These days, when an IP is old, tired or in need of revitalization, the preferred method by which to resurrect it is through making a prequel, or an origin story. Marvel and DC have used this idea repeatedly, and to great effect (mostly), as have many other franchises. This is exactly what Blackbird Interactive and publisher Gearbox Software have done with the much-acclaimed Homeworld series. And so far, it looks like it will be successful.
The Down and Dirty
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a RTS just like its predecessors, but this time it’s set on the surface of one planet instead of in the space around, or between, many. The first thing that struck me about this prequel is that it just feels immediately like another Homeworld game. Anyone out there who’s a fan like I am (albeit a relatively new one) will be both pleased and relieved.
The gentle cel-shading during the gameplay, the heavier cel-shading during the cinematics, and the overall artistic style resemble the original two so beautifully, but with a sandy twist and without losing their modern, updated polish and graphics or deviating from the distinct artistic direction of the past titles. The music is reminiscent of the previous games, as is the dialog and storytelling format. Blackbird Interactive has done justice to the past and to the fans out there who’ve been eagerly awaiting a new entry in the series for over ten years. Thus far, I am very impressed. It moves well, plays well and looks sexy as hell.
The Nitty Gritty
The Kushan are stuck between a rock and a…sandy place. Their planet is slowly dying. The deserts spread further each year, and with them the amount of fertile, livable land decreases, causing more conflict between the clans. One day a satellite scan discovers something deep in the desert, something that could be the key to salvation and survival. Without the luxury of time or choice, a coalition is formed with a simple objective: recover the anomaly, discover its secrets and ensure survival at any cost.
Rachel S’jet, the main character of this desert adventure, is an intriguing figure. As chief science officer of the Coalition’s exploration for the “Primary Anomaly” (a big, sandy crash site in the distant reaches of the desert), she seems calm, curious, determined and relatable. I have not gotten far enough in the campaign yet to find out much about her, but I like that she feels real. I hope I as get further that more of her past, her mindset and her motivation are revealed.
RTS titles aren’t known for their immersive storylines (although the Homeworld story is rather deep), for grabbing players and making them sweat with tension. Deserts of Kharak may not quite break-the-mold on what we’ve come to expect from video game plots, but it does well all the same.
From the very beginning, a decent sense of urgency and desperation is impressed upon the player. It’s clear that survival hangs in the balance and that the road ahead will be tough, dangerous. Attacks are imminent and time is of the essence. I found myself hastily executing instructions, sometimes more than intended, in order to ensure things went safely for our protagonists. I felt invested, responsible.
Overall, the plot seems well constructed, believable and immersive. I actually care about what happens in the campaign and to my units. When you consider that I/we already know what happens after this game, this sentiment becomes even more of an achievement for Blackbird.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m more used to the traditional RTS experience. Establish a base and gather resources. Build an army, construct ample defenses. Watch with coldhearted glee as the useless enemy AI continuously waltzes into range of your perimeter armaments and is promptly liquidated. Repeat until thoroughly bored, then press the attack with overwhelming force, superior technology and, if you’re feeling extra enthused, proper but often unnecessary tactics. Rinse and repeat. Deserts of Kharak does not encourage this play style, and in most cases, it will end in disaster—embarrassingly so.
For the uninitiated, the Homeworld series is about persistence; the army you complete a mission with will be exactly what you begin the next mission with. There are some minor base building elements, but your main unit and HQ is a gigantic aircraft carrier on tracks. Its attributes are represented on a sliding power scale, allowing you to allocate certain amounts to turrets, range, defense or repair but not all at once. This carrier, designed for autonomous long range operations, contains all the facilities for producing, repairing and researching you’ll need—it is your base. It must be protected at all costs. Previous Homeworld gamers will be very familiar with this system.
This unique dynamic removes almost all ability to establish a firm, self-sufficient position. Instead, what players are left with is having to be mobile and adaptable, a scrappy scavenger with limited resources and a, disappointingly small, unit cap. There were times where I fell into old habits of “turtling,” got complacent and burned through all the available resources before I’d even made a serious attempt at accomplishing my objectives. Through necessity, I had to change my technique to progress.
If I’m honest though, it’s still a bit of struggle for me at times. I yearn for the more traditional feel: more units, more fortifying. With that said, the persistence model with limited resources lends very strongly to the sense of a desperate struggle for survival that Desert’s plot seeks to create.
None of this is to say, however, that the gameplay isn’t fantastic. Quite the contrary. This game plays extremely well.
The interface is simple and intuitive, commands are streamlined and effective. Moving the camera around the map, zooming or adjusting the viewing angle is smooth, fast and easy. Hitting the SPACEBAR brings up a tactical overlay (think mini-map minus the “mini”) that allows for quick assessment of the situation, issuing orders or preparing a defense for some incoming hostiles. This overlay is a neatly updated and easier to use version of the same idea that was originally found in the first two Homeworld games.
