Games [1ST2H]: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Got a couple of hours to kill? Got a list of unplayed games you’ve been meaning to get around to? 1ST2H reports on the first two hours spent playing a new game.

Developer / Publisher: Blackird Interactive / Gearbox Software

Platform played / Year released: PC / 2016


This was an interesting one, as my write-up of the gameplay, at about the 1hr 45m mark, was going to be extremely negative. In a fit of muttered swearing I very nearly consigned the game to the shelf of doom, never to be played again. By the end of the two hours though, in an abrupt turnaround, I was actually very happy with it again.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is prequel to two earlier titles, Homeworld (1999), and Homeworld 2 (2003). I never played either of the predecessors, but gather that they were space-based strategy games, following a civilisation that seeks to reclaim its ancient home world. Deserts of Kharak goes back to the start of that odyssey, telling of how it came about. It is a ground-based Real Time Strategy game that came out in 2016, where the player controls an exploratory force of sci-fi vehicles in search of a mysterious object. Traversing giant desert-lands, they struggle for resources and fight enemies with a range of weapons and vehicles – all the time protecting their giant roving sand-crawler / aircraft carrier / base / manufacturing plant / headquarters.

Over the course of two hours I played through the tutorial and three missions, and started on a fourth. I could perhaps have got further if the game hadn’t been frustratingly merciless on the learning curve – elaborated on further below.

The original titles were developed by Relic Entertainment, formed in 1997. After Relic were purchased by THQ in 2004, who then went bankrupt in 2012, the rights were then picked up by Gearbox Software. Permission was given to Blackbird Interactive, formed by the original developers, to create a new title in the series. Although it wound its way through various acquisitions and woes, Deserts of Kharak has authenticity – Homeworld was the first title that the Relic team produced.

Even on normal difficulty, the game doesn’t go easy on you. The steady increase in complexity of commands and capabilities comes quickly – I barely survived even the second mission.

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Set on the sand-blasted desert world of Kharak, the well-produced introduction sets the scene. There are two conflicting peoples, fighting over limited resources as desert consumes the surface of a dying planet. One of the peoples, controlled by the player, has set out into the depths of the desert, hoping resolve their plight by retrieving an anomalous object they have discovered. Within this desert they must face the planet’s natives, who blame the player-controlled forces for the environmental collapse.

You, the player, must guide your sand-crawling aircraft carrier as it rumbles into the desert on giant caterpillar tracks. From within its mechanical depths, and as you find resources, you can manufacture many different war machines to aid you on your way.

If you are familiar with RTS games, then you will know the drill. You have to manage the map, monitor where your forces are as you inevitably split them, develop new technologies, combat threats, collect resources, hunt down objectives and balance need verses want.

What attracted me to Deserts of Kharak was the flavour of the story behind the game. I love that instead of the usual static home base you have a wandering force with a mobile HQ. I also liked that instead of having a foot soldier/infantry unit, even the smallest parts of your force are vehicle based. Each unit trades off on speed, strength, weaknesses, cost and purpose. The music, introduction, voiceovers, text and cut scenes produce a great aesthetic. Together they evoke the feel of a battered civilisation; one that is desperately racing into the harshness of an unforgiving desert, knowing it will have to fight for every mile.

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Alongside the unusual approach to the game’s forces there is another aspect at play in Deserts of Kharak that will take some getting used to. Being a desert, the terrain is filled with rocky outcrops and sand dunes. RTS games with 3D terrain are not unusual, but this game includes a high-ground / low-ground mechanic that confers power advantages to units that have favourable battlefield positions in the dunes. A wily player, I’m sure, could make very good use of this.

The thing that really hacked me off at first (finally, I got to it…), turned out to be a nice feature eventually. Each new mission carries over the units you had alive at the end of the last one, so if you did well you are in a good place for the next, but if you did badly… you’re in a bind. I had to play the third mission three times before I figured it was unbeatable with the few units I had to start. Un-skippable cut scenes added to the frustration of testing tactics before giving up.

Eventually I went back to mission two, completed that much more forcefully, and came back with a proper army to stomp all over mission three. What I hadn’t noticed, and I swear wasn’t flagged in the tutorial, is that you can start a re-run of a mission with a ‘default’ unit count should you be stuck like me.

I like that the game rewards a well-played mission in the next, punishing a badly played one, which forces you to consider unit survival rates. Once I understood this it was much more acceptable and bought me back in. But as there was no indication about this in the tutorial I had to work it out over a painful half hour.

After that, though, the game became great fun again. I actually went back to playing it for another hour or so that evening. I still lost the mission, or maybe it was mission five by then, but it was fun playing it and learning the ropes.

Peaceful sandy goodness. And probably, somewhere in it, someone who is going to shoot at me.

I gather the game has a multiplayer mode, and will look forward to playing through that too. I always used to like a Starcraft 2 kickabout with friends – I think it could be fun to see how skirmishes in Deserts of Kharak unfold when you are both roving around the map instead of the usual static bases.

Deserts of Kharak, for me, scratched an itch I had for a new RTS property, and aside from that brutal lesson in force/unit survival management, was a very enjoyable play. Something that was the same but different, delivering fresh sandy goodness right to the screen.

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