After a somewhat awkward development cycle, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has finally arrived. Homeworld fans were a little skeptical of a prequel to the legendary RTS series materialising out of the dust, but thankfully, Blackbird Interactive has kept the series' tenets of incredible detail and an absorbing world intact.
Deserts of Kharak tells the tale of the discovery of the mysterious shipwreck that sparked the original Homeworld's story. It's a tale you'll already know the end to if you're familiar with the original game, although there are a few twists and turns along the way to keep it from being entirely predictable.
However, the sense of discovery can get a bit muddled in some of the later missions, as you're almost always in a combat situation. The campaign's a bit on the short side as well, at just 13 missions, and the story comes to a somewhat abrupt halt after the final level.
On the bright side, the story is fascinating while it lasts, and it features a number of intriguing discoveries about the history of Kharak. Careful attention has gone into the game's lore to make sure it fits into the original Homeworld seamlessly.
As the iconic Mothership has yet to be constructed, you're granted command of the Kapisi, a colossal desert crawler that acts as a mobile base. The expedition is led by Rachel S'jet, who believes the Primary Anomaly – the original shipwreck – to be the key to Kharak's salvation. It's not long before you're thrust out into the wastes, however, and barring your way is the enigmatic Kiith Gaalsien, a vast tribe exiled to the desert, and lead by a prophet who has declared your investigation of the shipwrecks to be heresy.
Likely the first thing you'll notice about Kharak's dunes is that the game is absolutely gorgeous. Despite the bleakness of the sands, the barren world sports some very striking vistas. The shipwrecks in particular give a superb sense of scale with just how massive they are. Units, too, are luxuriously detailed: coalition vehicles sport fully functional suspension, as well as animated gun turrets, while the eerie Gaalsien hoverships kick up dust beneath them as they move, and have heat spilling out of their vents.
The game is packed with innumerable small details like this, and it's a joy to see it all in motion, though the fidelity does come at a cost – the frame rate can be unstable during fights, and tends to chug fairly hard when there's a lot of units on the screen.
The graphics are backed up by some superb sound design courtesy of original Homeworld sound director Paul Ruskay. Explosions are marvelously punchy, vehicles hum with bassy might, and the music grants a dusty, breezy atmosphere with its blend of Arabic and Middle-Eastern styles. The music provides an elegant backdrop to the journey across Kharak, and it really shines in some of the later missions, where it gives the action sequences a nice, dramatic flair.
Clever play during these action sequences is rewarded: smart use of unit abilities such as the assault tank's smokescreen or the baserunner's mines can turn a fight in your favour, and clever use of terrain can block enemy fire, or grant a damage bonus. The controls feel sharp, and the units are fun and satisfying to use, though a few stray quirks with the pathfinding can occasionally hamper strategisation.
However, clever play can also diminish the difficulty of the (already fairly short) campaign quite significantly: the AI is a bit exploitable, and often spends its time patrolling about the map in a predictable fashion. If you play protectively with your units, you're likely going to end up with an over-abundance of resources, which can end up trivialising some of the later missions.
Still, despite the meek difficulty and the frame rate issues, it's clear the game was a product of passion for Blackbird, going by the sheer amount of care and detail that's present. It's an enjoyable title, and a solid entry in the series, although the lack of content makes it a tricky recommendation. It'll be interesting to see what the game spells for the future of the series – perhaps someday we'll see the fabled Homeworld 3 if Deserts of Kharak takes off.