Hot and Heavy Armor
I reviewed Homeworld: Remastered Collection early last year and instantly remembered why I fell so hard in love with those games. Their perfect mix macro-management and massive battles allowed me to live out my space admiral fantasies as a young teenager wasting away my summer break playing (or, mostly, trying to play) Homeworld: Cataclysm on my parent’s dial-up internet. Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Deserts of Kharak is a Homeworld game set on a desert planet instead of in space. It’s true! It even manages to change the formula while staying true to what made its two predecessors so incredible. It maintains the solitude of feeling alone in space, having only your mothership to stand between your army and the cold of the void, while telling a gripping story that, while a touch on the short side, is still one well worth seeing through to the end.
Set long before the first Homeworld, Deserts of Kharak is the story of the expedition that set out through the desert to investigate “The Primary Anomaly” — which will eventually come to be known as The Jaraci Object — with the dim hope that it may hold the key to their planet’s salvation. It’s a sense of pervasive dread, isolation, and depression that permeates nearly every aspect of the story to great effect. The solitary beeps and hums of the tactical radar view, the ambient dialogue between protagonist Rachel S’jek and various other units, and especially the soundtrack all blend together to create a pitch-perfect atmosphere that flawlessly complements the narrative. In true series fashion, resources you collect and units you construct persist between missions; it’s an easy way to back yourself into a corner if you blindly produce units, as resources in each mission are somewhat scarce, but it’s easy enough to quit out to the mission map and start with the default fleet. It’s perhaps a misstep that so many of the campaign missions are so awkwardly designed and paced. Most of them rely on abusing chokepoints, then finishing the penultimate objective of the mission and sending out salvagers before actually completing the final objective. Where Homeworld and Homeworld 2 felt huge and open, Deserts of Kharak feels somewhat confined — there are a lot of places your carrier or other larger vehicles just can’t go.
Ultimately what makes Homeworld so timeless is how it plays, and Deserts of Kharak doesn’t disappoint. It helps that developer Blackbird Interactive managed to translate the unit type icons from Homeworld 2 so perfectly, and it gets to a point where thinking “well, they have diamonds, so I should get my pentagons” becomes second nature. It’s also assisted by the fact that combat just looks damn satisfying, another trademark of classic Homeworld. The way Light Attack Vehicles dash and dance around dunes while armor and cruisers grind across the sand behind them feels so intrinsically like the games that came before it. In addition, Blackbird managed to create a smart analogue to the most memorable aspect of Homeworld: the z-axis. Instead of having ships that can move “up” or “down” (I put those in quotes only because in space “up” and “down” are relative), your vehicles can position themselves atop sand dunes or ridges and fire down on enemies, gaining increased vantage. One of the main contrasts is the role of your carrier. Where in other Homeworld games your mothership is a largely defenseless behemoth that required protecting, Deserts of Kharak takes a slightly more active approach: your main carrier is an enormous war machine, in addition to being a unit factory, an aircraft hangar, and a drop-off point for resources. This means that the carrier can single-handedly turn the tide of tough battles, although sending it in alone against a horde of enemies is foolhardy, because if you lose your carrier, you just lose.
One of my main gripes with Deserts of Kharak is its multiplayer offerings. Two factions and only five maps at launch mean that dedicated players will likely exhaust their interest in just a couple dozen hours’ worth of play time, and with no built-in mod support, they’re forced to rely on Blackbird to release more maps through updates or (less optimally) downloadable content. In fairness, the selection of multiplayer game types is fairly varied, with relic capture being perhaps the most interesting: you and the other players are scrambling to “ship break” — the game’s term for blowing ancient extraterrestrial ships’ bulkheads to salvage the rarities kept within — and bring relics back to your respective carriers, with the first player to claim five relics claiming victory. It makes for some intense protracted skirmishes that you don’t really see in the campaign, even if the resource amount on each map is kind of small; I actually played several matches where me and the other players exhausted all the resources on the map while fighting over relics.
Deserts of Kharak may have started out as Hardware: Shipbreakers, but it transformed into something far greater than a spiritual successor to Homeworld ever could have hoped to be. It’s similar to the other games in the series, while doing enough of its own that fans will have tons of new meat to dig into. At $40, it’s hard to recommend unless you’re going to play both the campaign and the multiplayer, especially since the multiplayer pickings are so limited at launch, but it’s an easy sell for fans of the originals.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Gearbox Software; Developer: Blackbird Interactive; Players: 1-6; Released: January 20th, 2016; Genre: Real-Time Strategy; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Gearbox Software.