With the departure of THQ back in 2013, and the auctioning of all owned IPs, including Homeworld, and original developer Relic Entertainment, the fate of the beloved spacefaring RTS series was left hanging in limbo. Relic was purchased by Sega as part of THQ’s bankruptcy, and the Homeworld license was sold to Gearbox Software.
At the same time, Blackbird Interactive, an independent game studio, including founding members of Relic Entertainment, were in development of the spiritual successor to the Homeworld franchise, Hardware: Shipbreakers. With the help of Gearbox Software, the game officially became a Homeworld game in 2013, but it wasn’t until this past December that the official title of the game was announced, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.
The fourth game in the Homeworld series, Deserts of Kharak serves as a prequel, set 100 years before the events of Homeworld on the desert planet Kharak. After an orbital satellite discovers an anomaly (the Jaraaci object) in the Great Banded Desert across the southern region of the planet, the Northern Coalition leads a scientific expedition along with the newly developed carrier, the Kapisi, through Gaalsien territory to locate it.
The basic gameplay of Deserts of Kharak will instantly feel familiar to anyone who has played Homeworld. Instead of a mothership, you are tasked with protecting a carrier, which acts as the hub for all resource gathering, ship production, and engineering upgrades. A similar rock/paper/scissors principle still applies to combat, so using appropriate vehicles is a must, especially in the higher difficulties.The agile Light Assault Vehicle (LAV), capable of boosting over sand dunes is a low-cost solution to slower-rate of fire threats, such as the Heavy Railgun. Throughout the game, your overhear units chattering with each other, mostly random communicates regarding overheating, or having to clean the sand out of their engines, but it gives the units personality. Units carry over from mission to mission, receiving bonus ranks for surviving previous missions. I found it unsettling to lose a unit that was with me from the very beginning, at the tail end of the campaign.
The desert terrain, almost as visually awe-inspiring as the vast and colorful nebulas and emptiness of space from the original Homeworld, gives off an eerie sense of dread. I always appreciated the hollow feeling of being alone in Homeworld, and while you may have sand between your toes in Deserts of Kharak, the uneasiness of being alone still exists. Across the thirteen campaign missions, you’ll contend with sand dunes the size of mountains, jagged and rocky plateaus, maze-like canyons, and deadly blowing sandstorms that obstructs not only your vision but your instruments as well. The sand shimmers as it blows across the top of dunes as the sun sits in the sky, but as it falls, and the day gives way to night, lights will flicker to life on all your vehicles, reflecting various colors across each other and the terrain.
The major gameplay element to Hardware: Shipbreakers involved locating and salvaging starship wrecks throughout the desert planet. Although the planet changed from LM-27, to Kharak, to fit in with the Homeworld lore, the wrecks still play an important component to the game, even outside of the campaign. Exposing these wrecks, mostly by using explosives to open them up, reveal additional resources and artifacts. Artifacts gathered provide essential upgrades to the Kapisi in the campaign and are one of the victory conditions in multiplayer and skirmish matches.
Collecting artifacts provide bonuses including 20% increase to ranged damage to all vehicles, a decrease in production time and improved heat sinks for carriers. Even if you lose all of your vehicles, your carrier isn’t defenseless, and can use points that can be placed into various systems on a need to use basis. Everything can be reset, so you constantly balancing the need to improve your armor, the range of your senses and even your weapon systems. An enemy carrier is launching a cruise missile in your direction? Place points into your armor system to decrease the amount of damage. As you are in the desert, you must contend with a limit, or face the consequences of overheating your “mothership.”
Moving units across the unforgiving terrain can be done using both a mouse or keyboard. While clicking your units to a location allows for multiple waypoints, using the keyboard and the move command is essential, especially if you want to set traps, or prepare for an incoming assault. The desert terrain doesn’t exist only to look pretty, as units on top of dunes receive bonuses when firing on units on a lower surface. Dunes can break line of sight, requiring you to ensure you always have the best vantage point on the enemy. As long as you don’t accidentally venture into a sensor range, you can use the dunes to your advantage and set traps for patrols, remaining invisible just on the other side of dunes.
Formations, one of my favorite group options are gone, forcing players to rely on the AI to group units in an appropriate fashion. While it made sense to have these when you were dealing with 3D space, Deserts of Kharak uses the traditional fastest to slowest formation that RTS games have been using for ages. Using the guard command on any ship will allow units to create a defensive circle around said unit. Defending a Support Cruiser with units not only protects the Cruiser but allows the units to stay in healing range. If they do chase down an enemy unit, they will return on their own to ensure the safety of the unit selected to guard.
Air units control differently than units on the land, requiring a target or target area. Strike Fighters release missiles and return to the carrier; Bombers carpet large areas with bombs and Gunships circle the targeted area, blanketing it with rounds of ammunition. There is a cooldown timer on the units once they return to the carrier, and for the most part, they are an easy target for Anti-Air vehicles. I’ve seen dozens of aircraft get decimated by only a handful of anti-air turrets. A coordinated attack from both your land and air units is a necessity.
As it was in the original games in the series, I spent a lot of hours playing skirmish and multiplayer matches. As the review will be live before release, there weren't many online multiplayer matches to join, so my experience is mostly focused on the campaign and skirmishes. Players can choose between the Coalition forces or the Gaalsien, which you are against in the campaign. To customize your fleet, you can change both the primary and secondary colors of all your units. Six players can join a single match, both Free for All or Team based matches. If teams are unbalanced, you won’t be able to proceed, so don’t expect to play any 5v1 matches in the near future. Map selection is barebones, with only five choices: two for 1v1, two for 2v2 and only a single six-player map.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak carries the legacy of the Homeworld franchise, and successfully grounds it to the planet Kharak. The game feels so similar in style and design that any Homeworld player will instantly feel at home playing any of the included game modes. Formations have yet to make a return to the series, and the lack of their inclusion will disappoint fans. Skirmish and Multiplayer lack variable in map selection, but I hope additional maps are added in the near future.
Note: The Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review is based on a digital PC copy of the game, provided for review purposes.