Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has undergone a slew of transformations over the past few years, from name changes to the purchasing of Intellectual Property rights. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to the original Homeworld, and in all accounts, it does it justice. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak not only holds onto the roots of the real-time strategy genre but also expands it with a more refined, tactical experience.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is set 114 years before the original and centers around Rachel S’jet, a chief scientist on an expedition under the command of the Northern Kiithid, tasked with finding the Jaraci Object. The Jaraci Object, also called the “primary anomaly,” is an unidentified pile of wreckage detected by satellite scanners and is believed to be the power source for a group of exiled extremists. The Coalition bases are subsequently destroyed by these zealots, the Kiith Gaalsien, and the only hope for survival depends on Rachel S’jet finding the these Gaalsien’s source of power. While commanding the Kapisi and Rachel S’jet through the vast Kharakian deserts, you must continually repel the Gaalsien forces as the expedition progresses toward the Jaraci Object.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has a compelling storyline that is reminiscent of Star Wars; most notably, The Force Awakens. The Gaalsien are led by a menacing commander named Khagaan, who looks and acts a lot like a Sith. The world, storyline, and unit types are also similar to Star Wars, but in no way is this necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless, it still has unique aspects and features an overall interesting plot. The cinematic cut scenes illustrate the campaign in between levels and are beautiful to watch. The crisply-narrated cinematics are similar to an animated graphic novel with a pastel-like art style. As the campaign evolves, so does the access to an impressive variety of technology, new tactics, specialized units and abilities.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak isn’t a base-building real-time strategy in the same vein as StarCraft or Command & Conquer. I have always had a predilection for base-building RTSs, but I also enjoy more building-limited RTSs like Company of Heroes. However, Homeworld has arguably only one building, a massive mobile aircraft carrier called the Kapisi. Except for a few caveats, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak feels most like Command & Conquer. Due to the lack of base-building, I initially wondered if the game would fall short concerning advance level upgrading, branching unit progression, and building tier depth. However, the case is quite the opposite. The progression tree is more than satisfying with each level granting enhanced access to new abilities and tactics.
The basics of resource management comes down to RUs and CUs: resource units and construction units respectively. These are gathered via the scavenger unit which are similar to StarCraft’s Protoss probes. Construction units are resources spent for the training of units and their upgrades. Resource units are sparser and factor into most upper tier “engineering” upgrades. The engineering upgrades increase the strength of your existing units, as well as unlocking new abilities and units. Resources on the whole are much less abundant than in comparable RTSs; therefore, proper planning and micromanagement of them is vital.
Having to upend your entire army and your huge home-base, the Kapisi, in search of more resources is a common occurrence. Often you’ll be forced to gamble the success of your campaign in order for a chance at resources located in an isolated section of the map. Gambling and cutting it close is a reoccurring theme in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. There were several times during various campaign maps when I felt as though I were one wrong move away from having to restart completely. To this end, the overlapping of campaign levels can put you between a rock and a hard place.
There are a few times during the campaign where missions will extend into the next one, carrying over your bad choices and decisive ones alike. So if you snatch victory from the claws of defeat, finishing the level with a few units and barely any resources, you’ll start the next one in the same situation—bankrupt with the same skeletal army as before. This makes your choices more important and impactful, especially near the end of a mission. It’s a mechanic that can be rewarding and equally punishing. Nonetheless, the engineering upgrades will be reinstated as well.
The campaign remains rather engaging throughout the game. One reason for this are the dynamic changes to the map as the mission progresses. Suddenly your objective will change due to the emergence of a Gaalsien threat or the arrival of allied reinforcements. The mobility that Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak encourages adds to that sense of the unknown and helps prevent the gameplay from becoming stale, which is an issue that plenty of RTSs suffer from.
There is a latent tactical feel to Homeworld. The battle system is somewhat analogous to Company of Heroes—though admittedly not as profound or intricate. The reason I draw a comparison between the two is Homeworld’s use of terrain during encounters. Positioning your army at the top of a hill bestows tactical benefits to your troops and could easily determine the winner of an encounter. If a heavy railgun is shooting at a distant enemy on a hill, the missile is more likely to miss and hit the hill rather than the intended target.
Another dynamic feature usable in the midst of battle is the “sensors manager.” The sensors manager is an interface overlay that allows you to manage your troops in a macro manner, gaining control over the entire battlefield from afar. From this interface, you can move groups of troops, see the location of enemy movement, map out the terrain, and control multiple sections of your army simultaneously. This interface resembles an old-school ’90s game, but it drastically helps with managing the macro side of your strategy. It’s easy—just the tap of a spacebar—to switch between the normal camera mode and a simplistic, but enhanced, view of the battlefield.
Even though the addition of the Sensors Manager is helpful, I was still dismayed to find no mini-map. There are some games, especially RTSs, in which I spend half the game spying at the mini-map. However, the lack of one lends Homeworld to be more engaging in the end. Instead of eyeing a small circle in the corner of your screen, you switch frantically between the normal view and the Sensors Manager, which is infinitely more exciting than a bland mini-map.
Each unit in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is satisfyingly singular. They each possess an array of unique abilities and situational specialties. Heavy railguns are slow and bulky with diminished maneuverability, but they make up for it with destructive damage at a distance. LAVs (Light Assault Vehicles) are fanatically fast, serving as a great harassing and scouting unit, but are easily destroyed. Upgrading these units through the engineering pane turns them into even more versatile weapons of war.
The accessibility of aircraft is almost overpowered. There are a plethora of scenarios that I would have surely lost if it wasn’t for my strike fighters or bombers. Their power is devastating and will turn the tide of a skirmish in an instant. Anti-air units will counter them, though in most cases, the sorties are too fast to intercept.
The Kapisi is a versatile and effective mobile home-base. From it, you can launch sorties, build your entire army, and upgrade its systems. I like the tiny taste of a RPG aspect that the Kapisi brings. You can upgrade its defenses, weapons systems, its effective range, and even its repair systems to keep your units in tip top shape.
The smoothness of gameplay, the gratifying graphics, and stand-out sound effects all add to the believability of war. The player will quickly get wrapped up in the battles and the more you play the game, the more enjoyment you’ll receive from it. The graphics aren’t to the level of StarCraft II or Company of Heroes 2, but they are still decent enough at max to provide a pleasurable world to admire. The battles are just as detailed. However, the terrain doesn’t vary much from map to map. Yes, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak takes place in a destitute, ever-expanding desert, but I eventually grew tired of the constant sandy, arid backdrop. The musical score and sound design is fitting; every machine gun’s staccato burst or laser beam’s blast is punctually delivered and on point.
Though eventually a patch may remedy it, as of now you cannot remap hotkeys, which is inconvenient and a big handicap. To become truly good at Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, you’ll have to learn the pre-mapped keys. An RTS is the type of game that needs the capability of remapping hotkeys; it separates the good players from the great ones, especially in multiplayer. Nonetheless, as long as you’ve played other RTSs, the learning curve will not take you long.
I can’t wait to delve into the Multiplayer mode of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. To be honest, I initially didn’t love the single-player for the first couple hours. However, I warmed up to it the longer I played. Once you learn its nuances and the deeper you explore its mechanics, Homeworld becomes a real-time strategy game deserved of high praise. The game quickly swallows you up, and before you even know it, you realize you’re having a blast.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the publisher.
Publisher: Gearbox Software | Developer: Blackbird Interactive | Genre: RTS | Platforms: PC | ESRB: E 10+ | Release Date: January 20th, 2016 | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard