“My God, it’s full of stars!” – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
When I was a wee tot, probably around ten or eleven years old, I owned a bedraggled paperback copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I have no idea where it came from, but judging from the book’s tattered and yellow appearance in my memory, it was probably from the used paperback store down the road. I’m not sure how much my young mind understood the novel, but I fell in love with it anyway. It was my first real introduction to science fiction; also, I think, it’s when I fell in love with our universe: the massive, mind-boggling, mysterious expanse of space nothing – and everything – we call home.
Years later, when I was a bit older, and a bit more capable of quantifying my fascination with our universe – and understanding the novel 2001 – I came across a game called Homeworld. Developed by Relic Entertainment, Homeworld understood the mysteries of space; Homeworld understood a good story; Homeworld wrapped a fantastic science fiction tale around unique three-dimensional mechanics and put me at the helm. And don’t forget the music, that haunting, spiritual soundtrack which brought the endless depths of space to life. Homeworld is rightly considered a classic, almost hallowed in some eyes, and by any measure an amazing game. However, it’s been seventeen long years since the original Homeworld was released. An expansion, titled Cataclysm, was released in 2000, and the official sequel, Homeworld 2, in 2003. Since then, nothing.
“The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” – Dune by Frank Herbert
Enter Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Seriously, go check the Steam store. Boom! It’s right there. You can even touch it, if you don’t mind leaving fingerprints on your monitor. Yes, it has apparently materialized out of nowhere, spawned from the publishing fingertips of Gearbox Software. Seriously, though, all fanboy excitement aside, Kharak is a prequel to the original series, and the first real Homeworld game in thirteen years. That’s a long time to wait, and cause for elation, or at least skepticism, but the road to Kharak’s publication has been a long, strange and even quiet one.
Kharak originally began as Hardware: Shipbreakers. Blackbird Interactive (BBI), a new studio formed in 2007 from veterans of EA and founders of Relic Entertainment, began Shipbreakers as a spiritual successor to the Homeworld games. Several years later, in 2013,Gearbox Software bought the rights to the Homeworld series. In addition to remaking Homeworld and Homeworld 2 as Homeworld Remastered in 2015, Gearbox also agreed to give the folks at Blackbird the rights to Homeworld. Hardware: Shipbreakers turned into Homeworld: Shipbreakers and then, in December 2015, was officially announced as Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.
I’m not as hardcore as some Homeworld fans, but I have been following Kharak for several years. My biggest concern has been how well the space action of the original might translate to the deserts sands of Kharak. As it turns out, pretty damned well! The developers have managed to turn the desert terrain of the planet Kharak into an endless space all of its own (sorry Amplitude, couldn’t resist.) The sands are imbued with mystery and danger, winds whipping along dunes, storms whirling across the expanse, vehicles churning up clouds of sand.
By the end of the thirteen mission campaign some might find themselves a bit tired of the desert locales, but I found the setting alluring throughout. The brilliant soundtrack from Paul Ruskay also helps to bring the environment to life. The music will be familiar to Homeworld fans but seems tailored for the cruel depths of the desert, sometimes with great Arabian themes. Also, the third dimension is not entirely lost. The height of the desert terrain blocks line of sight and line of fire, confers combat advantages to units on the high ground, and makes for a damned cool ramp when those LAVs get to moving (more on this later).
“Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life.” – The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
The original Homeworld told the story of the exodus of the Kushan from their dying planet, Kharak. For years war had raged amongst the many clans of Kharak over the sparse resources available upon the arid planet. However, an alien ship was discovered beneath the sands of the Great Desert along with a galactic map pointing to a distant homeworld: Hiigara, or “our home.” After this discovery, the many clans united into a strong Kushan race. Over the span of a century they built a massive mothership to carry them to their homeworld. The player took over at this point, leading the desperate Kushan and their precious mothership into an uncertain future, met with resistance at every turn.
Kharak tells a similar story, only 114 years earlier. This time around something unknown has been located in the Great Desert. It’s referred to as the Jaraci Object, or the “Prime Anomaly.” The Coalition of the Northern Kiithid have put together expeditions to travel into the desert and discover exactly what this anomaly might be. The Object is viewed by the Coalition as a beacon of hope and a possible way off of the dying planet. However, another clan, sinister exiles known as Kiith Gaalsien, stand opposed to these expeditions. They control much of the desert and the technology found within. They’ll do everything they can to stop the Coalition.
Players take control of the Expedition Command Carrier Kapisi, owned and operated by the s’Jet family, a familiar name to series veterans. On the surface, the Kapisi is just a hulking aircraft carrier that makes its way across the desert instead of through ocean waters. I reckon I wouldn’t be the first to liken the desert to an ocean. Much like the mothership in the first Homeworld, the Kapisi’s safety is the main gameplay focus of the journey. It not only travels across the desert, but it also produces units, provides powerful radar, launches air strikes and enables research. In a nutshell, without the Kapisi the expedition is doomed.
