One less dimension, no less depth
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak greatest asset and weakness are its ties to the Homeworld games. Its real-time strategy (RTS) elements feel scaled back when removed from the previous titles' setting of deep space and the 3D movement that allows. However, as a prequel, it does a brilliant job establishing a desperate exodus from a dying planet, and a clear through line of technological and military principles.
The start of the journey home
The Homeworld name gives Deserts of Kharak a lot to live up to. The space RTS has always been held in high regard, and the 3D planes it worked with gave it a unique feel. Thus, a land bound prequel faces an uphill struggle. But developer, Blackbird Interactive, seem to have made something that fans and newcomers can enjoy.
Taking place on the dying desert world of Kharak, the Kushan people are searching for salvation and are pinning their hopes on an artifact, located deep inside hostile territory, known as the Primary Anomaly. Pooling their resources the Kushans construct the huge land-carrier Kapisi and set off towards the artifact.
It is the look and feel of the world and its technology that manage to set Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak apart. Acting as your mobile HQ, the Kapisi is like a battleship – right down to the runways – only mounted on huge caterpillar tracks.
This deploys the light buggies, armored trucks, ranged railguns, and support vehicles that make up your forces. All of these have a chunky, industreal design - and look incredible bouncing or crawling through Kharak's rolling sands.
This replicates the huge mothership of the previous Homeworlds. It’s a small thing, but it connects the titles with a clear technological evolution within the fiction.
The gameplay, too, has a good amount in common with the series’ past. Each of its missions has you clash with huge military forces as you move forward, gather resources, or survive the desert’s harsh conditions.
A clever blend
As well as deploying your forces, the Kapisi also constructs your reinforcements and develops tech. As an extra bonus, it provides a last line during tight missions, with you able to redirect its various systems between defense and offence.
In truth you never want it to get that close. Keeping an eye on your scanners you can identify incoming units and counter appropriately. Like your own forces attackers fall into three classes, light, heavy, and ranged - just think rock, paper, and scissors…
But if it was that simple, I wouldn’t be giving Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak an 8/10. You must constantly manage your units and their deployment. On a macro scale you direct the tech upgrades of each unit type, while – closer to the ground – you have to decide when to activate their unique abilities.
All of this feels responsive with you issuing commands through a blend mouse and hotkeys. But there are a few less polished elements, like larger units struggling with path finding and my inability to find a good perspective for larger battles.
Sending in light buggies you must know when to activate their speed boost to rapidly close on their long range targets, while light armor must make careful use of smoke to shield them from railguns. Mixed squadrons can balance these weaknesses, but also limits their strengths.
With Kharak’s rolling sand dunes, you can also make use of elevation. Vehicles with the high ground have a natural advantage, which is something that can certainly be used to your advantage – but it becomes a problem when the slow Kapisi moves through valleys, leaving it nerve wrackingly prone.
A new Homeworld
It lacks its forbears unique hooks, but Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak manages to be a fantastic RTS with a great look. Plus - despite the removal of the third dimension - by keeping the same mobile HQ and unit dynamics it manages to retain much of the same feel while being a fantastic experience in its own right.