As anyone who played the original or recently remastered versions can attest, Relic’s Homeworld games set the standard for 3D RTS space games, a standard that has in most ways not been bested. Lovely visuals and evocative music aside, the Homeworld games took the Earth-bound RTS genre into three dimensions and changed up a number of gameplay mechanics along the way. Now, after a somewhat convoluted path that included changes in developers and publishers, an aborted game called Homeworld: Shipbreakers has arrived in the form of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Though some have prematurely derided it as a cash-grab tied into the beloved Homeworld by name only, Deserts is in fact a genuine prequel that rather elegantly and convincingly makes its case for being part of the franchise.
The story — told through an introduction and series of painterly cutscenes — takes place a century or so before the original Homeworld and involves the discovery and recovery of an important ancient artifact (the “primarily anomaly”) amid a clash of already distrustful factions. Though beautifully rendered, the story is relatively shallow and simply provides context for both the action on the ground and the later space-based games.
Deserts of Kharak’s thirteen, fast-paced single player missions take place on the eponymous planet, a landscape that is at once monotonous and varied, with important variations in the height of of its sand dunes and rocky hills and dust storms that provide cover as well as impeding line of sight. In lieu of 3D interplanetary space, Kharak’s three variations of elevation allow for the placement of specific units such as long-range artillery or railguns in addition to the desert floor loving vehicles. Both offensively and defensively, a smart use of the environment is critical. The brown color palette of the daytime desert contrasts with the saturated blues of the nighttime, lending some variation to the visuals.
Anyone who has played an RTS game will be able to figure out Desert of Kharak’s elegant and streamlined interface and controls with very little trouble. Researching, building and upgrading units, collecting resources, or sending units into battle are intuitive. Thanks to seamless zooming between the macro, strategic view and the ground view managing the battlefield is a generally a pleasure. The strategic overlay view shows the world as an abstraction of friendly and enemy units, resources, and lines of sight and detection and most of the battles could be waged in this mode although it sometimes excludes some potentially critical information about units, such as their anti-aircraft capabilities.
Playing in the strategic view, however, means eschewing Desert of Kharak’s visceral battles up close. Thanks to excellent sound design — in which direction and location play an important tactical part — the explosions, gunfire and sounds massive machinery are bone-rattling and exciting. This is a world of bombs and gears and wheels and needs to be heard. The Homeworld franchise has always distinguished itself with outstanding music and this is true of Deserts of Kharak as well, though in the heat of battle the middle-eastern accented music fades to a low thrum. In the cutscenes and over the headsets as the missions progress, the voice acting is nuanced. Some of the canned unit and mission objective chatter gets repetitive and the script is a little exposition-heavy.
Every RTS game — from Total Annihilation to the most recent Starcraft chapter — is a dance of resource management and unit construction, expansion and contraction. By using a huge, slow moving mobile carrier as a base instead of a series of encampments, the impulse to hunker down and turtle is not a viable one. Adding real weight and tension to the campaign is unit veterancy, and the fact that both dwindling resources and units — or lack of them — are carried forward from one mission to the next. A battle that goes really badly south can have a crippling ripple effect down the campaign line so playing carefully and conservatively is usually more effective than the common strategy of cranking out swarms of cheap units. While the enemy AI is generally good it does have moments of inexplicable apathy, ignoring nearby units that it would normally attack.
Desert of Kharak’s multiplayer is a scaled-back suite of two basic modes: Artifact Retrieval, a timed match that pits players against each other as they attempt to secure and extract artifacts; and ranked or unranked skirmishes. The lack of multiplayer options either reflects an understanding that most players just like to fight their buddies casually online, or the attitude that the single player campaign is the more important aspect of the game.
Maybe it’s the somewhat featureless terrain of Kharak, the simplified, streamlined interface and missions or the slightly shallow multiplayer modes, but there is a real sense that Deserts of Kharak is a throwback to a much earlier RTS style of game. Though it pares back some of the clutter and fussiness of recent RTS titles, Desert of Kharak also ignores a few developments — such as unit facing and formation — that are now standards of the genre. Still, Homeworld: Desert of Kharak is an accessible and well-made strategy game with outstanding production values and a legitimate claim to being part of the legendary franchise.