Players can also control certain attributes of the Kapisi through the use of four different sliders affecting Reactive Armor, Repair Systems, Turret Network, and Range Systems. Adjusting one of these to a higher setting requires a certain amount of power from the Reserve Power Pool. Players can increase the Power Pool by acquiring artifacts – usually found by shipbreaking abandoned ships on the map. Shipbreaking is the act of blowing up hulks in order to get to the resources contained within. You have to manage the power settings carefully because if you set them too high, the Kapisi will overheat and start to take damage. In addition, the artifacts, themselves, impart powerful passive bonuses to player forces. I made it a point to seek them out on every mission. You should too!
The story is mostly told through cinematics, similar in style to the original Homeworld but even more gorgeous. It looks like Blackbird covered the actions and behaviors of real actors and actresses with brilliant oil paints. It’s rather hard to explain, but quite striking when viewed.
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science fiction gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” – Isaac Asimov
As I mentioned, there are thirteen missions in all. Each mission is varied and engaging. In a single breath you can go from quietly gathering resources to chasing an enemy-held artifact across the desert; or you may be forced to give up distant salvage operations in order to rush back to the Kapisi and defend it to the death. In true Homeworld fashion, engagements can be quick, deadly and often decisive, particularly on the tougher difficulties. There are a few RTS tropes, like a reliance on chokepoints – not formerly viable in the original Homeworld, for obvious reasons – and a preponderance of resource gathering. Still, overall, I found the pace of the action and the variety of the missions outstanding. Intelligent use of unit composition and tactics was often required. The campaign, as a whole, manages to feel like a true expedition through a sandy wasteland instead of just a handful of linked scenarios.
A fair portion of mission pace and design is dictated by resource gathering. There are two main resources found upon the map: Construction Units (CUs) and Research Units (RUs). Construction Units are the basic building resource required for every unit produced or upgrade researched. Research Units, though, are required more often – and in smaller quantities – for more advanced production and research. Research, carried out by the engineering department on board the Kapisi, not only unlocks the use of new vehicles but also gives existing units upgrades like new abilities and improved offense and defense.
Artifacts, as I mentioned earlier, are also a form of resource found on the map and need to be returned to the Kapisi in order to activate their passive upgrades. A secondary resource, not actually gathered but granted as the campaign moves on, is Fleet Capacity. It’s the exact limit of units you can have in your army. It started low in the campaign, keeping my forces to a small size, but by the end I was fielding a massive force.
As in most RTS games, you only start with a handful of units at your disposal, but as the campaign progresses more and more are unlocked. Your entire force persists from mission to mission as well. There may not be as many types of vehicles in Kharak as some players may expect, but there are many abilities to unlock for each type and each of them is fully realized, possessing unique personalities. The latter might sound strange but when you see the detail in the groups as they move and fire across the desert, you realize they’re not just generic units plopped into the game in order to provide the appearance of diversity along the trek. The vehicles look, act and feel as though they are a part of a faction suffering on an arid planet; they belong there for reasons beyond game design.
For instance, the LAV (Light Attack Vehicle, duh) is a fast, scout buggy with a player-activated boost. The first time I triggered this boost and watched as my LAV squad took flight off the top of a dune, firing upon the enemies just below them, I was very much in awe of the physics on display. Strike fighters streak across the evening sky, cruisers plod through the sands, cruise missiles explode in massive earthen pillars, railguns take the high ground and fire along great distances, and I’m not even touching on the cool hover technology used by the opposing Gaalsien faction. This attention to unit detail and diversity proved immersive and turned what could have been plain engagements into chaotic dances to the death. Through the campaign, my force grew from a light and scrappy ragtag bunch into a massive gathering of cruisers, artillery and air power that made its presence felt across the entire map.
“Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Overall, controlling the units was very intuitive and easy, particularly for someone coming from Homeworld. Still, I felt like there could have been some improvements. The basic RTS concepts are present, of course: control groups, waypoints, adjustable camera distance and angle, hotkeys for abilities, attack moves, you name it. However, being as Kharak was created by folks who once worked not only on Homeworld but also Company of Heroes, I felt like some modern conventions could have been added. Most of all, I missed being able to control unit facing. I beg of you, Blackbird, give us unit facing! It’s in Company of Heroes, it’s in the Total War games, and its exclusion is often quite annoying in Kharak. Sure, you can move a group of railguns onto the top of a dune, but to properly utilize their effectiveness you have to perfectly position them for maximum coverage and firepower. This is impossible with a group move. I often found myself ordering each individual unit into the needed position. This feels like a step backward. Unit formations would also have been a nice addition, but overall unit control is tight and functional.
