If Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak were a person, it would be the sort to have dinner on the table at 6PM sharp every evening, without fail. That’s not to paint it in a negative light, but rather it’s very stuck in its ways. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is Homeworld, more or less. It might be stuck on terra firma, but it’s every bit the same game as its space-faring predecessor.
Which is an unlikely event considering its tumultuous development. Originally known as Hardware: Shipbreakers, it was never meant to be a Homeworld game at all. That is until THQ went under. Gearbox then grabbed the rights and agreed a deal with new studio Blackbird Interactive, creating the Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak we’ve got today.
So the premise of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is fairly simple, if a little littered with dense jargon and apostrophes cropping up in places they really oughtn't do. It’s a prequel, essentially, with the Kushan still on their original homeworld of Kharak. Very few resources remain; the sandy planet is dying. Kushan forces are waging war with the Gaalsien having detected an object deep in the Great Banded Desert. The so-called ‘Primary Anomaly’ could hold the key to salvation. And thus begins the slow march across the desert. Or not, as the case may be.
You see, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is short. Not Gone Home short, but certainly one of, if not the shortest real-time strategy campaign I have ever had the pleasure of playing. Which actually ended up being kind of wonderful in its own way, but perhaps not if I'd laid down £30. It’s a strategy game which doesn’t outstay its welcome, or demand months of your time to master. Deserts of Kharak can be completed in a weekend with ease, or even a pretty solid day if you want to subsist on a diet of cold pizza and copious use of a catheter.
That’s going to raise alarm bells for some. Some perspective on my viewpoint: I’m very inexperienced in strategy games these days, but this tempted me back. I’m not about clicks per second and insane keyboard shortcuts, I just like to mildly tax the limited grey matter between my ears and become engulfed in a tale of cosmic destruction. By no means am I an advanced strategy player, but it wasn’t difficult to coast through the campaign on Normal difficulty in about eight hours or so. There is an optional harder difficulty if you want to get more juice out of this arid rock, or there is also the multiplayer to consider. But more on that later.
Each of Homeworld’s 13 missions is a pilgrimage of sorts, with the eventual goal being the Primary Anomaly. You and your band of units will be trekking across desert after desert, scavenging for materials and fending off raiders. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak seldom goes deep - there’s a fairly limited selection of vehicles, upgrades work in a linear fashion, and there’s no base-building to speak of, but each mission is wholly unique in its own way. An early mission is a sort of base defense, which coincidentally takes your mind off your Kapisi Carrier and allows you to get to grips with your units. Other missions can be slow treks down narrow trenches, scouting runs, or ambushing enemy carriers. Each brings something new to the table and keeps things fresh. It’s short and sweet, and a cut above most RTS campaigns out there.
The basic gameplay then is textbook Homeworld. The additional plane may have been severed, but the core ideas remain the same. Not having to move your units around in 3D space just gives you one less thing to think about. At its heart Deserts of Kharak is all about unit management. There’s no base-building to talk of whatsoever. All you've got equatable to this is your Carrier, from which you grab upgrades and produce new units.
Much like Homeworld, units carry over from mission to mission, so you’ll want to look after them to ensure an easier start next time around. If you do find yourself struggling, there is a new option to run with a generic unit set at the start of each mission, but it feels like a bit of a shortcut.
Units aren’t cheap, and it becomes a manner of using these most effectively. Light buggies for example are too nippy to be hit by railgun fire, so they’re great for taking down larger foes. Tanks can make light work of the buggies, while railguns dine on tanks. Get it wrong and you can be punished swiftly. That’s your basic rock > paper > scissors format right there, complicated somewhat by the potential for air strikes and special abilities. Vehicles can throw out smoke for cover, or jets can be sent out on bombing runs.
Tactics become all about positioning and movement then. You want to take the higher ground for greater visibility and damage, perching your high damage units as far away from the action as possible. This is made much easier through the use of a tactical map which can brought up instantly with the space bar, giving you an overview of events. It’s often easier to play in this view, but all the little visual details are lost, so it can feel as if you’ve never quite got the perfect set-up.
As expected there is multiplayer in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, but, much like those vast deserts, there’s not much of in it. There’s the usual skirmishes, along with a mode where teams are tasked with collecting an artifact. It’s okay, and you might get a bit of mileage out of these modes, but the inclusion of just four multiplayer maps seems a bit on the stingy side.
There are elements of Deserts of Kharak that are great then, and most definitely worth a playthrough for sci-fi strategy fans, but it’s been let-down somewhat by a slightly brief campaign and a flimsy multiplayer component.
Ultimately, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a bit like a trip to the beach. Sure, the sun’s beaming and you’ll have a great day’s fun, but you still can’t escape that feeling you’ve got sand up your Kharak.