When Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak finally became available to press late last month, I wasn't the only one in the office who immediately perked up. I asked around, and it turned out that Gizmodo editor Campbell Simpson was just as keen for some strategy time as I was.
So we acquired two codes and proceed to play. After a few weeks, we reconvened to combine our thoughts on Blackbird's take on the Homeworld formula — and it started with perhaps some of the highest praise I've heard in the office.
Campbell Simpson, Gizmodo: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is the first game in three years, or maybe longer, that I've finished. I've struggled for a long time with actually committing myself and paying attention to a game long enough to make a significant dent in any storyline — the last game I actually completed would probably have been Faster Than Light in early 2013.
I don't have ADHD or anything, I just lose interest in most games quickly. I quickly turned away from Fallout 4, I didn't last with Destiny, even Battlefront (which I desperately wanted to love). My pile of shame is basically all 179 games in my Steam library. But not the new entrant in the Homeworld franchise, interestingly enough.
This is a massive achievement for me, and I'm genuinely proud of myself. I feel like I've turned a corner, and I'm looking forward to playing something else soon. I think what kept me playing is the fact that Kharak is a game that sits in an odd place temporally — it's the third game in a series that started in 1999 with Homeworld and that came to an abrupt halt in 2003 with Homeworld 2, but it's a prequel to both of those.
Kharak gives you the back-story to an epic space sci-fi without actually using any space, while still keeping the same play style and classic RTS elements of the original Homeworld. it's a game that I played knowing what would happen — maybe that's why I actually stayed interested and enjoyed churning through the dozen hour-long missions that make up Kharak's single-player campaign.
Alex Walker: I’m still immensely surprised that Deserts of Kharak is as faithful to the Homeworld formula as it is. I’d figured that since the decision was already made to remove the game from the cosmos, the developers might take more liberties with the formula to make it a more accessible, more modern release.
Also, I’m kind of impressed you actually finished FTL. I played that a tonne but never quite made it. Maybe I’m just bad at roguelikes. But I digress.
It’s funny that you mentioned ADHD, because Kharak – and the Homeworld series, really – is the antithesis of strategy games that over-reward players for their frantic micromanagement abilities. Despite being grounded in the desert – it’s honestly Homeworld with sand – it’s incredibly tactical.
Much of that lies in the transition of view, switching from the overarching sensor camera to managing the contours of terrain so your railguns have a line of sight to enemy armoured vehicles. Because of that careful management, I’ve been taking the game exceptionally slowly.
I’m spending roughly one hour per mission, which is astonishing considering Luke described Deserts of Kharak as a fast-paced game that was about precision strikes and quickly responding to objectives. But I’ve always treated Homeworld like that: a game you absorb and ponder, not something you cleave through.
Campbell: I thought Kharak was pretty damn accessible for a strategy title, to be honest. The unit types are pretty straightforward for the most part, especially in the early game, and really conform to that Age of Mythology-style archers-versus-cavalry-versus-infantry trope of gameplay that works for a casual player like me to get a grip on quickly. Scissors beats paper beats rock, so you'll win as long as you have the right units on hand.
You don't have that third dimension that the space-based sequels have, but there are still advantages to being on higher ground and using the fog of war to your advantage — I actually finished one of the missions almost entirely with a Baserunner and three Artillery Cruisers, dropping long-range sensors and bombarding enemy AI from a distance.
I finished some missions quickly, but took plenty of time with others. There are some pretty obvious points in the campaign where you're able to take a breather and gather extra resources, but at the same time they're balanced out by some genuine moments of run-and-gun rearguard action, where your carrier is fleeing from a much more powerful enemy force, and you're losing defensive troops while trying to produce more with the limited resources you have. I think it's a game you can ponder and take slowly as you play, but you'll have more straightforward success if you build up your fleet quickly and drive it towards the enemy tactically but quickly, depriving them the chance to rebuild and repair.
The story, for what it's worth, gives you a lot of the Homeworld lore without actually telling you much at all. It's not a prerequisite to have played the earlier games, but it helps, and it gives you more information — oh, Rachel S'jet must be an ancestor of Karan S'jet from the mothership in Homeworld! — but it doesn't tell you much about the characters' history and their overall intentions. I actually really like that; it reminds me of a great moment in the original, where all you hear about the captured enemy is "the subject did not survive interrogation".
