It is a bit strange that we're getting a new game set in the Homeworld universe. It's been such a long time since the original released back in the September of 1999, and back then the hype was enormous. There was a tremendous buzz and the game itself certainly lived up to it. After Homeworld 2 the game series disappeared from the surface of the Earth, seemingly a result of the developer parting ways with the rights holder, then the rights were bought by Relic's new owners, but still nothing came.
It was a strange situation for a franchise with such a dedicated fanbase, to have not seen a new game in a decade. As THQ went under the rights for Homeworld were on the move again, this time auctioned off, separately from the development studio behind the first two games, Relic Entertainment. And the auction for the rights was won by a surprising bidder, Gearbox Software. Their first order of business was to remaster and re-release the original games and they did so last year, but the plan was always to carry on the franchise and that takes us to the subject at hand - Deserts of Kharak.
We recently went ahead and sampled the remasters, and while we didn't finish the old games we brushed up on the setup once more. It featured some very clever mechanics, and next to Blizzard's StarCraft series it ranks as our favourite strategy space war.
The story of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak serves as a prologue to the very first game and it takes place 106 years prior to Homeworld. Everything revolves around the relic that thundered off the space battles in the original, and the story is really good. There are certainly some pompous stereotypes in the line-up of characters, and Blackbird Interactive has focused on long-winded monologues instead of real character development. But this is almost a requirement in the science fiction genre of today.
The voice acting among the best that we have experienced in a game of this type, and it even outshines StarCraft at times. The music is also fantastic. Since 99% of all battles take place on the planet Kharak - the Kushan clan home planet - which consists of sand, sand and more sand, there is an appropriate and superb soundtrack that reminds us of Aladdin and helps build the atmosphere.
The single biggest difference between Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and its predecessors is that all battles take place on the ground. Homeworld's hallmark was the three-dimensional battlefield as it focused on guiding your fleet through three dimensional space, something that is completely missing here. At first, we missed this aspect of Homeworld, but no more than an hour or so into the experience we were fully immersed into the smooth brown desert world Blackbird Interactive offers up. It serves as evidence that the franchise can expand beyond its established boundaries and still be great.
Throwing your units into battle is a delight since the developers have avoided the pitfalls that many studios fall into; they have worked very hard on giving players a great overview of the action. Specific tactics, audio clues and a really good overview map weeds out all the unnecessary fluff and lets you focus on the core of the battle. Clever details in terms of the mechanics and the brilliant controls makes Deserts of Kharak a title we could not put down until the credits rolled.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak began its life as a game completely free any connections to Relic Entertainment's strategy universe. In the first year of development it was called Hardware: Shipbreakers and even though Gearbox stepped in and bought it, and even though Blackbird re-did over 75% of the content to fit in the Homeworld universe, DNA from Hardware: Shipbreakers still exists in there. Much of what the player is fighting over is to be able to "shipbreak". It's about plundering wrecks, stocking your bases and use the terrain to your advantage during each small part of the battle.
Dunes and hills in the desert make for key strategic points where it's all about mixing different types of weapons to work with different tactics. At first we fell into the same old patterns where you focused all of our might on an assault from one direction, but were completely destroyed several times by the enemy's ability to use ranged weapons like railguns and hide their heavy artillery from our attacks. The balance in how the different units work in different types of battles due to your tactics and the environment is something that works really well.
The multiplayer component is the game's weak point. Sure, it's not bad considering that it shares the same basic game mechanics and structure as the story, but we missed nuance, depth and above all - content. The multiplayer feels tossed together and there are camera bugs, forcing us to manually change the camera position several times during each round.
There is no doubt that the 16 hour single-player campaign of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is one of the most delicious we have experienced in the genre in a while (this despite some less than stellar AI). And thus the game is deserving of a score to match this. Had it not been for the lacking multiplayer component it may very well have been a higher score, but as it stands Blackbird's ambitious sci-fi war is forced to settle for a strong eight.