Resurrecting a classic is never an easy task, especially when it comes to changing just about everything while staying true to the original. Abandoning the cold battlefields of the void and story of the Kushan exiles, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak looks at first glance like a bad spin-off, the sort of thing that will be remembered as Homeworld in name only. However, the moment you scratch the surface, you soon find a game made by a developer extremely loyal to the lore and ideas that made the original series into a beloved icon.
Set almost a century prior to the original game, the story depicts the saga, which led to the Kushan kiths uniting and taking to the stars once more. Trapped in a state of perpetual war on their decaying planet, the Kushan people seem to have resigned themselves to annihilation. However, news comes to a coalition of northern clans of a new anomaly deep within the desert, one which might change their very world and offer them a chance at survival.
While there might be considerably more sand and not nearly as many stars, it doesn’t take long to see how many of the old Homeworld ideas have endured here. You once again command a mobile mothership (well, carrier) serving as a supply base and factory for your forces, a renegade faction of religious zealots is hell bent upon your destruction, and units carry over from one mission to the next. Even the HUD itself shows clear visual cues of past releases, with many of the same sigils and icons, picking out your units from across the map and allowing for easy control. However, this isn’t simply a hashed out remake on a 2D plane, and it doesn’t take long to see where Blackbird Interactive built upon old ideas.
The foremost change present is that the carrier doesn’t simply wallow in the background, occasionally squirting out the odd fighter. Instead, the player is expected to use them as a more mobile and more openly offensive base of operations, advancing rapidly towards the enemy lines and shunting power between various options. Knowing when to focus upon armour, repairing nearby units or long and short range weapons is key to your success, and it brings a very Cataclysm feel to the game. Influences from Starcraft and Grey Goo are also keenly felt, with an emphasis placed upon working with high and lower ground. As you’re fighting to take spoils from derelict warships of a lost age, having the exact mix of tools for the right job is essential, and you can’t simply get away with repeatedly spamming a single unit until the enemy dies from sheer attrition. Certain ground vehicles can hide just out of sight against ridgelines, bombarding your position from a concealed distance, and aircraft are perfect for hit and fade attacks, harrying you at every turn. There’s a constant sense of desperation in each battle because of this, and far more risk of your vast armoured column being smashed to pieces thanks to a tactical error.
The story, while fairly minimal, sticks close to what made the original great and many key elements emerge once again. Alongside the themes of mysticism and a forgotten heritage, the keen sense of isolation and survival against the elements is ever at the forefront of the campaign. While minimalist on many levels, the developers threw in just enough engaging elements to keep the player going, guessing what will happen next, ranging from potentially friendly ships spearheading expeditions of their own to possibly new enemies lurking within sand-blasted ruins. Unfortunately however, Blackbird might have stuck a little too closely to what worked last time and it doesn’t take long for nostalgia to turn into repetition. This is sadly evident early on when the opening mission is almost beat for beat the initial act of Homeworld 2, right down to the massed invasion of your homelands.
Further problems also stem from a surprising lack of tactical diversity in the main game. While the units on offer work perfectly, there is no option to create formations or properly group units, turning some engagements into headlong rushes. A distinct problem when you take into account the multiplayer, which is already extremely bare bones with only a few maps on offer. These problems hardly kill a great game, but it’s frustrating to constantly know it could have been something more.
Offering far more good than bad, Deserts of Kharak is Homeworld to the core. What it lacks in comparison to some newer RTS releases it easily makes up for with a vastly more dynamic campaign and mythos, with a distinct visual aesthetic to match it. Jaded fans longing for a return to this beloved setting would do well to give this one a chance.
HOMEWORLD: DESERTS OF KHARAK / DEVELOPER: BLACKBIRD INTERACTIVE / PUBLISHER: GEARBOX SOFTWARE / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW