The original Homeworld and its sequel were, pun intended, light years ahead of their time. Massive fleets swarming in the 360-degree vastness of space were revolutionary for the real-time strategy world, but despite a few pretenders, nobody has been able to replicate the magic of the originals. Homeworld 3 was a rumor at one point, but from publisher closings to the breakup of the original team at Relic, sixteen years passed without hope.
After Relic Entertainment was acquired in 2007, several of the original Homeworld team left to form their own company: Blackbird Interactive. Their goal was to recreate the magic of Homeworld, even without the benefit of the name or backstory. Development began on a title called Hardware: Shipbreakers, which would be a spiritual successor to Homeworld. After the collapse of THQ, Gearbox acquired the rights to the Homeworld IP, and granted its use to Blackbird. The team immediately retooled Shipbreakers into a prequel to Homeworld, and thus Deserts of Kharak was born.
History lessons aside, the pressure on Blackbird Interactive is massive. The RTS world has changed dramatically in the last decade and a half, as have the expectations of the gaming in general. Homeworld was a fairly unforgiving game, but it was beautiful in its complexity. It also had an incredible musical score (including a track called Homeworld from the band Yes), looked gorgeous for its time, and picked up a mothership-full of Game of the Year awards. Big shoes to fill.
Deserts of Kharak takes place, as the name would suggest, in the deep desert of the planet Kharak. Over a century prior to the original Homeworld, the planet is being steadily consumed by the desert sands. War wages between the Kushan people (you’ll come to know them as the Hiigarans in Homeworld and Homeworld 2) and the Kiith Gaalsien — an exiled faction of the Kharakians. As the two tribes war over the scraps of a dying planet, a passing satellite spots some sort of wreckage in the Great Banded Desert. Using their massive land-carrier Kapisi, a science officer named Rachel S’jet (yes, a distant relative of that S’jet for those who have played the original game) sets out across the shifting sands to uncover this mysterious object.
If you’ve not picked up on it already, this game ties heavily with Homeworld and Homeworld 2. When the original Homeworld opening cinematic referred to an object being discovered 100 years ago, this is the event to which they are referring. Below you’ll find the tutorial to Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak to whet your appetite.
The music is very evocative of the originals, which comes as no surprise as Paul Ruskay returns to score it. It features a futuristic, otherworldly, semi-Middle Eastern sound mixed with a deep thrumming of electronic undertones. It’s also dynamic, becoming more percussive as enemies skirt the fringe of your sensors, and downright driving when combat is fully engaged. Similarly, units will be calm and collected, only reverting to harried shouts when clashing with the enemy. Put simply, there’s nothing else like it, and it is uniquely Homeworld. Haley Sales also turns in a fantastic delivery as Rachel S’jet, offering up an emotionally engaging performance. On the rougher side, there is some voice repetition for unit selection and movement, but that really is picking on something quite minor.
Shipbreakers, as you may recall, was the original name of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, before Blackbird teamed up with Gearbox to link it to the original property. No longer a spiritual successor, but a prequel proper, the Shipbreakers DNA is alive and well. As you uncover the secrets hiding amidst the mysterious wrecked ship hulls in the desert, you’ll commence “shipbreaking” operations to wrest free their secrets. Shipbreaking, as a concept, is based entirely in reality. In India, ships are run aground and salvaged in place, as scavenger teams descend upon it like locusts until there is nothing useful left; and when resources are this scarce, you can bet that you’ll be doing the same thing in Deserts of Kharak.
Below you’ll find the first mission for the game, showcasing movement and the gorgeous presentation.
Put simply, this wouldn’t be a Homeworld title without an incredible emphasis on multi-directional, high-speed combat. While Deserts of Kharak takes place on the planet surface, there is still a great deal of importance placed on vertical space. Terrain will be often be the deciding factor when two equal armies collide. As you roll through the dunes of Kharak, you’ll be able to see three levels of terrain. Having the high ground adds additional damage, as well as giving your longer-range fighters better sight lines to their targets. Your slower tanks will be able to use smoke to disrupt those sight lines, but mastery of your surroundings is paramount. Dunes can block a rail gun, but height can make a single piece of artillery deadly. Surprisingly, this use of terrain is exceptionally easy to master, changing the way I looked at potential choke points, defensive perimeters, or sensor placements. This simple concept pays homage to the Z-axis space combat in Homeworld, while simultaneously removing some of the complexity that might not have resonated with some players.
