Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is Homeworld, in a desert, on Kharak.
I’m not even being all that churlish by describing it that way. I went into this expecting a desert-set RTS with a strong Homeworld flavouring. What I got, and what ended up being a bit of a surprise, was something that transplanted the classic Homeworld space-based gameplay down onto a planetary surface. And I mean literally transplanted, word-for-word and concept-for-concept, almost to the point of absurdity in places. You don’t have an army, you have a fleet. The basic minigun-equipped LAV unit is referred to as a “Strike craft” by the fleet personnel, and function exactly like fighters would in a real Homeworld game. Your biggest units are called cruisers rather than crawlers or tanks or whatever. The sensor manager returns, with identical icons for denoting fighters, frigates and capital ships. There’s a main mothership unit that builds all of your stuff, from which you can send salvage craft out to gather RUs from resource points scattered across the map. The list goes on and on, but make no mistake: this game is Homeworld, just with the third dimension stripped out.
Not that I think that’s a bad idea. The original Homeworld games were lauded more for their setting, atmosphere and combat mechanics than they were their use of the third dimension. I can’t remember many levels that took great advantage of the added Z axis, and interacting with it yourself by trying to issue move orders above or below your units’ current position was always a bit awkward. It seems a bit weird to be saying that making Homeworld two-dimensional makes it better, and I don’t necessarily think that it does, but it’s definitely different, not to mention much more appropriate for the sort of tightly-focused game Deserts of Kharak is. There’s an enforced supply cap restricting the number of units you can build that starts out low and gradually increases as the campaign wears on, so for the first 6-7 missions you’re tooling around with no more than fifty units plus your command carrier – and most of those are the fighter-esque LAVs. This means you gain a healthy appreciation for the innovations Deserts does bring to the Homeworld formula: the use of tactics, terrain, positioning and special abilities to bring the pain down on the overwhelming enemy forces without losing too many of your own. That sense of attrition has always been part of Homeworld; a key feature of the series is that your fleet and your mined resources persists from mission to mission, which promotes a keen sense of efficiency on the part of the player, and something that is especially heightened in Deserts of Kharak thanks to the comparatively small set of assets you have to play with.
I should back this up a little bit, though. Deserts is set on the Homeworld prison planet of Kharak shortly after its inhabitants achieve basic spaceflight, and follows the search for the shipwreck containing the hyperspace core (here referred to as the Primary Anomaly) that kicks off the events of Homeworld 1. Said shipwreck is located in the middle of the inhospitable planet-spanning desert, so the pole-dwelling Northern Coalition outfit and dispatch an expedition force centered around a huge aircraft carrier on tank treads called the Kapisi. Unfortunately the inhabitants of the desert — the religious Gaalsien, who see spaceflight as a mortal sin that will bring destruction down on Kharak1 — don’t take tremendously kindly to any of this and launch an all-out war against the North, which means that the Kapisi now has to battle hordes of bloodthirsty desert warriors on their way to the Anomaly.
The plot is yet another way in which Deserts is basically Homeworld all over again. You’re trying to get to a far away destination through desolate, hostile territory populated by enemies that vastly outnumber you. The Kapisi is still fitting out as it starts its journey into the desert, just as the Homeworld Mothership was, which provides an excuse for drip-feeding new units and research as new systems come online. The one big structural departure is that your Gaalsien opponents aren’t quite the strict mirror image of you that the Taiidan were in Homeworld; they have a few of the same basic units but the Gaalsien variants invariably trade off durability for speed, as befits their background as hit-and-run desert raiders. These differences are explained away as the Gaalsien exploiting the numerous “alien” shipwrecks littering the desert and reverse-engineering their technology, and that’s something that you can do too via the new special abilities.
Every unit now has at least one special ability of some sort, as befits this slightly more conventional style of RTS that Homeworld has become. Some of them are activated via a hotkey and some of them are passive, but all of them are incredibly useful. This might be down to the small unit roster (3 basic units, 3 cruiser units, 3 support units, 3 types of aircraft), however I found it really impressive that I couldn’t find a single duff one amongst them and that they all got used to greater or lesser degrees during my campaign. The LAV boost got me out of more tight jams than I care to remember, zooming across the battlefield to the flank I’d carelessly left open to buy time with their lives while my heftier units trundled over there, or evacuating from combat after assassinating a key soft target. The AAV smoke cloud ability is invaluable for fighting enemy railguns, which appear in large groups of 5-8 and will chew you up if they have any kind of line of sight. The Support Cruiser gets possibly the best abilities of the lot, with a set of passive repair beams (upgradable to have AOE), anti-air missiles and EMP rounds that temporarily disable anything they hit; I had five of these things mixed in with my cruiser group towards the end of the game because they were so damn useful. It’s the humble Salvager’s special abilities that come in useful for breaking up those precious shipwrecks, though, as it can deploy manually-detonated TNT to smash them open. This scatters precious resources over the surrounding area for your salvagers to collect, but also — occasionally — Artifacts that you then take back to a Support Cruiser or the Kapisi to get a passive upgrade of some sort.
I was a little bit disappointed that the Artifact upgrades were rather dull compared to the special abilities unlocked through conventional research. Don’t get me wrong, they are useful, but they do boring-yet-invaluable stuff like making your units cheaper or lowering their supply cost. I guess that because picking them up is entirely optional (and in a lot of cases very risky, as it involves an unnecessary jaunt into enemy territory) the developers didn’t want to lock off any of the really cool stuff and instead relegated them to having useful passive advantages that you could nevertheless probably survive without. At least the search for these Artifacts results in you never really getting resource-locked; my view is probably biased since I’m very familiar with how Homeworld works and how critical having a decent stockpile of resources is, but even though I erred on the side of caution and didn’t waste time mining out every single node I still ended up holding on to a huge surplus of raw materials until the very last mission of the campaign.
The campaign itself starts off really strongly, when everything is still limited in scope and Deserts has yet to lose that new-game shine. The focus on relatively small-scale engagements really helped things here, I think; for much of the early game you only have access to the three basic types of combat unit – LAVs, armoured vehicles and railguns — plus airstrikes from your Carrier (you build fighters like any other unit, but they’re called for a single limited attack much like the aircraft from Airland Battle or the Orcas from C&C) and the focus is very much on that clever positioning and use of abilities that I mentioned earlier. The terrain is made of up of the typical sand dunes you’d expect from a desert environment, but an interesting thing about Deserts is that there’s no such thing as “standard” ground level; those dunes constantly undulate up and down just as you’d expect a real desert to, and this makes taking advantage of the high ground mechanic – whereby high ground units get big passive bonuses when fighting enemies at a lower elevation than them — a little more interesting than it would be otherwise as you’re constantly jockeying for the best position to take advantage of it. Deserts is at its best when you have those small tracked/wheeled units screaming about the desert landscape, like it’s Homeworld crossed with Mad Max. The missions are relatively well-designed in such a way that each unit type can make a valuable contribution to the fray, and you can even think about getting your carrier involved too, as it is now an absolute beast in combat with the correct power settings.
Sadly it doesn’t last. I suppose it’s inevitable given that it’s such a literal one-to-one translation in many ways, but Deserts has the same problem as Homeworld in that once you unlock capital ships you render all smaller craft pretty much redundant. Why would I continue to piss about with a formation of LAVs or AAVs when a pair of Assault Cruisers has more firepower than twenty smaller vehicles put together? The game turns from the interesting tactical challenges of the early game to just blobbing things with a group of Battlecruisers, Assault Cruisers and Support Cruisers, and it’s unfortunate that this comes at roughly the same point as the mission design takes a noticeable dip in quality. The enemy AI is pretty dodgy at the best of times and it’s only because it spawns these preset formations of small craft that it seems in any way balanced at all, but once you give it cruisers any semblance of intent goes out the window. Take the penultimate mission, for example, which involves fighting a huge mess of enemy units that are just driving around randomly at the bottom of a crater. They make no real attempt to take you on en masse, but because there are so many of them there’s no really clever way to take them about without taking significant losses. This goes against all of the good points I mentioned earlier; there’s no tactics or smart use of abilities involved anymore and no real possibility of preserving forces in an intelligent way, and instead you’re just smashing your hard units into their hard units and hoping they die before you do.
I think this is the point where a space-based Homeworld has a definite advantage over its ground-based offspring; two groups of capital ships beating the shit out of each other may not have been particularly taxing as a gameplay concept, but it was spectacular to watch. Deserts is a good looking game in an understated sort of way, but its cruiser vehicles lack the elegance of design and the ion cannons of the Destroyer or the Heavy Cruiser of Homeworld and its cruiser vs cruiser engagements are ultimately no more entertaining than a tank rush in C&C. They’re about as awkward too, as the size of the cruisers mean Deserts’ significant issues with pathfinding are rudely brought to the fore. At least in 3D space a Destroyer couldn’t run into any obstacles and could path around other ships okay; here they get stuck doing fifteen point turns around small terrain features and each other, and have a nasty tendency to cluster up in exactly the sort of way that makes them terrifically vulnerable to enemy artillery/cruise missile strikes. If the early game has been specifically designed to make the most of Deserts’ good points, then the last 3-4 missions of the campaign show up its bad ones very effectively by boiling the game down to its most unpleasant elements.
That’s a huge shame, because I was very on-side for Deserts of Kharak during the first five hours I was playing it. It did a lot right, and despite copying so many concepts from Homeworld it introduced enough of its own to start building its own identity, especially since the atmosphere and sound design are almost as good as that of the original games. This made it all the more disappointing that it fell down so badly during the closing missions; the quality of everything seemed to dip rather noticeably and it was a definite chore to get through the last two hours of the game. It doesn’t feel anywhere near as polished as the first two-thirds, it closes things off with a very perfunctory ending that doesn’t do justice to the rest of the game’s efforts at world-building, and just generally feels like it was rushed to get it out the door for whatever reason. Also, while I do feel that Deserts does understand what makes Homeworld Homeworld, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same bleak beauty that was such a selling point for the original series. It definitely felt like there was something missing the whole time I was playing it, and I think all of that together knocks it down from my initial opinion of “Good” to a more qualified “Average with some good points”. Do buy it if you like Homeworld or are interested in seeing how it transitions to 2D, but otherwise I wouldn’t exactly rush to pick it up.
- Hamhanded foreshadowing ahoy! ↩