Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review

Game Info
Platform Win
Publisher Gearbox Software
Developer Blackbird Interactive
Release Date Jan 20, 2016

There's almost too much desert in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. But there's also not nearly enough.

For a real-time strategy game series that utilized outer space as its core environment for a decade, it's weird to open Deserts of Kharak's campaign for the first time and realize just how much sand you're going to have to drive through in this Homeworld prequel. The opening narration even emphasizes it. "Our planet is dying," says protagonist Rachel S'jet, who adds that "the desert grows with every passing year."

The characters are motivated only by survival, searching for an "anomaly" that they say will save them from the growing starvation and dehydration that are hurting the population. Their vehicles are land rovers of various sizes, their abilities limited to smoke screens and long-range launchers. It's so simple and straightforward that the only jarring element seems to be this endless desert.

it's weird to open Deserts of Kharak and realize just how much sand you're going to drive through

But the drastic change in this setting makes sense, not only in terms of the narrative, but also as a way to reboot a franchise whose first installment dates back to 1999 and has been stagnant for years. The history of the Homeworld name is complicated, with the licensing changing hands multiple times before landing with Gearbox in 2013. Besides a re-release of the first two games, there hasn't been much anchoring the franchise in the public consciousness. Luckily for fans and the uninitiated, the game that would eventually become Deserts of Kharak bridges that gap in time.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a prequel, but also exists as a stand-alone title. Thanks to a streamlined story and a beautiful, hand-drawn style that emphasizes the emptiness of sand and dust, I never felt at a loss as someone who never played much of the original Homeworld games.

The game is filled with Easter eggs and references that connect the two sides together. For example, main character Rachel S'jet is an ancestor to Karan S'jet, who leads Homeworld 1 and 2. But this mostly serves as a link rather than an important plot point; you don't need to know future events to understand the story beats. You just need to learn how to drive the Kapisi — a giant production facility that also doubles as a self-sufficient aircraft carrier and battle fortress — and how to strategize your units.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review screen a

Deserts of Kharak never feels too static despite taking place over one long road trip through the desert where you fight the same enemies, the Gaalesian, again and again. Each level requires its own strategy and multiple steps to clear each objective, and the game drops hints and slowly reveals techniques and systems over time. As the team discovers more technology as they move across the desert, more vehicles and upgrades are unlocked.

I suspect that this could get tedious for more advanced players, but even newer players may find some monotony as well. The Kapisi crawls across the dunes, and the expanse of the maps means your small assault vehicles will take their time getting to an area, but this becomes more manageable as the style of play becomes more familiar.

With just 13 missions that take anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour each (depending on your skill level), the story is brief, although not necessarily lacking. Developer Blackbird Interactive keeps plot on the outskirts of each campaign, allowing dialogue, lore and character moments to book-end battles.

For example, Rachel S'jet is a prime member of your team, and her motivations move the story forward without too many bumps. But there's not too much to Rachel as a character that is complex or interesting, While her determination allows her to lead a team, it also gets her into situations that make you question whether you should let her out of the Kapisi at all.

More intriguing are the Gaalesians, a desert race that look upon Rachel and her companions' need to reach space as heresy. The details in their compounds and their clothing, which seem reminiscent of a previously nomadic lifestyle, are more impressive than their place in Deserts of Kharak's story, where they mainly function as a barrier to the Coalition.

for the most part multiplayer is more of the same
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review screen b

For Deserts of Kharak, it feels like the destination is more important than the journey. The story is secondary to Blackbird's need to get the Coalition to space in time for the events of the original Homeworld. The "anomaly" Rachel and the others are searching for is ill-defined for most of the game — how do they know it'll change everything? Why doesn't the Coalition try and work with the Gaalesian for survival tips? Who knows?

Once you're done with the story, there's multiplayer, assuming you have more luck than I did in finding a game. The lobby was usually dead, with a game popping up on the public games list and disappearing just as quickly as it had appeared. Matchmaking was just as useless, timing out before matches could be made.

Once I found a game, there wasn't much to explore. The campaign does plenty with its desert format, but Deserts of Kharak's multiplayer offers only five maps — and each map has a particular player limit that only serves to lessen the kinds of matches available. There are a few options in the menu that can change up each round, such as including extra objectives, but for the most part it's more of the same.

Wrap Up:

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is interesting enough but feels a bit empty

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak feels like an exercise in seeing how much mileage Blackbird could get from one environment, and it succeeds in that regard. There's enough strategic options and vehicles to tinker with to make it interesting for at least 10 hours. But Deserts of Kharak feels like it should be just a bit more. You can only travel through the desert for so long before you need to hit an oasis.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak was reviewed using a final "retail" Steam code provided by Gearbox Software. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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7.0 Win