Do you know the old story about the guitarist that couldn’t make it for the show so the lead singer asks the crowd if “Anyone can help them play the hits?” A nervous-as-hell fan raises their hand in the air with as much confidence as they can muster and tells the band they know the songs. As they take the stage amongst thunderous applause, the young fan waits for their cue and strikes that first note. In that instant, they are a rock star.
That is how Blackbird Interactive must have felt when they were told they would be taking the reins of the next Homeworld game. The studio is largely made up of Homeworld development vets that were working on a new property that would resemble the classic RTS series when Gearbox Software gave them the full Homeworld license. It was then that Deserts of Kharak was born.
Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to Homeworld set 114 years prior to the first game. It follows the story of the Kushan people’s chief science officer Rachel S’jet as she leads an expedition across a dying desert planet to find an artifact that may save her people. Standing in her way are the nomadic Gaalsien people, a society that will stop at nothing to ensure that Rachel and her group do not find the artifact and achieve the spaceflight capabilities it may lead to.
Let’s get it out of the way now. Homeworld is not an outer space based RTS. If you haven’t been following the development of the game, this may come as a shock considering that the original Homeworld titles managed to initially distinguish themselves by offering fully 3D ship to ship based combat. Deserts of Kharak removes that space element and instead offers a more traditional ground based RTS game, though there are still aerial units in play. To be frank, this hurts the game somewhat. When you think of Homeworld, the first thing most people envision ate the kind of epic space battles that no other video game has come close to matching. The loss of that element means that Deserts of Kharak doesn’t quite have the same unique personality of its predecessor. Some of that epic style has been lost.
While this will no doubt turn some fans away, it’s important to note that Homeworld as a series is far from a one trick pony. The franchise truly made a name for itself off of its rock solid mechanics, fantastic storytelling and genre best presentation, and I’m happy to report that Deserts of Kharak retains all of those elements, starting with the presentation. Graphically speaking, Deserts is a step above the Homeworld Remastered release, though the desert environment isn’t quite as diverse as previous locales in the series. The ability to zoom in on every unit and battle and witness a perfectly animated section of the larger fight is still intact. Fans will be happy to know the glorious particle effects have also made a return.
Talking about Homeworld’s presentation has always been a conversation about the game’s narrative and soundtrack. True to form, Deserts of Kharak excels in those areas. The foundation of the story was set in previous installments, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you emotionally invested throughout. Without getting into spoilers, things really get interesting quickly. As for the soundtrack; it’s spectacular. Few could ever match Homeworld’s beating drums and sweeping horns, and the slightly tribal influences introduced in this game lend it a very distinct quality. I can’t wait for this soundtrack to be released so I can play it over lesser games.
My biggest question going into Deserts of Kharak is how the gameplay would transfer over to a more ground-based system. As it turns out the result is something of a mixed bag. A slight twist on the gameplay from other, similar RTS titles is that your home base in the game is actually a mobile fortress. It is your constant companion throughout much of the experience, and it serves as your unit factory and storage for resource collection. The roving base is also capable of taking care of itself in combat so long as you don’t mind doing a little micromanaging of its combat and defensive resources.
It’s similar to the capital ships of previous games, but its presence in this universe helps to generate a Mad Max style effect as the base becomes the central player in the game’s roving battles. There are times when its presence makes the game feel like an elongated escort mission, but they are thankfully few and far between.
The bigger problem is how restricted the gameplay can feel. While the mission variety is similar to previous titles, the lack of that extra dimensional element helps to make some objectives (especially anything that requires you to defend one spot) somewhat dull. Deserts of Kharak is at its best when it gives the player sweeping battles across a desert landscape and asks them to carefully manage various unit types while considering additional factors such as terrain advantages. Everything else is a little hit and miss.
Thankfully, the game itself controls very well regardless of mission type, and any RTS or Homeworld vet will feel right at home. Those new to the series may encounter a period of adjustment while learning how to best direct the various units in combat due to a slight increase in unit micromanagement over other strategy games. Even in these cases, Deserts of Kharak does a great job of accumulating players through both a tutorial mode and the natural flow of the game’s campaign progress.
In the interest of full-disclosure, it should be noted that it was not yet possible to accurately comment on the full quality multiplayer mode at the time of review. While there is nothing in the gameplay itself that suggests it may be a problematic experience, this review will be updated should the field test of the mode prove otherwise.
I would be lying if I said that Deserts of Kharak hasn’t lost something special in its transition away from the old Homeworld setting. That’s not necessarily meant as a knock against the game itself, but the product creeps closer to a more standard RTS than it ever did in the past. As a more traditional RTS game, it is the best one we’ve gotten since Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void. Deserts of Kharak is as good as anything else in its class when the game’s focus is properly set on the large scale combat and the sweeping score grants a rhythm to the constantly unfolding narrative.
I’m looking forward to seeing if Blackbird Interactive will go back to its roots via a proper sequel, but the team got the chance to take the big stage and the few notes they did miss are not going to be noticed by a fan base that is ready to rock with more Homeworld.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak was reviewed on Steam using a code that was provided by Gearbox Software.
Deserts of Kharak is a radical departure from previous franchise efforts, but most of what makes Homeworld great survived the transition.