Developer: Blackbird Interactive
Publisher: Gearbox Software
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
As I said in my Homeworld: Remastered review, I am unapologetically a Homeworld fanatic, and nerdgasm even at the thought of anything related to the franchise from artbooks to lore hidden behind a paywall. Unfortunately, HW:R could have been a masterpiece, but merely managed to be a gorgeous yet flawed product. Bugs, a multiplayer beta that has been in purgatory seemingly forever, and questionable core gameplay changes prevented HW:R from ascending into greatness, though it did help contribute to reviving a genre that was dying.
The most cynical fans would speculate that the sole purpose of HW:R was to generate hype for the franchise in preparation for the release of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, formerly known as Homeworld: Shipbreakers, and even before Gearbox gave Blackbird Interactive, a company founded in 2007 comprised of former members of Relic Entertainment’s (Homeworld, Homeworld 2, Dawn of War, Company of Heroes) rights to the Homeworld IP in 2013, the game featured in this review began as a 2010 F2P project called Hardware(: Shipbreakers). In a way, the skeptics are correct: a skeleton crew at Blackbird Interactive is still working on HW:R to make it the game that fans expected it to be (shout-out to dev BitVenom’s generosity with his time on the forums). Meanwhile, Deserts of Kharak has been released in the shadow of January after the Christmas rush. The equivalent of the original 100-plus page Homeworld Instruction manual, the Deserts of Kharak Exhibition Guide, and the entirety of HW:R were given away for free as preorder bonuses. Yet I do not consider any of this problematic. Gearbox and Blackbird appear to be “all in,” and I look forward to what will be considered HW:R “Reborn” (to be revisited in Backloggery Beatdown). Likewise, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak looks to be a labor of love.
Kharak is dying.
300 years of religious warfare has wreaked havoc on the planet, placing its inhabitants, the Kushani people, on the brink of extinction. It would be hundreds of years after Kiith (clan) Naabal’s intervention to end the wanton destruction before Kiith S’jet would introduce the XenoGenesis Theory to the Kushan governing body, providing the thousand-years elusive proof that no person is biologically native to the planet. This raised many questions; namely, from where did they come?
A satellite that was launched to explore near space fails, and instead scans the planet. By sheer serendipity, an anomaly is detected in the Great Banded Desert—territory of the zealous Gaalsian—and is codenamed the Jaraci Object. It is unlike any technology that the sum total of all the northern Kiithid—Manaan, Naabal, Soban, Somtaaw, S’jet, and Paktu—have ever seen. They pool their resources, creating the Coalition, which engineers the first land-based Ifriit-class Heavy Carrier, the Ifriit-Naabal. Years pass, and contact with this first carrier is lost. The Coalition, desperate to discover something that will save the entire race, endows a second expedition, and makes improvements to the previous Ifrit-class Heavy Carrier by manufacturing a series of five Sakala-class carriers hastily after Kiith Siidim’s first production, the Sakala itself. Kitth Gaalsien feels threatened by the ambitions of their northern northern brethren, and assaults their bases directly. Only the Sakala and Kapisi survive, the latter of which players take control of during the launch of its maiden voyage from Epsilon Base.
This is the story of the expedition led by Rachel S’jet, leading discovery of the Khar-Toba and the salvation of the Kushani, 100 years before the events seen in the original Homeworld.
Violence: People die, but blazes alloys and such. Every unit in Deserts of Kharak is mechanical.
Spiritual Content: The aesthetics and lore of the Homeworld franchise is heavily derived from a Middle Eastern orientation, which I find refreshing. However, there seems to be a sort of political regression in Deserts of Kharak. The Gaalsien (the “bad guys”) maintain hijab not only for its practical use in protection from desert exposure, but also to contrast their ostensibly antiquated and detrimental ways and beliefs from those of the northern Kiithid whose views appear progressive and modern.
The meta-commentary on the conflict between, or co-existence of, science and religion is unmistakable, but it is up to the player to draw conclusions. Deserts of Kharak appears to say that neither actually ever prevails: though the Coalition must defeat the Gaalsien to “win” the game, the Gaalsien’s final words concerning the wrath of Saajuk—to them, a god, but to Homeworld 2 players, we know it is a moon-sized ship—descending upon Kharak comes to pass, but not as they once thought. The Taiidan empire would claim 300 million lives in the Burning of Kharak after the Kushan test hyperspace for the first time. With their planet destroyed, the Kushan had no choice but to make their pilgrimage to Higara: science and faith, hand-in-hand.
