As the Kushan left Kharak seeking vengeance and a new homeworld, all that was left of the planet that had been their home for millennia was a molten ball. It was foretold and forewarned over the ages, but memories dulled over time, so that 100 years prior to the events of Homeworld, the Coalition of the Northern Kithid sent expeditions deep into enemy territory to uncover the anomaly that would send their entire race on this path.
There’s a lot of little story hooks, names and references which will ring true to fans of the original two Homeworld games, from mentions of Sajuuk to Rachel S’jet being a main character – presumably one of Karan S’jet’s ancestors. Even with the series’ shift from space to land battles, Blackbird Interactive have managed to capture a lot of the overall feel of the Homeworld series.
The land carrier Kapisi is analogous to the Mothership from the originals, for example, with all of the resource collection, research and production facilities to host a self sufficient fleet. It’s slow to move though, and vulnerable to assault, so it’s up to the lighter vehicles and cruisers to be on the front lines in battle, with classes and roles which roughly conform to those of the originals. Even the tactical map and its familiar sound returns, giving you a larger overview of the battle on a blue backdrop.
However, this isn’t just retreading the same ground. You now have to try to be aware of the height of the terrain and make good use of this when attacking or defending, while resource gathering sees you having to plant charges and break the mysterious wrecks of ancient ships open – the game was originally subtitled Shipbreakers for a reason. The Kapisi is also a more offensive tool, and you can ‘shunt’ power back and forth between armour, repairing nearby units and short and medium ranged weapons. She’s also an aircraft carrier, letting you launch fighter and bomber attacks that quickly become a crutch during some of the more heated battles.
The story often sees you accompanied or launching attacks at the same times as your fellow Coalition land carrier, Sakala, bringing to mind the Battlestar Galactica story arc featuring the Battlestar Pegasus. It helps add something to the campaign, to know that there’s a friendly ship that could be on the way to help you battle against the seemingly more advanced Caalsien fleets, even if you can generally just take your time and gradually work forward. There are a handful of genuinely quite tricky battles across the 7-8 hour run, even on normal difficulty, but it’s always putting you in different scenarios that feel fresh.
The same can be said of the fairly minimal multiplayer. It’s here that you can play as the Caalsien properly, instead of just hijacking and capturing their ships in the campaign, and the minor points of difference are quite interesting to see, with faster, nimbler hover ships, cruisers that can produce smaller craft, and more advanced railgun tech that can be a powerful tool in battle.
While there’s just five maps at launch, which range from two to six players, the Artefact Retrieval victory condition really mixes things up. Three artefacts spawn in the middle of the map on a regular basis, with each side fighting to take them to a specific delivery point. It focuses the fight around those points, but also pushes you to be more proactive right from the very start.
A criticism oft levelled at the Homeworld Remastered Collection by fans of the original game was that, by rebuilding the first game within the second game’s engine, they lost the tactical nuance of being able to set formations and have the ships stick to those formations for effect, instead of flying around willy-nilly. That might seem to be nitpicking, but outside of vehicles set to guard another doing so in a cute circular fashion, Deserts of Kharak removes formations entirely, and its effect is felt on the tactical options open to you.
One of the great things about the sweeping bluffs and dunes of the deserts and sandy wastelands is that you can quite effectively use height and cover to your advantage. For a defensive position, you could line long range railguns along the ridgeline, with the shorter ranged vehicles just behind it kept safe and out of view. Or at least, that would be the plan, but a group of vehicles will always line up in rows of increasing size, all moving at their own maximum speed instead of sticking together – so your LAVs will take a pummelling before the rest of the group arrives – and you can’t even tell them to face a particular direction. It’s easier to simply not bother.
While the art direction is excellent, with two well thought out faction designs and environments within the vast deserts that still feel unique, the overall presentation is lacking. Look closely – and cutscenes will often force you to do so – and you see the low polygon counts, some of the blurry textures, vehicles happily driving through one another, and so on. Yet it can surprise you with moments of sheer scale or beauty, which had me tilting the camera and hastily taking a screenshot, or cutscenes which can occasionally look like gorgeous rotoscoped animation.
Though it lacks some of the nuance and complexity to make the most of some of its ideas, Deserts of Kharak captures the essence of the Homeworld series. Fans of the classic originals will find a familiar form of real time strategy adapted to a new setting, and telling another tale of a lonely carrier fighting through to its destination against the odds.