In terms of it being a micro-friendly game, I'm sure you can, but it's not necessary. I spent more time than I'd thought in the sensor view, getting a grand strategic view of things — it also helps that you get blips for enemy locations in the fog — and tasking flights of bombers and gunships to the right areas. For ground troops, it's more about adjusting the formations they put themselves into to present a stronger front to an advancing enemy force — railguns forward, cruisers bearing the brunt of the first attacks, light attack vehicles ready on the flank.
Alex: Speaking of the strategy, how did you find the AI? I found it to be relatively weak across the board – even in the campaign, most of the challenge came from the limitations placed on you, the triggered events and the waves of enemies rather than their composition or tactics. It’s particularly noticeable in skirmish modes, where you can ruthlessly exploit the AI without too much trouble.
There’s an interesting point of difference between the two factions as well, with the Gaalsien able to produce units effectively anywhere while the Carrier locks the Coalition into a single point of production. It opens up a remarkable amount of potential for a push-and-pull, hit-and-run encounter that reminds me of the early days of Protoss vs Terran matches in Starcraft. Kharak is probably closer to the Myth strategy games, mind you – or the Wargame series, which I was never able to get into.
But the basic multiplayer modes are surprisingly cool. Lose your carrier and you die. But let the other player get 5 artifacts and you lose as well. The change in pace as you go from Mad Max-style races for an artifact to defending hit-and-run attacks on your production to games of hide-and-seek across the map is a wonderful ebb and flow.
More maps would have been good, although in truth I’m not sure it would have mattered a great deal. One sand dune looks just like the other, and the most variety that can be provided visually largely comes in the form of the position of the sun. Maybe more maps with decrepit landmarks would be cool, or future content where the war takes a slightly urban turn with partially or fully sunken buildings affecting line of sight.
Campbell: The AI in the campaign wasn't exactly the smartest — the key to beating it was just having a little more micro in your troop arrangement, I thought, and waiting for the generically-arranged formations to come into the range of your more effectively organised long- and short-range weapons. I didn't play much skirmish, but I found it much the same; the real test in Homeworld would be taking on an equally skilled player.
I actually enjoyed the adjustment given to the carrier itself; if you had a couple of support cruisers handy, you could use it as an effective weapon of war that also pumped out troops as it lumbered into battle. I'm a much more traditional turtling RTS player, with a tendency to build up turrets and walls whenever possible, so it was a nice challenge (but also kinda stressful) to learn to control a moving base.
I think I'll be playing multi for a while; the game modes are varied enough within the pretty basic unit types that it shouldn't lose its lustre too quickly. I think there needs to be capacity for big maps — I'm talking six- or eight-way team brawls with long-term R&D and fleet building a la Rise of Nations in its future. And maps with big elevation differences would be tactically interesting, too.
Alex: You're probably in the same boat as me, and a lot of others. Expectations for Kharak weren't high. Hell, expectations for the Homeworld Remastered Collection weren't high either. And that's partly a sign of the times, but it's also the fact that very little of Kharak was known until shortly before its release. It wasn't until a couple of months out that the name was changed to Kharak from Shipbreakers.
I still think Shipbreakers was a better name.
As for Kharak, unfortunately I won't be playing it for much longer. That's part and parcel of being in this industry; I've only just worked my way through the story mode of the new Naruto game, I have The Witness sitting on my PS4 and the competitive land of Street Fighter 5 is just around the corner.
But man. I'm not going to proclaim Kharak as one of the best RTS games ever, one of the best Homeworld games and it probably won't be one of my favourite games of 2016 when it's all said and done.
It sure is hell is a lot better, and more authentic, than I expected.
Campbell: You could tell that the Shipbreakers name was a last-minute change; the dialogue cues were all through the game. I'll always think of it as Shipbreakers, and I think that'd make a great base for Blackbird to call the next iteration in the series Shipbuilders, and chart Kharak's rise to space. Whatever the next game is called, I'll be playing it.