The Homeworld series has favored an RTS with RTT tendencies. Scouting for and maintaining a secure resource collecting operation has remained a key component to victory, but rather than base building, all units are produced from a few key vessels such as a mothership, carrier, or shipyard. There is only a land carrier in Deserts of Kharak, and for what it lacks in glory and majesty compared to the Pride of Higara, the Kapisi packs the kind of punch that will make fans of Homeworld: Cataclysm swoon with nostalgic memories of the Somtaaw’s mining vessel-turned warship Kuun-Lan. Indeed, one of the key defining features of Deserts of Kharak is that land cruisers such as the Kapisi can be used defensively and offensively. Players must judiciously manage the ship’s onboard accoutrements—including armor, repairs, weapons, and sensors—lest the cruiser’s reactor overheat, causing collateral damage and worse. The higher any combination of appurtenances are set, the more potent they becomes, yet this also destabilizes the land cruiser’s reactor.
Players can mitigate reactor meltdowns to their land cruisers by discovering artifacts among the ship wreckages on the map. It is from this mechanic of “shipbreaking” this is from whence Deserts of Kharak earned its name during the early days of development. One should think about shipbreaking in ways similar to venturing out and creating a resource expansion while fighting neutral camps to find items in Warcraft III. Failure to do so means certain death, for the benefits of artifacts are not limited to land cruiser reactors; they can increase unit caps, render units more cost or battle efficient, augment the land cruiser’s sensors for an improved range of vision, and more. Wreckages will have to be pursued aggressively or it will be the lethargic player who gets…wrecked.
Gone is Homeworld’s notorious z-axis, because Deserts of Kharak takes place on land. Instead, the scope of tactics has been modified into elevation variances. The way in which the movement grid is colored depending on the altitude of the land traversed is a feature that is introduced in the early missions of the game alongside their purpose: units placed on higher elevations gain bonuses, indicated by a “+” next that unit. What these bonuses are—defensive, offensive, range—I do not know exactly, but determining the impact of a unit’s line of sight is immediately palpable. Broken lines representing a unit’s inability to fire on a target due to impeded vision incentivises players to proactively move their units around to flank or gain elevation advantage. It is particularly effective to place rail guns or artillery cruisers on elevation.
While I feel that the effective unit variety in Deserts of Kharak is lacking compared to past HW games, their versatility reminds me of that seen in Red Alert 3, where every unit is specialized and features a unique secondary ability. Should the enemy fortify themselves on elevation where there are only a few uphill paths, one can scout with a baserunner’s probe to see the entrenchment, and use AAV (Armored Assault Vehicle) smokescreens to march uphill for a face-to-face; LAVs (Light Assault Vehicle) can then run down enemy railguns with their boost ability as they evade return fire while friendly railguns can weaken enemy armor with their sunder ability as the AAVs “tank” damage. Or, it may be possible to send a strike fighter squadron or a couple bombers to take out any AA before sending in a gunship that flies low like an A-10 Thunderbolt but hits like a Lockheed AC-130 in its circling patterns.
I am most likely spoiled by the imba-tier battlecruisers in Homeworld 2, yet I feel that the cruiser tier is somewhat lacking in Deserts of Kharak. They feel similar to those found in Homeworld 1 when they were formidable but not invincible, and could could be overwhelmed by a wall of ion cannons. The high cost, plodding speed, and high armor makes battlecruisers in Deserts of Kharak better fit for defense than a front-line fighter like the AAV, especially because the AI locks onto low-hp units, and the slow, expensive battlecruiser likely bites the dust. Assault Cruisers are more versatile in mobility and special abilities like self-healing and missiles at the cost of armor and firepower but not price. The meta will have the last say, but gone are the days when a fleet could rely exclusively on top tier units.