The interface is not far removed from the Homeworld mold, offering a great degree of control. Not only do you get the typical RTS view, but you also have the all-encompassing radar view of the Sensors Manager, easily accessed with the tap of the space bar. In both views, units are marked with symbols like squares and triangles to denote their type and use. It won’t take long for new players to learn them all, as the game slowly introduces more and more units. Kharak often made me feel like an armchair admiral, quickly able to zoom out, order air strikes, send LAVs after slower moving targets, launch cruise missiles, move my salvagers back to safety, set up turrets with base runners and more. It’s a clean, sleek, efficient interface.
“There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men.” – Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
Beyond the campaign, Kharak also offers Multiplayer, as well as a Skirmish mode against the AI.
During the campaign, the AI is mostly capable, if obviously scripted. In the campaign, the AI functions in controlled settings and situations mostly dictated by each mission. Groups of enemy vehicles tend to roam or are scripted to target certain areas, chokepoints or units. Enemy group make-up also seems to inform AI behavior. For instance, in one mission, a common group composition was two or three railgun vehicles and an escort of several light attack vehicles. If the fast attack vehicles were destroyed the long range railguns would attempt to retreat. This didn’t appear to be an intelligent behavior to make a smart retreat. It was just scripted. This works in the campaign, mostly, often overcome by the strong mission design.
In Skirmish mode, when the AI has to make decisions based on a less static battlefield, the basic scripted AI doesn’t work nearly as well. Sure, the AI can gather resources well enough, but that’s not really a function of advanced AI. I’ve seen little evidence of the AI taking positioning into consideration, other than getting from point A to point B. It’s the tactical considerations that make a huge difference in Kharak, like fighting for the advantage of higher ground, or utilizing the terrain to block LOS. The AI does, strangely enough, seem better suited to the early game – or maybe just quicker on the trigger than my less-than-nimble fingers. By the end of the match it seems to lose steam.
This, of course, is not a factor if you choose to take on human opponents in both ranked and unranked modes. There are online leagues featuring 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 leaderboards. Unfortunately, there are only five maps, very few for the average RTS game at release. Hopefully more will be added later, either from Blackbird themselves or, if Blackbird implements the Workshop, eventually created by the community.
The different multiplayer victory conditions are slight and fairly standard, but I did find the Artifact Retrieval mode interesting. Opposing factions, up to 3v3, face off in a race to secure and retrieve artifacts scattered across the map. These artifacts spawn three at a time and are both easily located and hotly contested. The countdown timer is visible upon the screen, which allows players the time to think of strategies about which of the artifacts to attempt to capture, which units to use, how to stop their opponent from taking the others, etc. Artifacts offer dynamic focal points for quick steals, nasty skirmishes and even massive battles over the last artifact needed to win. It’s a lot of fun. Nevertheless, the jury is out on how long the multiplayer will extend Kharak’s life beyond the brilliant campaign.
On the technical front, I only ran into one bug. It wasn’t a blue screen of death, but it was annoying. At the end of the fourth mission you have to kill the remaining forces in order to finish the mission. I did this, but the mission did not end. I scoured the maps with air units and scouts and found nothing. On top of this, I littered the map with deployable sensors providing radar coverage of the entire map. Nothing. Eventually, I gave a big sigh, restarted the mission, and played through it again. It ended properly the second time. Just remember, quicksave saves live (Shift+F9 for future reference). Tell your children, too. Overall, though, Kharak is very solid.
“I’m not insane sir. I have a finely calibrated sense of acceptable risk.” – Old Man’s War, John Scalzi
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is one of the finest RTS games released in recent years. I loved every minute of the campaign. The story is well written and well paced; the music is sublime; the action is tense and deadly; the expectation of defeat exists around every corner, especially at the higher difficulties. Most of all, Kharak is an amazing Homeworld game. It flat out nails what made the original so mesmerizing and intense and has me looking forward with hope toward a proper Homeworld 3. Is it as good as the original? Maybe not quite, but it’s damned close and one helluva ride.
TL;DR: If you are interested in the history leading up to the original Homeworld, Deserts of Kharak is a great prequel, and an outstanding RTS. It hits all the right notes when it comes to smart tactical possibilities, interesting world and story, and combines it with that familiar Homeworld atmosphere: taut, mysterious and deadly.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You loved Homeworld.
- You enjoy smart, thoughtful progression punctuated by encounters that matter.
- You like the intensity brought on by preserving your persistent forces through the entire campaign.
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You balk at lulls centered around a preponderance of resource gathering.
- You don’t enjoy the tension brought on by having to keep the same units alive throughout the persistent campaign.
- The short, 16-hour campaign isn’t enough to warrant the price tag and you get no legs out of multiplayer.
Chris has played this game 20+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.