Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023

Once I saw that optional star ratings were given for my performance on each mission in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, I was in doubt about the length of the campaign. The addition sent a small, clear signal: “Here’s a flimsy excuse to play on a higher difficulty again.” I’m not normally one to fetishize the length of a game, as has been featured on this site several times. In the case of one Homeworld however, game length can be a critical factor.

That’s more true than ever Deserts of Kharakbecause this new standalone game is actually a prequel to Homeworldthe original groundbreaking space fleet strategy sim Relic released in 1999 (not to be confused with the recently Remastered reissue). That game began when the stray Hiigarans took their first small steps into space after millennia of grounding. Deserts of Kharak, as the name implies, takes place during their exile on the planet. Here tanks and mobile railguns take the place of interceptors and bombers, although the latter pair do appear in the atmosphere here and there.

Homeworld, on-world

Although the environment and style of strategy has changed, it makes quite a bit Homeworld remains recognizable. The music still swells with drums, strings and the Armenian duduk (I must admit I had to google that last one). The technology is still flat, broad, and lifeless in a familiar way, just like the Battlestar Galactica reboot as much of the series’ sense of style as possible.

What is transferred mechanically is…well, the way things are transferred. Resources, vehicles, upgrades, and other elements developed in one mission can still be carried over to the next. The same goes for any losses you take, which makes every skirmish matter. Every loss – every second spent micromanaging conflict and harvesting – weaves a tale of desperation.

In the original Homeworld games, you were alone in the great emptiness of space. The deeper you poked, the more tenuous the situation seemed. When you finally completed the circuit, it felt like your crew had only slipped by on duct tape and amphetamines.

At only 13 missions long Deserts of Kharak doesn’t give himself much time to write that same kind of story. There is too little time to make mistakes, to fall into an economic hole and then come out again. There isn’t enough space for Deserts of Kharak to make use of its one broad connection to the games from which it takes its name.

Let’s get into trouble

Of course that doesn’t stop Deserts of Kharak‘s plot of trying to emulate the original Homeworld games anyway. This time around, the “Great Banded Desert” takes the place of the endless cosmos, and the salted wasteland serves as a clever, grounded approximation to the desolation of space. Instead of searching for a home, the mostly unseen protagonists search for a vaguely important artifact in the heart of the desert. They want it so badly that they are willing to go to war with anti-space fanatics to get it.

Okay. Sure. But why the sudden desperation? An early overture explains that the planet Kharak is increasingly engulfed in desert, but almost nothing is said about how – or why – our heroes are best equipped to stop it. Of course, if you’ve played the first two games, you know that the plot is just an excuse to get everyone into space. However, it would have been nice if this prequel provided some new context for what comes next, rather than the other way around.

The only strength of the scripted story is the cutscenes, which showcase a beautiful mix of Impressionist painting and 3D art that makes me long for an entire game in the same style. That adds little to the actual plot, but as an old-fashioned reward image for a completed mission, hey, it worked on me.

The small and the short

Those cutscenes feel less like a “reward” though, given how easy they are to get. On normal difficulty, Deserts of Kharak is shockingly easy – at least for anyone already up for the series’ infamous challenge.

It’s a shame too, because the moment-to-moment strategy is quite satisfying! Despite taking place on the 3D plane of the ground, the latest Homeworld at least pays lip service to the third dimension. Terrain prevents ranged units from firing, and taking higher ground increases a unit’s damage. Enemy armor explodes out with a beautiful stream of vapor, and almost every unit type feels both vital and uniquely equipped to “pop” one enemy or the other.

That makes the management of multiple control groups – and the different capabilities of those groups – critical. Fortunately, it’s also easy to maintain that control thanks to the clean and visible display of almost all the information you need on the screen. As you bounce between units, you also bounce from standard view to long range sensors (another nod to the earlier games). The former is usually pushed in too much, while the latter is unpleasantly pulled out.

As a result, when things get hectic, there’s a constant sense of movement. You don’t just push model soldiers over a board; you are a tactician at a sensor console. You are Ender at his ‘simulation’.

The real cost of war

While Deserts of Kharak often feels great on a small scale, it’s the metagame that’s the real problem. Though the resources to fuel your war drive are finite, they are nearly to be found everywhere. Your enemy, while aggressive, is not that overwhelming. You always feel like you can just drive up to any deposit (usually a crashed spaceship, which is also a nice visual touch) and suck it drier than the sand around it. The rewards far outweigh the risk of losing units to sparse enemy patrols.

The only deterrent to building up a huge surplus is crushing boredom. Your carrier – the equivalent of a mothership in this game – is the headquarters, production facility and support vehicle all in one. It’s also painfully slow. So while filling your treasure chest is the best tactical option, it’s also extremely boring.

Deserts of Kharak, then a game is at war with itself. The continuity from mission to mission encourages you to play in the most boring way possible, while the challenge and length of the game never make it necessary.

You can, of course, play on the hardest difficulty and add some extra value there. There is always a skirmish mode and multiplayer, where continuity is not a factor. However, the maps and modes in multiplayer are quite light: just five desert arenas to capture the flag and kill them all. Essentially, the most theoretically “interesting” part of the game is stripped down to multiplayer so you can focus on what it does “best” mechanically.

However, as with the previous games, the multiplayer isn’t the draw for me here. Single player is what it’s all about Deserts of Kharak’s cylinders are meant to fire. This time, not all those cylinders deliver the necessary power. While I enjoyed the game for the nine or so hours I spent on it, it was just a little too short and a little too shallow to feel like a worthwhile return Homeworld name.

The good:

  • Active and satisfying miniaturized combat
  • Beautiful cutscenes that are somewhere between 2D and 3D
  • “Feels like Homeworld at the presentation

The bad:

  • Too short and easy to put the mechanics to the test
  • A fairly limited multiplayer suite
  • Plot and characters seem of little importance

The Ugly:

  • Living in a world where no full adventure game has been done in the style of these cutscenes. Only attempt the.

It boils down: The small-scale combat can distract you from the large-scale boredom, so give it a try.

By akfire1

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