In general, units feel balanced. Just as in its predecessors, Deserts of Kharak really emphasizes the need to recognize a given unit’s strengths and weaknesses. Many times I found myself attacking a group of units using the wrong type and having no success. Then, I’d try again with the appropriate class and wipe the hostiles out effortlessly—and with great satisfaction, I might add. From small, agile off-roaders great for harassment or recon, to slower railgun platforms with massive power and range, I found the unit variety to be both interesting and sufficiently differentiated.
Terrain is also of critical importance. Using the high ground gives your units an instant damage and range boost. The same goes for the enemy. Terrain can also block line-of-sight. You can’t expect to hit anything if you can’t see it, right? In many instances, I found the tide of battle turned from imminent defeat to a decisive victory for me if I merely retreated a short distance to higher ground and engaged from there, allowing my rail guns to project death from afar. I did find though, that when forced to stare at sand dunes from above for long enough, it gets surprisingly hard to hastily identify which areas are indeed above or below others. Still this is easily circumvented by selecting a unit’s “move” button (or using the hotkey) and then issuing a command. With this method, when the “move” button is pressed, a smaller, circular version of the tactical overlay is blanketed over the area between your cursor and the selected unit(s), its diameter growing or shrinking as your cursor moves further away, or closer to, the selected unit. Sounds complicated, it’s not.
Accuracy is not guaranteed by any means, which was frustrating at times. Seeing your units plunk away at a target, whether static or not, and miss by a wide margin is irritating but realistic. I also found the unit AI to be annoying stupid all too often. If a wreckage or piece of terrain was blocking my units’ line-of-sight to a target of opportunity, they didn’t move automatically to correct that, they just stayed put. This gets increasingly maddening when you’re so often (really, really often) stormed by large groups of fast hovercraft that circle, bob, weave and play hit-and-run with your troops as they sit helplessly wondering how to shoot through a mountain of sand. I also found that the friendly AI’s reaction to being attacked was poor, even nonexistent at times. This lack of basic AI functionality necessitates a good deal of micromanaging. I had expected more from a studio like Blackbird who happens to be staffed with so many RTS veterans.
Being more accustomed to traditional style strategy games, I found maps to be smaller than I would’ve liked and too reliant on fatal funnels. After decades of playing strategy games, I can pretty damn accurately predict where I’ll be attacked from if there are only two or three blatantly obvious approaches to my position. I would’ve liked the ability to explore a little further, to find more advantageous positions for attacks, ambushes or defense.
Overall, the campaign is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Minus a few obvious hitches, it provides the engaging, highly tactical and distinct feel that only a Homeworld game can.
I’ve played a few skirmish matches now and I have mixed feelings about them. Talk about wasted potential.
Before I’d even gotten into my first match, it was time to mess about with the different options. I noticed straight away that color schemes are open for complete customization. I love that Blackbird had the foresight to allow this. It’s such an easy thing to include, something many gamers love to tweak, and yet it continually gets overlooked by many developers. In addition, there’s a drop down menu for choosing unit skins, but alas, there was nothing in it. Perhaps that’ll come later in an update or DLC.
A match can be comprised of up to six players, human or AI, and organized into different teams. There are minimal options for victory conditions, or much else for that matter. The worst though, has got to be the lack of maps to pick from. A grand total of five. FIVE. Yep. And no, I’m not joking.
Once I did begin a match, it fantastic. I faced off against a single AI opponent on normal difficulty—still wasn’t sure I was prepared to take it up a notch. It was a surprising relief to not be burdened with campaign objectives, protecting Rachel S’jet or having to be hyper-aware of enemy incursions. This again speaks to the strength of this game’s narrative. Being able to explore more freely and experiment with new tactics, different unit combinations and the like was great as well. If more options and maps can be added in the future I think there’d be a good deal of replay value in the skirmishes alone, especially with friends. At the moment though, the lack of selection is a serious disappointment.
It’s worth mentioning that, for whatever reason, the skirmish matches I played seemed to run a little more smoothly than the campaign missions. It’s quite possible this is due to nothing other than a smaller map and less units.
Rather unfortunately, I was not able to join a multiplayer match against other humans. At this point, I’m willing to attribute that to how new the game is and that most everyone who does own it is probably still busy trying to grind through the campaign. However, it could also be due to the issues as described above.
While both polished and joyful, Desert’s multiplayer is definitely its main weak point.
The Bottom Line
Blackbird and Gearbox have done justice to the Homeworld name and its many fans. Had Blackbird gone ahead without Gearbox and released Shipbreakers (see our preview on this) instead, I am certain it would have been an excellent RTS in its own right. Adding the story, lore and name of a vaunted franchise like Homeworld just takes it to another level. Despite a few shortcomings and at this point, an unimpressive amount of replay value, Deserts of Kharak is a phenomenal strategy game and a worthy successor. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for this resurrected RTS juggernaut.
- Feels like Homeworld
- Heavy on tactics
- Distinct unit types
- Amazing story experience
- Poor unit AI
- Minimal multiplayer content
- Minimal replay value
Final Verdict: 9.0