My detailed and in-depth review of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to the excellent Homeworld 1 which released back in 1999 and redefined the RTS genre with a focus on large scale conflicts, compelling storytelling and persistence between missions.

Deserts of Kharak set out to continue that legacy and despite the fact that the cool darkness of space has been replaced with the ever-encroaching desert it does an excellent job of embodying everything Homeworld stood for. 

 

While you don't need to play through Homeworld 1 to enjoy Deserts of Kharak long time fans of the series will find plenty of small details and story points that gain immense significance when you know what will happen a hundred years in the future. The same goes for the gameplay, it should be easily recognizable to anyone that played Homeworld as some units are essentially a more rudimentary version of the ones in the future and serve the same exact role. 

Some people equate the Homeworld series with great multiplayer battles but to me it always about the story and the characters. I still vividly remember those first few missions in Homeworld 1 and how shocked I was with the scope of the devastation. So where does Deserts of Kharak stand when it comes to storytelling?

Deserts of Kharak has some detailed unit models

A small war band but a large amount of detail on the models

The events in Deserts of Kharak take place a hundred years before Homeworld 1 and are centered around the search for the prime anomaly, a mysterious artifact that suddenly spiked with energy from deep within the constantly expanding desert. With Kharak slowly becoming uninhabitable and food riots springing all over the globe the Coalition of Kiith, or clans if you will, decides to send a single massive Carrier in to the desert with the hope of retrieving the artifact.

This doesn't go over well with the Coalition's neighbors, the Gaalsien Kith who believe their god Sajuuk has forbidden them from ever entering space and if they did so despite his wishes he would bring Kharak to a fiery end and so war inevitably breaks out. This is where you come in to the picture as an unnamed commander who needs to ensure that the Carrier Kapisi makes it to its destination.

Each mission starts and ends with a short cinematic which is either done through in-game cutscenes or through a beautiful blend of hand drawn art and 3D (or actual actors). Its hard to explain the style in words but its rather fetching and sadly not as frequently used as I hoped it would be.

Deserts of Karaak will make you wonder whether you're the good guy

K'had Sajuuk - prophet or madman?

There are only a few main characters in the campaign but they deliver a great performance and feel like actual people with doubts, anger and desperation. Voice acting in general, besides a few oddballs, is top notch which is great given how much your units can blabber on in the middle of a fight. Despite there being a menu option to tone down random chatter there is unfortunately nothing to stop unit responses when you select them, which if you're a player like me and use 6 control groups starts to sound like someone's performing an exorcism in the middle of a battle.

On the topic of the story itself it doesn't have the same scope or grandeur as Homeworld did and I found it difficult to get myself invested but over time the characters were the ones that won me over. Around mission 9 there is a very memorable moment where all hope seems lost as your plan fails and the crew is stuck in a scorching desert with dwindling water supplies. You can really feel the pain and desperation behind each character as they attempt to salvage their situation and push onward to certain doom against an overwhelming enemy.

But then the game throws a deus ex machina your way, you cross incredible swaths of desert in a single cinematic and the whole campaign ends shortly after. Throughout the entire story your mission is set up as a desperate attempt, after each victory you get a statistic of how much water your meager supplies have lost that day and your actual progress is a series of small hops with the final destination so far away it doesn't even fit on the map.

And then in the final stretch you speed across half of the map unimpeded, water is no longer an issue and you have a super-weapon on your side to conveniently fight the main baddy with. While I don't know this as a fact it feels like Deserts of Kharak was rushed during its final stretch in development because the moment the story starts picking up and getting you invested in the characters it enters a downward spiral and ends soon after. A real shame because with a few more missions and a better ending it could've been truly great.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Gaalsien Carrier

The Gaalsien fleet emerges from a sandstorm

While the story left with me wanting more the campaign gameplay, especially on hard difficulty, was well balanced and most importantly fun. At the core of your "base" is the Carrier Kapisi which functions as a drop-off point for resources, a mobile unit-producing factory, a landing strip and as a gigantic battle-fortress whose weaponry you can upgrade to the point where it becomes capable of taking on armies by itself.

There are only two types of resources and each node contains only tiny amounts so your Carrier will often be on the move which is where one of my main complaints with the campaign gameplay comes in. The Carrier is so slow, yet so instrumental in your tactics that you will spend far too much time waiting for it to arrive. In multiplayer this isn't an issue since Carriers have a speed upgrade but in the campaign its completely missing thus leaving your entire army to progress at a snail's pace in fear of entering a battle with your main asset a kilometer back.

