Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak – Grounded in History

After years of pleading by fans and the IP jumping between owners, the first new Homeworld game in more than twelve years has arrived…

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is Real Time Strategy game whose storyline works as a prequel set 106 years prior to the events of the first game. The planet Kharak is dying with desert conditions consuming the whole planet. The inhabitants are at war, fighting over scarce resources when satellites detect an anomaly on the surface. The only way to find out more is to send out an expedition into the Great Banded Desert to learn the truth…

The story plays out through animated cutscenes that are reminiscent of the earlier games but taken up a notch with an abundance of colour and style. Characters appear almost rotoscoped; an effect that was done well in the film A Scanner Darkly but here it takes on an almost painted quality that is just an amazing sight and makes each major cutscene something to look forward to.

Cutscenes in the game are often stunning and make you wish for more.

Cutscenes in the game are often stunning and make you wish for more.

In game graphics are powered by Unity and the engine holds up well delivering a great looking game that works well even on my old gaming notebook. As you can see in the screenshot below of the carrier Kapisi, your new “mothership” in Deserts of Kharak, there’s some impressive detail no matter what kind of rig you’re running it on.

With the focus on land battles in this game, you might be forgiven at first for thinking the game draws inspiration from similar titles in the genre. I certainly got a Command and Conquer vibe at first when first seeing buggies scooting over dunes. But once you take command of the Kapisi and begin throwing it into battle, it quickly begins to feel like Homeworld again.

Combat in three dimensions has its own spin here in the vein of games like Total Annihilation in that terrain elevation offers units advantages during battle that will either increase or reduce their chances of victory. Maps are varied enough in that being aware of the terrain and the capabilities of your units can help you in difficult situations.

Though early on you may not face too many of those situations as the default difficulty won’t slow you down too much at the start of the game. Even the series feature of carrying units over from mission to mission won’t impact you much to begin with which may make you wonder if it’s actually there or not.

But the deeper you go the more likely you are to find yourself losing more units than you can produce and then the punishment begins. But in case you find yourself in a bind with your units, there is an option to start a mission with the recommended set up to help keep you progressing through the game. It’s a nice feature to have for those keen on playing through and not be forced to repeat earlier levels just to satisfy resource requirements.

The land based carrier Kapisi, your new (or old) mothership.

The land based carrier Kapisi, your new (or old) mothership.

Controls and UI are close enough to what appeared in last year’s Homeworld Remastered Collection to make long time fans comfortable with the new game. The design has been refined a more here with a minimalist focus relying more on icons than text. It takes some getting used to but does leave more screen real estate for those pretty visuals.

And though the environments amount to mot much more than desert with the occasional hill or craggy rock face there’s enough there for the mood to be set by the story and service the game as well. Units are well designed and fit both the Homeworld aesthetic whilst also moving on a fairly believable fashion on the terrain. During battle the explosions are something special with some realistic looking effects hitting home every unit lost.

Paul Ruskay is back again on sound duties for the game – this time around I get the impression that the soundtrack is less of the focus this time as the ambient noise takes centre stage. It works extremely well too; though the previous games did have a lot a unit chatter too, in Deserts of Kharak it comes across as much more natural. I was actually enjoying hearing it as I played as it does a great job of instilling the feeling that you are in charge of people and not nameless units.

There’s one gripe I have with the controls and it’s with how sensitive the camera’s panning movement can become. One wrong placement of your mouse cursor and your viewpoint will shoot off and be a pain to stop and also troublesome to get back under control. It’s not a game breaking thing but if it happens in the middle of a tough battle a few mice might be thrown against walls in frustration.

The game is definitely not short on atmosphere.

The game is definitely not short on atmosphere.

The game also supports online multiplayer, allowing you the opportunity to test those skills against your friends. It’s a feature of these games that I don’t often dive into but I appreciate the work that has been done – RTS multiplayer is a great alternative to twitch friendly shooters in allowing players a different kind of opportunity to test their skills against others.

Despite the many years between games, it is great to see just how much Blackbird Interactive have strived to deliver a game that truly feels like it is a part of the Homeworld franchise. Certainly having a team that includes some of the original game’s developers can help but it still requires the team to have an almost single minded devotion to sticking to both the source material and the game mechanics and they’ve done a marvellous job of it.

I really hope this is going to be a taste of the future – just the thought of a “Homeworld 3” with more of those gorgeous cinematics just makes me want to throw down another chunk of money on a preorder…

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is available now on PC via the Steam marketplace.

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