I do want to take a moment and put an emphasis on something — like the original, you need to pay attention to what your various units are capable of, as well as their special skills. In the first combat mission I was shocked when I saw the Game Over screen, having attempted to use my units as a blunt instrument. Rail guns sat at a distance and ripped my crew apart as I had expended all of my high-speed attack units, as well as the resources to replace them. Homeworld wasn’t particularly forgiving thanks to a specific mechanic: unit and resource persistence. Deserts of Kharak uses that same feature (though there is a ‘default squad’ option that will provide you with minimal starting units, if you need the help), meaning you’ll only have the units you’ve built to bring forward with you. A particularly bad combat engagement can truly endanger the remainder of the 13 single player missions.
There is a sense of desperation in Deserts of Kharak. Not unlike Battlestar Galactica’s first season, there is a feeling of constant pressure from the enemy. Coupled with constricted resources, there is always a feeling that you are on the edge of losing it all, and to a degree that’s true.
Deserts of Kharak is a graphical triumph. The cutscenes use a watercolor painting style that, in motion, lends a specific flavor to the game that feels hand-painted, yet alive. It captures the look and feel of Homeworld, but brings it up to modern standards. Given that the story events take place in the deserts of Kharak, you’d expect a great deal of brown in all directions. While that’s true, the dunes have a texture to them, and each unit features just enough color to break up the landscape. Behind your fast attack units you’ll see contrails of sand billowing behind them. Larger units lumber towards their objectives, providing a sense of their massive scale. When day shift to night, the lighting engine comes to life and showcases some fantastic work from Blackbird. Each units is meticulously detailed, and it’s hard to believe that it’s all delivered via the Unity engine, keeping the system requirements quite low. Every unit’s wheels articulate independently, undulating as they rip through the uneven ground and sand dunes. Mid-mission event cutscenes use in-game and rendered letterboxed moments to tell the story, staying in the moment and showcasing all of the incredible work the team put into every aspect of this game.
Below you’ll find the second mission in the game, showcasing the beautiful lighting work, and our first taste of unrelenting combat.
One thing that is a bit of a change is the removal of unit formations. Given that this iteration takes place on a 2D plane, it’s less critical, but the AI has also been beefed up to use your units more effectively. Tougher units will hold the front line, shielding softer units behind them, though it’s up to you to use the aforementioned terrain sections to your advantage. I did run into some difficulty with movement that can only be a bug with the movement in the game. Occasionally I’ll be assembling my units for an assault only to find that a unit I told to move has decided to stubbornly refuse. They’ll also occasionally back up for unknown reasons before they run forward, which can be dangerous when a layer of combat is applied. When they do move, occasionally they’ll chose the most dangerous path they could possibly make, leaving me to micromanage their path via waypoints to ensure I didn’t accidentally suicide my precious few units.
One thing that absolutely has not changed is the speed which combat is resolved. Fast attack units close distance quickly, rail guns take longer to fire but are devastating, and tanks move a bit faster and can take a hit as well as they deal one out. As before, your units gain veterancy throughout their life, so keeping them repaired and alive is critical. The Kapisi, your mobile base, turns into a devastating unit as well, as you discover and research new technologies. Repairing units nearby, constructing new ones, launching missiles, and even launching aircraft to commence bombing runs. If you enjoyed the classic Homeworld difficulty, but hated the way Homeworld 2’s scaling system punishes you for doing well, you’ll be happy with the balance in Deserts of Kharak.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak’s multiplayer comes in a couple of different configurations, the most compelling of which being Artifact Retrieval. Not a mode, per se, but a setting that can be enabled, it sets a 30-minute timer and asks players to retrieve a number of artifacts located on the map. Once secured, they have to get them to an extraction zone safely. Since they can only be moved by the slow-moving Baserunner, this is a challenge in and of itself. You can play 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3, with any configuration of AI or human players contained therein. The 30-minute timer puts a great deal of pressure on the player, ensuring that they don’t hide in their base, trying to build nothing but the most powerful units. Constant harassment with smaller units, chasing down enemy salvage rigs that have strayed too far from the protection of the carrier, and carefully executed bombing runs are the order of the day.
Shipping with the game are two 2-player maps, two 4-player maps, and one 6-player map. You can play these in skirmish mode if you are unconcerned with ladder play, or you can venture into the competitive space for ranked and unranked battle to fill the leaderboard.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
While Blackbird’s HD update of the original Homeworld titles may have shipped with a few nagging bugs, this original and inventive prequel reinvents the series in way I hardly even hoped could be possible. It’s fresh but familiar. It’s Homeworld, but it’s something new. Like its story-chronological successors, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is amazing -- there’s simply nothing else like it.