Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
January 20, 2016
The Homeworld Franchise has lain dormant for a long time, but Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak aims to change that. What originally began life as a spiritual successor set in the same universe called Hardware Shipbreakers has now become an integral part of the franchise as a prequel story to the original Homeworld. The key difference is that this game is set on the desert planet Kharak instead of in the vast reaches of space.
The first thing you will notice about Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is the sense of scale between the different unit sizes. While the game is based on land, you command the units as a fleet rather than an army. At the core of your fleet is the Carrier, which is the largest vessel in the game. This can produce all the smaller vehicles such as Light Attack Vehicles (LAVs), Armoured Assault Vehicles (AAVs) and Railguns in addition to different types of Cruisers and aircraft. There are also support units like Baserunners and gatherer units called Salvagers. The stark difference in the size of each unit was a notable characteristic of the original Homeworld and Deserts of Kharak delivers on that promise.
The core gameplay is the standard rock, paper, scissors formula of real-time strategy (RTS) games with the addition of tactical elements like Cruisers and Aircraft. The game is also designed to have the terrain play a part in battles with the advantage going to units on the higher ground. The combat in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is fast paced and will keep you on your toes. However, the AI can become rather predictable after a while making it easy to beat even on the Hard difficulty.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has its gameplay balance distributed in an interesting fashion; the core LAV, AAV, Railgun trio are perfect adherents to the rock, paper, scissors formula, but the different cruiser types can really disrupt this symmetry as can terrain effects. The strike fighters might seem a little overpowered against their counter, the Anti-air (AA) units, especially since one sortie of three fighters can harmlessly destroy an AA unit thanks to their longer range. Bombers seem to be very poor at targeting fast moving units and will circle around uselessly before returning to the carrier. They are highly devastating against slower units though and can tear through clustered groups. Gunships are great against lightly armoured and extremely slow moving targets, but not so much against AAVs. Curiously, the AI controls their aircraft poorly and will provide cannon fodder for your AA units.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak follows the story of the S’jet expedition carrier Kapisi to find and retrieve something called as the Primary Anomaly that lies in the heart of the great desert of Kharak. This is the event referred to at that start of the original Homeworld. It intertwines this with the personal stories of the carrier’s officers, especially the Science Officer Rachel S’jet. The campaign is designed to have fleet and resource persistence so that the player feels like a part of the expedition themselves and the difficulties of the following missions is influenced by actions in the current one. This persistence forces one to focus on maximising resource harvesting and minimising fleet causalities. It also adds a bit of replayablility to the campaign, though this is easily negated by the predictable AI. There is the option to use the default starting fleet for a mission if one chooses.
The capabilities of the Kapisi improve throughout the campaign by addition of new research options or recovery of artefacts of alien technology from salvaging wrecks. The layout of the campaign itself bears a stark resemblance to the original Homeworld. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak sadly trivialises the process of Shipbreaking and resource gathering to a few well-placed explosives.
There are two different resource types to collect in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, namely Construction Units or CUs that are in abundance and Resource Units or RUs that are scarce. While these can be found scattered around the game map, they may also be found from the explosive dismantling of spaceship wrecks that litter the deserts of Kharak. Salvagers that gather these resources must deposit them with Support Cruisers of the Carrier before they can be utilised. This makes it critical to defend one’s salvagers while also destroying the enemy salvagers with haste. Some wrecks may also contain an artefact that can bolster the capabilities of the Kapisi. The carrier itself has a unique power allocation system that can let you focus energy to its self-repair, armour, missiles and gun turrets. This can be useful when using it in an offensive or defensive role, though later in the campaign, you will be relying more on the aircraft and cruise missiles rather than the carrier itself or other ground units. The usable power is also restricted by the ambient temperatures and the efficiency of the Carrier’s cooling system.
While the Carrier is obviously a unit that must survive each mission, you are also tasked with ensuring the survival of the Science vessel of the protagonist Rachel S’jet. This unique Baserunner in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak can let you capture enemy vehicles, plant explosives on wrecks, collect artefacts and deploy sensors as well as EMP rounds. It also has the ability to repair itself and other vehicles in its proximity like the Carrier and Support Cruiser. These abilities are also acquired during the course of the campaign, making the player invested in the game.
Units that survive combat also gain experience that grants them veterancy up to five levels. Veteran units also get a commander name, though the selection pool for these is rather limited. Their effectiveness in combat also improves, but their hitpoints remain the same. Due to this one can easily lose early mission veterans to powerful units in later missions. This makes the system seem rather cosmetic rather than a gameplay addition.
Besides the 13 mission main campaign, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak offers a skirmish and multiplayer mode with units from the two factions, namely the Northern Coalition and the forces of Kiith Gaalsien. In terms of total content, the limited number of factions and maps feels a little on the short side, given the price of the game. The campaign should last some ten hours or more depending on your play style.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak sticks to the familiar control scheme of the Homeworld games and also has the actual view as well as sensor view modes of its predecessors. Even the unit markers are the same, despite the land based setting. One of the brilliant things about the unit design in the game is the great attention to detail. You can zoom in right down to individual units and see many details such as the unique way aircraft take off and land from the carrier, the way a new unit is manufactured within he carrier, the firing of individual turrets and so on. While the space combat in the original games involved trails of light, these have been replaced by tire trails in the sand. The only oversight perhaps is the lack of proper destroyed models of the larger vehicle classes. It’s also curious that destroyed units cannot be scavenged while the wrecks of crashed spaceships can. The detailed treatment also extends to the game world itself with sandy dunes and sharp rocks as well as small gusts of wind blowing around the sand.
Graphically speaking, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a showcase for the capabilities of the Unity engine, looking positively gorgeous even its drab, arid desert environments. One must laud the effort put by the developers into achieving this level of visual fidelity. Indian gamers will also find the tunes to have a native touch with chants of Sanskrit Shlokas amidst a musical score of instruments from Indian Classical Music. Some of the names in the game might seem familiar too. The sound effects are quite well done and the intermittent battle radio chatter of units adds to the immersiveness of the gameplay. The UI design borrows from the earlier games while updating it to modern standards. While there is no minimap, the sensor mode is highly functional as a replacement. In tense situations, you might find yourself playing primarily in this mode.
The Cutscenes in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak follow the painted art style of the original games, though they are now coloured rather than monochromatic. The game also has in-engine cutscenes that occur at pivotal mission points. Unfortunately, these cannot be skipped, though there is a bit of added randomness in their rendering due to the way the game’s AI is scripted as well as due to conditions in the game world itself.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak did suffer from a few bugs in my playthrough. The game crashed after extended play sessions. Units were missing in cutscenes at times. The game also froze for a bit at times. However, most of the time the game ran at a smooth 60fps with everything turned up to the max even on my Asus G551JK’s GTX 850M GPU. A minor gripe I had was the unskippable in-engine cutscenes and the inability to modify the control scheme. Loading times also seemed rather long even on my SSD powered gaming rig. Aircraft would occasionally hover around the carrier instead of landing if too many sorties were sent out at once and manual intervention was required to force them to land.
In conclusion, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a game that seems to have been on its own epic journey on the path to its release. The gameplay is great though the amount of content on offer seems a little less than what one might expect for the price. There are also a few trivialised gameplay opportunities, but all in all, this is a deserving return to the Homeworld franchise and a brilliant reimagination of the latter’s space combat mechanics in a land based environment.
+Fleet Persistence adds to the immersion
+Brilliant graphics and attention to Details.
-Control scheme can’t be changed
-Unskippable in-engine cutscenes
-Short on content