Near the turn of the century, the two “Homeworld” games came out and broke the mold on strategy gaming. While most RTS’s at the time focused on letting you build a civilization from the ground up, “Homeworld” sent your group of colonists into the dark abyss of the universe, completely isolated and with no guarantees of grandeur. At the same time, developer Relic brushed aside the growth of competitive gaming in favor of delivering a complete and focused single player campaign.
A lot has happened since the last “Homeworld” game came out 13 years ago. Thankfully, the franchise remains as stubborn as ever and the utter joy one gets from playing the newest title, “Deserts of Kharak,” proves just how far ahead of its time the series was.
“Homeworld Deserts of Kharak” moves away from the traditional space simulation the franchise made its name over, instead grounding the action on a vast desert. Yet, the shift from zero-gravity firefights to grounded desert combat is so seamless you will not be missing that z-axis anytime soon. Taking place 100 years prior to the events of the 1999 classic, “Deserts of Kharak” follows the journey of Rachel S’Jet as she takes an expedition team to uncover the secret behind an anomaly hidden deep within the sands of her dying planet. The roughly 11 hour campaign will have you traverse the varied environment as you face an ever increasing threat from a religious cult trying to stop your crusade into their holy land. The story does an admirable job of staying interesting throughout, though it does falter from the poor characterization common in real time strategy games. At the same time, the beautiful cut scenes and solid dialogue makes sure that the themes present in the original “Homeworld” games stay as strong as ever.
In place of your iconic mothership, “Deserts of Kharak” introduces the Kapisi, an aircraft carrier on tank treads that acts as your mobile home base for the duration of the game. Every unit is built out of there and if you lose it, it is game over. However, as you acquire upgrades, it will quickly become the most formidable ship in your entire fleet. One notable detail brought back from the previous “Homeworld” games is that every unit you build is permanent. The army you end your mission with will be the one you take to the next battle, so self preservation is crucial.
The problem here is that you are forced to take baby steps every time you wish to progress. Since you have a mobile base you have to bring around the level, it is crucial that you clear out an area before exploring into the fog of war. Annoyingly, completing an objective might bring in a strong wave of enemies that you are ill prepared for, and the limited resources in each mission means a full restart might be in order when you are caught of guard.
Much like other RTS’s, “Deserts of Kharak” functions around a basic rock paper scissors formula when it comes to combat. Light attack vehicles can take down heavy ranged tanks, armored assault can crush smaller units but are susceptible to ranged fire and so on. Blackbird Interactive are not trying to revolutionize the genre, instead giving us a solid, well balanced strategy game that does everything right. One of the things it does very well is presenting information to the player. Units bark out alerts over the radio and notifications are succinct enough that they don’t clutter the screen. With the hit of the space bar, you get a simplified map that shows the entire battlefield, reducing your units to geometrical shapes. When you have multiple fronts to worry about, this view is a lifesaver and the game can easily be played entirely from there.
However, you would be doing the gorgeous art design a disservice if you did not zoom in every once in a while. The sense of scale present when two massive carriers cross each other’s paths in battle with dozens of other troops hovering around littering the golden sand with pitch black smoke is hard to explain. Furthermore, although the game takes place on a desert, the environments remain varied, throwing in elevation changes and different times of day to keep the action fresh. The music is also hard to ignore, placing an ethereal Arabic theme over story sequences and ramping up when the action is getting epic. The fact that this is all running on the Unity engine and suffers from minimal frame rate drop even at its most hectic moments speaks volumes to the production of this game.
The multiplayer is pretty bare bones, offering little more than skirmishes and resource gathering treasure hunts with two very similar races. It is clear Gearbox intended this to be a story focused game and we can’t blame them for that.
“Homeworld” was that friend you lost touch with but always knew you would enjoy their company if you ever met up again. This was proven with the well-received HD remaster of the first two games and now “Deserts of Kharak” has left us wanting more. Finding an RTS that focuses on telling a good story coupled with solid armchair general mechanics is really hard to come by nowadays and this marvelously orchestrated prequel pulled it off. More than remind us what made the franchise so successful in the first place, “Desert’s of Kharak” stands on its own as a blueprint on how to make a proper strategy game. Barring the lack of replayability, this is one of the most engaging gaming experiences you can have and a sure fire contender for game of the year.
- A focused, atmospheric campaign mode.
- Exceptional design couples a thrilling gameplay suite.
- Simplified presentation that demands you attention.
- There isn't much to do once you finish the story.