We’ve been reporting on this game extensively for the last two-and-a-half years. The story behind Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is one of those rare industry fairy-tales, albeit one with an ending that would only be revealed once the game’s credits start to roll. Beginning life as Hardware: Shipbreakers, what started out as very obvious Homeworld homage by a new indie team (made up of many of the original Homeworld creators), turned into a fully-fledged Homeworld prequel thanks to some generous IP sharing, and funding on behalf of Gearbox Software.
If you’ve been following this game’s development, then you likely know the story. But, as heart-warming as it all is, it was yet to be seen whether Blackbird’s new-but-not-new baby ended up as something to be proud of.
I’ve been a fan of the Homeworld series for years, and I’ve spent the last week playing through this Deserts of Kharak prequel. I’ve adored every moment of it.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is probably the best new RTS to come out since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. It’s a Homeworld game through-and-through; that much is obvious even without the game’s prefix titling. Unit chatter over muffled comms channels, vehicle design, the musical score, and even an identical Sensors Manager (zoomed-out tactical map) are all straight out of Homeworld. Only, there’s no space… just lots of sand. I’ve seen people describing Deserts of Kharak as “Homeworld with sand”. I prefer describing it as I originally did back in 2013: it’s like Dune 2 and Homeworld had a baby. A glorious, thrilling, sandy little baby.
Being a prequel, Deserts of Kharak fleshes out the story that we’re told at the beginning of the original Homeworld. Rachel S’jet of the Kiith S’jet clan is on a race into the heart of the Great Banded Desert of the planet Kharak. There, in a place referred to as Khar-Toba, a massive energy signal has been detected, which the Coalition of the Northern Kithiid tribes has dubbed the “primary anomaly”. Kharak, you see, is littered with wrecked ships of unknown origin, and many of those ships hold very advanced artefacts that need to be salvaged in order to further the technologies of a tribe. You can see where the game’s original title of “Shipbreakers” came from. The Primary Anomaly is meant to be the Holy Grail of tech, and one that will help the Kiithid people escape the dying world of Kharak. The only problem is the Gaalsien tribe: an exiled group of religious zealots that are out to stop Rachel and her expedition from reaching the Primary Anomaly. Lots of explosions, smoke, and desert dust ensue across 13 missions.
Deserts of Kharak maintains the Homeworld formula of fleet management instead of base building. Units remain with you from mission to mission, as do the resources you’ve collected. Instead of a Mothership we have an enormous Command Carrier called the Kapisi. The Kapisi serves as your main production facility, and doubles as an aircraft carrier for your three types of squadrons. (I loved the game’s aerial units and ended up using them the most.) The Kapisi can also have a number of systems turned on or off depending on what role you want it to play at any given time. You get a finite number of Reserve Power points to pump into four sub-systems: Reactive Armour, Repair Systems, Turret Network, and Range Systems. The more Reserve Power points you allocate to a specific sub-system, the more effective that sub-system becomes. So, for example, you might pump a bunch of Reserve Power into Range Systems, which will make your deployed turrets and AA batteries increase their fire range. Alternatively you can place points into the Turret Network, which will turn the Kapisi into a war machine, capable of firing missiles and cannons at both ground and air targets. It’s a very slick system that makes your Command Carrier more versatile and a lot of fun to use. Furthermore, inside some of the wrecks you encounter on Kharak, you’ll find various artefacts that add permanent, passive buffs to the Kapisi and your other units. This means that spotting a wreck in the desert often results in you diverting your attention away from specific mission objectives, in order to crack open the wreck’s hull to see what treasures lie inside.
Sticking with upgrades, as the campaign progresses you’ll get access to further research add-ons for your various unit types. Each unit has about four different upgrades, and this means that even the lowliest Light Attack Vehicle remains relevant as the campaign continues. Unit veterancy also plays a role, and Deserts of Kharak probably has the best application of this RTS staple that I’ve ever seen. There are five levels of veterancy for your units to gain, and with each rank they get a tangible perk that really makes a difference. For example, once your Railgun tanks reach the maximum veterancy level, they get a +100% range boost, making them some of the most effective units in the game. This resulted in me really looking after my units, and I had a group of LAVs that were with me throughout all 13 missions. Sadly, they met their demise in the final assault, but boy did they go out fighting.
The 13 missions that make up the game’s campaign are rather varied in their objectives, and there were numerous moments of fantastic atmosphere and some rich lore on display. Some of the stand-out missions see you defending an allied Command Carrier as the two of you make your way through a narrow canyon while two enemy Carriers attack. The game’s final mission is also satisfying, with a payoff at the end that is sure to make any Homeworld fan get instant goosebumps.
I did experience a couple of bugs here and there. Unit clipping issues are pretty big, with tanks driving through other tanks when paths collide. Newly built units also seem to hop out of the Kapisi as if they’ve been spawned in mid-air, and on one occasion I loaded a new mission only to have my Command Carrier fall out of the sky and bounce down into the desert sands. It had no effect on my game, but it looked ridiculous. Finally, the game’s Railgun tanks are probably the buggiest as they can occasionally shoot straight through the terrain to hit targets on the other side of a dune. It’s not exactly common enough for one to exploit, but it is noticeable.
Once you’re done playing through the excellent campaign, there is a skirmish mode with five maps to keep you occupied. You can choose to play as the protagonist Coalition forces, or the Gaalsien enemy forces. Multiplayer is also an option, but I battled to find any games in the matchmaking system. The Public Games list was also empty, as were the Leaderboards that only displayed five player names. It’s safe to say that online multiplayer in the game will be hit and miss, but luckily you can set up private games between you and your Steam friends.