooth learning curve of Homeworld, which is not lost here at all.
The art of the cut scenes is great – the story really shines in Deserts of Kharak. Although it seems a little recycled compared to the original games, there are several surprises here. Just because old Homeworld gamers think they know how this episode in the Kushan people’s lives went (since the game and instruction book described it lightly), they should be prepared to find that the story is very deep. Not only do you learn about the Coalition’s past and their climb into the stars that began the entire Homeworld story, you learn about the Gaalsians and the religious belief that came from the stars. It’s a wonderful tale of both woe and discovery that did not disappoint me in the slightest. Where I had expected to go through regimented paces to reach the objectives because I thought I knew how this story would go, the game adds more to everything in a very positive way.
The music and sound is also very well done. The great instrumental rhythms and flowing wind instruments hearkens back to the first game and its amazing soundtrack. The radio chatter between units, the explosions, the hum of machinery … all of it reminds me of the first game. As my wife remarked while sitting on the couch, “I wouldn’t know you weren’t playing Homeworld if you hadn’t told me.” Voice acting and log entries are all seamlessly integrated into the loading screens as you move forward between chapters/acts. It just feels natural.
There’s a few new mechanics thrown in to make Deserts of Kharak stand out from the other games in the series. First and foremost, sound tactics play a huge part in the game. Just like Homeworld, you have unit caps and resource limits to deal with. Whereas you mostly played hide and seek with various space units in the first game, now you have to use terrain and height to give you an advantage against units that may be vastly superior to your own. You’ll also have to deal with aircraft and how to use them correctly. Resource collecting and research all feel the same – build a salvager and a collector to follow it so you can mine from afar. There’s two resources this time – construction units (CUs) and the less abundant resource units (RUs). Smaller units and some research only needs CUs, but larger vehicles and powerful research requires RUs. You’ll end up splitting your efforts to collect both at times. You’ll also have to resort to blowing up structures in the desert in later chapters to get to the resources you need.
Another game changer is the collection of ARTIFACTS found in ruins. Have Rachel S’Jet pick them up and take them back to the carrier/support collector to gain more flexibility in your carrier. Everything from sped up production times, to more power, to better armor. The last real change is that your carrier has four specific functions, and the player needs to allocate power points to each function to get improved results. You can boost armor, boost repairs, boost turret attacks and boost range. As the game goes, you’ll get more power points, and you can redistribute them as you see fit whenever you want. You’ll just need to get more artifacts to keep the slow build up going, so players should keep an eye out for all sorts of opportunities in that regard. It keeps the game fresh and adds (somewhat) a need to go everywhere and explore everything without ending a chapter too soon type vibe. The question is just how to do it without losing too many units.
The enemy’s AI is fairly consistent, and it doesn’t seem to be stupid by any means. Some of the attack waves are scripted, but by the time you reach the late game, the AI is doing everything it can to protect its assets while trying to pummel your carrier into pieces. There is scripting – that can be annoying at times. Sudden waves of enemies from random areas because the enemy, “sent reinforcements from off map,” seems a bit like cheating at times. Not that it detracted from my experience, but interested gamers should know about them – especially if it makes the game unbearable for them. The game doesn’t “cheat” as far as I could tell. The last mission – however – has wave after wave of bad guys, and I easily had to replay that mission twice to figure out how to beat down the onslaught.
If there any downsides to Deserts of Kharak, I would probably have to say that it is basically Homeworld on the ground. The graphics are well done, and you can zoom in and out as well as change your angle of the battlefield. But for all intents and purposes, the sensor screens and everything else are basically the same as the original game. They didn’t go back and reinvent much of the game. Not that that is a bad thing, but it’s not exactly making it revolutionary or anything. Some missions seem repetitive, and there are only so many of them in the single player story. If you didn’t like the length of the original, or you don’t like sameness in prequel/sequels, then these shortfalls are probably going to bother you. The environment is a continuous desert, so be prepared to stare at a lot of sand, sand dunes and rocks. Not a lot to look at, but it’s to be expected (it’s called “DESERTS” of Kharak after all, not “The Vast Variable Climates With Tons of Pretty Landmarks” of Kharak).
I tinkered around with the Skirmish mode for a while. You can play with other linked players or with other AI opponents on a variety of maps. It’s the same AI that drives the enemies in the single player game. It allows you to practice for the Multiplayer games – unfortunately, there were no other people on to play Multiplayer with, so I cannot comment on how it works out. Skirmish mode is basically choosing the Coalition or the Gaalsian side, and fighting players/AI in the opposing faction. I assume multiplayer mode will be similar. It will either auto-match you with other people, or you can find public gaming servers to play on. I can imagine it will be a lot like the original game’s multiplayer.
All and all, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak seems to be a very well done, very well thought-out prequel to the beloved Homeworld game so many gamers loved so many years ago. I wonder what it’s like to be stuck in the insane heat of the Great Basin. It’s a trip out into the desert during this cold, cold winter.
Just … don’t get lost on the way there.