Version reviewed – PC
I should probably start this off by saying that I’m new to Homeworld. But if Deserts of Kharak is anything to go by, I really, really want to play the other games in the franchise.
Not like the trailers either
Before actually playing Deserts of Kharak, all I knew of it was what I saw in the trailers. So, the gameplay footage below, with all the camera panning and the units zooming about on the battlefield suggested that it was a super-fast, high-speed RTS. Essential, Starcraft with desert maps. Blessedly, that was not the case.
For reference, before I move forward, here’s a trailer.
The actual experience of Deserts of Kharak, as it was in my 16 hour playthrough, was a slow, measured, cautious exercise in map domination. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an RTS this much.
Not like other RTSes, either
Most of the RTSes that I’ve played – Warhammer 40k, C&C, Starcraft, Warcraft, the Age games – involve an abundance of resources, buildings that pump out unit after unit, which you hurl repeatedly at the enemy until they’re dead or you’re broke. Then there’s the Total War sort of game, which is a different type of RTS altogether – you move massive armies around, get into huge, sprawling battles, and generally enjoy the feeling that comes with the spectacle of war in all its terrible glory.
I was quite surprised, therefore, as I moved further and further along in the campaign, to realise that Homeworld felt like a type of RTS unto itself.
Resources on each map are scarce, which means if you lose all of your units, you might be able to rebuild the entire lot once. Maybe. Those of your units that survive combat gain experience, improving their damage and health, making it worth your while to protect them as best as you can. And, perhaps most importantly, you take your fleet forward with you across missions, which means that every unit that survives one mission is available to you at the start of the next.
That last point may not seem like a very big deal, but it made an enormous difference to my involvement with the game. Knowing that my fleet would continue with me meant I couldn’t be reckless. It made me think about using the map to my advantage – something I have never done in any other RTS simply because I never felt the need – and pay more attention to the map and enemy positions than I have in any other game in the genre.
Losing even a single unit – especially the experienced ones – were all cringeworthy moments, with me immediately re-examining my formations and unit positioning to see if I could create some sort of advantage for myself.
Consider the screen below for an excellent example.
The carrier in the basin below needed to be taken out. And I had three potential approaches. The one I took, northwest on the map, had a steep enough incline to guarantee me the high ground for the bulk of the engagement – elevation confers bonuses against ones on the low ground. And vision was pretty poor from the low ground, which meant I’d have time enough to set up my unit positions.
I started by taking out enemy sensors across the perimeter of the basin with airstrikes, so units coming up wouldn’t be able to see as far as my units on the high ground. And then, I brought three groups down. Railguns in the front; a small group of tanks and anti-air to the left, and a bunch of cruisers at the back. Anti-air was on the left because, when the carrier swung to my left, there was a good chance it would launch an airstrike at either my railguns or the carriers and I needed something to intercept. Railguns in front to deal the bulk of the damage and my cruisers – with four long-range artillery cruisers – hammering down from the back line.
It worked like a charm. I lost four, maybe five railguns in all, called down airstrikes to dish out additional damage, and watched in unabashed glee as the carrier was smashed into tiny bits.
Very nearly all of the battles in Deserts of Kharak play out like this. You look for a decent vantage points, study enemy movements on the map, and slowly take out a few small groups, while moving towards your objective. It felt incredibly tactical the entire time and, not until Deserts of Kharak, have I really felt like the General of an army at all times – when wins feel cleverly achieved and losses, even of single units, actually hurt.
There’s no minimap, by the way
As a brief aside, the absence of a minimap was weird initially, but as I started to get a sense of the size of the maps and the importance of understanding enemy positioning and my own units’ vision, I fell in love with the sensors manager. It’s essentially a stripped down version of the map, showing elevation, vision, and either approximate or exact enemy positions on the map, along with representations of your own units.
The screen up top features a map with three possible approached to the objective. Two from the south and one from the north, with a number of choke points. The advantage of the high ground was entirely to the enemy there, because I was always climbing up – which meant that I needed to get creative. I planned my route, sneaking along the right and slowly climbing upwards, sending baserunners ahead to deploy sensors – giving my artillery vision for bombardments. When enemies moved out of position to respond to my attacks, railguns and tanks were waiting for them.
And since I could give units orders in the tactical view, I used it as much as the regular view of the game, to control unit positioning and react to what the enemy was doing when I needed to.
Sound is flat out extraordinary
I don’t think I’ve ever quite realised how much of an impact sound can make in a game. None of the strategy games that I’ve played in the past have made me feel quite as involved in and aware of battle as Deserts of Kharak did.
For the first time in an RTS, I was actively listening to everything that came out of my speakers and reacting to feedback from units. Hearing that an airstrike was incoming, for example, meant moving anti-air in the path of the aircraft to intercept. Hearing that hostile armour had been spotted meant switching to the tactical view and looking for a red blip, so I could send out strike craft to wear them down before they came in range of my cruisers.
And, finally, the story is excellent
Even without context into the Homeworld games, I loved it. The voice acting is stellar; the narration at the start and end of each mission felt real, in a very extraordinary way. Characters felt remarkably human, their task a genuine struggle. Each successful mission, moving closer to the game’s end, was as much an emotional victory as anything else, because I really did start to root for the Kapisi – the carrier that you control in Deserts of Kharak – and her crew.
So, to sum this up…
The only problem I had with the game was a lack of insight into the factions themselves – the Gaalsien were fascinating, as were the Coalition of the Northern Kiithid. I would have loved the opportunity to learn more of their backgrounds and motivations, and the history of their conflict on Kharak. But that’s a minor niggle, really, because I was pretty invested in the Deserts of Kharak with all of the information that I had.
And I finally get what all the fuss is about. I’ve heard (or read) an overwhelming about of enthusiasm for the original Homeworld for ages now and I finally understand. Deserts of Kharak may not be set in space, but it is a broad, sweeping epic – a genuinely moving story of a desperate expedition into an unforgiving desert, and the perhaps the finest example of real-time strategy that I’ve ever been able to experience.
In a way, I’m glad there aren’t any RTSes on the horizon that I might be playing, because whatever comes next is going to have a hell of a time matching up.
This is, easily, one of the best games – not just one of the best strategy games, but one of the best games – that I’ve had the opportunity to play in my life.