This is especially true when taking into consideration the veterancy system. Former Relic Entertainment employees at Blackbird Interactive will likely cringe when I say that the veterancy in Deserts of Kharak is again, more akin to Command & Conquer than Company of Heroes. Veteran units in this game benefit from scrupulous commanders in ways more memorable than any other recent RTS in memory. Remember being able to dock a fleet of strike craft comprised of a single bomber and re-launching it as a full squadron after repairs in Homeworld 2? Deserts of Kharak manages to create a similar sensation in unit preservation by rewarding players for effective micro with units that can increase their potency exponentially.
“Epic“ is currently one of the most overused words in the English language, but no other word is more accurate in singularly capturing the scale of a space battle between strike fighters, corvettes, frigates, and cruisers. I manages to effectively capture the marvel of neo-space-aged warfare dilapidated from several millennia-worth of an entire galaxy’s wrath incurred by the hubris of some forgotten ancestor. The crude but effective arsenal of the Coalition expresses the nascence of clans who hunger for answers long inaccessible, long denied. The sleek style of the Gaalsian cadre betrays their fanatical dedication to preserving the sacred, for how do they possess such advanced machinery without having tasted of fruit hidden in the Great Banded Desert? Pardon the prose; I was lost for a moment in the Homeworld lore and could have just as easily said that the Coalition and Gaalsians are basically like Command & Conquer’s GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod from their faction themes right down to their default color palettes.
Of all the terrains known in the gaming universe, desert is my most hated, yet Blackbird Interactive has managed to mesmerize me. Deserts are dry not only in humidity, but also scenery—no blades of grass dancing to the wind or waves crashing at sea. Yet there’s something playful about Coalition LAVs skating circles across sand as if it were ice while Gallsian Sandskimmers perform exactly as their name indicates, like a basilisk lizard across water. Sprinkled about the mountains and dunes are ships preserved as if embalmed, providing a break from the barren. However, As armies grow and include larger units that reduce those LAVs and Sandskimmers almost into dots, the limitations of the UI become detrimental to the experience. The speed of the camera scroll is slow, and the zoom does not pan far enough to capture all of the action before forcing players to use the sensor radar. Even in small to intermediate skirmishes, too many cursors and symbols around units obfuscate the details of battle. There should be an option to turn those rhombuses and parallelograms off.
My 13 month-old PSU died died during my review playthrough, forcing me to finish the game on a computer I built for my kids, powered by my old 8800GT rather than my 970GTX. For what I gave up in resolution and texture quality, I did not gain in FPS. Thus, the optimization in Deserts of Kharak is inconsistent. There were times when I could run at a smooth 60 fps and then the game would inexplicably drop to 30 FPS when a fight breaks out despite the fact that on a prior or subsequent map, with even a larger number of units, the framerate does not dip. I am puzzled and annoyed by this.
Paul Ruskay returns as the franchise’s composer, which might excite some fans. I found the Deserts of Kharak soundtrack highly derivative. The only songs I can remember are those which were sampled from previous tracks in the series. Where the game shines in the audio department, however, is the voice chatter during combat, particularly Haley Sales as Rachel S’Jet. She’s a scientist doing scientific things like scouting and shipbreaking like any other curious scientist would do except that she just so happens to be female. Whenever her baserunner comes under fire, the tone of her voice changes in such a compelling fashion that I felt shamefully implicated in the creepy Laura Croft controversy from Tomb Raider 2012. I wanted to get Rachel the heck outta there for reasons beyond her death resulting in a critical mission failure, but couldn’t explain except that her voice willed me in such a way that I felt reloading would be inadequate, and that a real person (would have) died. I’ve played through games like Talletale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain with the stoicism of Batman, but Sales’ Rachel had me placing top-tier veteran units on the frontline to save her. Well done; various unit chatter is comparably notable.
Just two years ago, Homeworld was dead. In that time, we have been given two games. What a time it is to be a fan of RTS! Despite a lengthy list of issues that might annoy players such as the inability to rebind keys, a dearth of multiplayer maps, or potential potholes, Blackbird Interactive has successfully developed a worthy contribution to the Homeworld franchise with Deserts of Kharak, a game whose strengths encourage me to overlook its shortcomings. Considering Blackbird’s active efforts to improve its products, I am confident that the IP will only improve going forward.
The Bottom Line
Despite a lengthy list of issues that might annoy players such as the inability to rebind keys, a dearth of multiplayer maps, or potential potholes, Blackbird Interactive has successfully developed a worthy contribution to the Homeworld franchise with Deserts of Kharak.