That little flaw sticks out like a sore thumb because everything else is nice and fast paced. Your light assault vehicles can criss-cross the map in under a minute, units are expensive but produced quickly and ability cooldowns are so low you might get the chance to use them multiple times in a fight. Luckily this is a problem that's easy to fix, on account of the fix already being in the game, so I do hope the carrier gets its speed upgrade in a patch near release.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak carriers are truly large

Those tiny little things underneath the Carriers are full-sized tanks

Even though the Carrier is the biggest and meanest of your ships the focus in Deserts of Kharak is instead on the various units you can build and upgrade. They're all seemingly well balanced, cool to look at and actually useful even in the end game. For example, the first unit you ever get to create is the LAV (light assault vehicle), a dune buggy that is so quick and small most attacks from much more powerful ships tend to miss them. What this means is that even in the final few missions you will be able to find areas for your LAVs to wreak havoc while your front-liners keep the enemy busy.

My favorite unit however was the most basic armored tank which comes with the surprisingly useful ability to launch smoke grenades. They might not sound like much but if you can create a wall of smoke in front of you the enemy artillery and battleships simply won't be able to find who to fire on allowing your entire force to focus on the enemy front line.

But the coolest part is that units are capable of ranking up and becoming much stronger than the default ones so you really want to ensure they survive for as long as possible since you're getting twice the power for the same supply cost. And not just that, your entire fleet and upgrades persist from mission to mission so you are heavily encouraged not to throw away units fruitlessly because even with skilled play the hard computer will slowly wear you down and you don't need to help it out.

Deserts of Kharak has some very dark nights

The start of a new mission and the remnants of my formerly great fleet

Some of the campaign missions can get pretty damn hectic, especially if you end up in a 2v2 situation with over 50 ships on each side slinging everything they've got at each other, from missiles to ground forces and strike aircraft. And while it is a joy to behold the performance does not keep up with these sort of moments. For the majority of the campaign I was able to run everything on ultra and be completely fine but once the flashier late-game ships start coming online and the screen fills with debris, holes in the ground and the flash of lasers the FPS starts to drop down pretty significantly.

I've had big battles with the more basic units and never experienced such issues so I have a feeling its due to the artillery cruiser's missile barrage which fills the entire screen with rockets, smoke and holes that causes this. You can get around the FPS loss by reducing settings such as shadows and effect details but this is still something I'd like to see patched as soon as possible.

While the performance might not always be great the graphics definitely do hold up as Deserts of Kharak somehow managed to make endless stretches of desert feel different to each other. I'd still prefer it if there was more diversity in the terrain but with the limitations Deserts of Kharak has due to the story its pretty impressive how much mileage its got out of its sandy landscape.

The ground textures look great from afar but tend to lose their charm once you zoom in really close to get a more cinematic view of the battle. The units however look great even up close as they have a lot of nifty details put in to them that you wouldn't even notice if you just stuck to the scanner view, a simplified overhead view of the map, or just played zoomed out for the best tactical perspective.

For example the LAVs, the dune buggies I mentioned previously, will sometimes do cartwheels when struck by explosives, slide downhill when trying to turn after a fast descent and so on. A lot of effort went in to the units having their own "personality" and it shows.

The salvagers in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak look great

The Salvagers are almost too cute to destroy... almost

So far I've only really talked about the campaign and while it does represent a significant part of the game it is the multiplayer that will be the meat to the campaign's potatoes. And in a replica of the campaign's pros and cons the multiplayer is fast paced RTS fun with plenty of different units, upgrades and tactics to chose from yet only 5 maps in total. The maps aren't even that big and they are literally set in a desert, a nicely detailed desert filled with starship wreckage, but a desert nonetheless so why is there only 5 of them?

To compound this issue there is only a single game mode besides deathmatch and that is the artifact collection mode in which you need to pick up artifacts that spawn periodically in the middle and escort them to far away drop-off points. Its a very skill intensive mode to play and rather enjoyable but for a game with a ~7 hour campaign the multiplayer really needs to be a lot meatier than this.

Its such a shame because the multiplayer really is fun with the myriad of upgrades and units you have to juggle in between resource gathering and guarding you distant outposts from relentless LAV harassment attacks. It contains everything that makes the campaign gameplay fun but with even more decision making since you don't inherit upgrades and unit ability research from previous missions.

The two races you get to play with, the Coalition and Gaalsien are well balanced and similar enough that you will instantly understand how they work while still being unique enough to give birth to a completely different set of tactics. They also give you the ability you to customize the base color and tint of your units allowing for some sweet looking rides, a feature every RTS should have if you ask me.

In short the multiplayer mode works great, gives you plenty of options and room for strategy and is most importantly fun to play but much like the campaign I feel it needed an extra month to get fully fleshed out in to something that will stand the test of time.

Verdict

Deserts of Kharak has some very exciting and tactical gameplay filled with plenty of activatable abilities as well as ways for skilled players to distinguish themselves and the story has the potential to be truly great but both sides of the coin are let down by what I feel is a lack of content. I love Deserts of Kharak but there really needs to be more of it.

As it stands I'm not sure I can recommend it to you at full price because unless a patch comes really quickly after launch you're going to be "done" far sooner than you might expect. At a discount however, or once a couple of patches roll in I would say its definitely worth your time because as a game it is a great throwback to the RTS of old.

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