Sand in Uncomfortable Places: Deserts of Kharak First Impressions

I remember the first time I ever played Homeworld. It doesn’t make for a great story, but I can vividly remember being simply blown away by the ability to move units, meaningfully, in 3 dimensions in an RTS, and by the simply haunting visuals often encountered in the game. The mothership hanging in space like a lonely jewel. I cannot think of another RTS that was as much a joy to simply experience from a visual, immersive perspective. This attention to visual detail and atmosphere indeed became a hallmark of Relic’s RTS games thanks mostly, I think, to the jaw-dropping wonder that first experiencing Homeworld induced in so many of us.

This puts any sequel or prequel in an awkward place. Mechanical systems and gameplay be damned, how is anyone supposed to compete with the nostalgia, the memories of awe from Homeworld and its sequel? How can a Homeworld-Dune mashup (I reference the Dune universe and RTS series mostly due to the reliance on a desert as the setting) a Homeworld lacking in that vital 3-dimensionality or the original series. hope to compare?

Please note that all opinions rendered below are first impressions and are subject to change and maturation. I fully intend to cover this game more as I play more of it.

A note before we get started: While I did preorder the game and so received a copy of Homeworld Remastered alongside Deserts of Kharak, I did not have a chance to play this before delivering this first impressions piece, so any comments directed towards Homeworld are based on assuredly inaccurate memories from many years ago and colored by nostalgia. I will be writing at least one additional piece about Deserts of Kharak, and will take the time before subsequent writing to play Homeworld Remastered for a more thorough understanding of that game’s mechanics. Thanks!

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Atmosphere, Visuals and Story

Right from the get-go, Deserts of Kharak impresses. Like Homeworld before it, Deserts of Kharak is visually impressive. It isn’t mind-blowingly cutting edge, but it’s certainly in the top 1% of RTS in terms of looks. And it positively oozes atmosphere. The voice acting is understated, to be sure: the actors aren’t injecting a lot of passionate emotion into their performances, but the visual quality of the game is spot on. The desert maps feel vast and lonely, and hopping into sensors mode, while a little on the ugly side, leaves the player feeling uncertain and wary, as enemies outside of direct visual range are displayed only as a nebulous red circle that says “danger here!” without allowing the player to determine what, specifically, that threat entails.

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Units, structures, and environments are beautiful. Even crashed ships (of which we have seen several just in the tutorial and initial missions) have an almost haunting quality. The art direction, I’ll state again, is for the most part spot-on. The game definitely looks and feels like a Homeworld title.

I have a couple of quibbles with some of the unit designs (please note I have yet to see all of the units in action, even for the game’s primary faction). The Scavenger unit and the Armored Assault tank are underwhelming, the former having an almost StarCraft-style drill affixed to its front (despite mining with some sort of beam weapon) and the latter having a disappointingly conventional machine gun atop its hull. The carrier, the gorgeous, beautiful, boxy carrier makes up for a multitude of minor visual design quibbles with units that are mostly going to be viewed from so far away only their outlines really matter.

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The game’s atmosphere and story alone leave me personally satisfied with the relatively steep $50 cost of entry. The story is, so far, well told and adequately paced. I have encountered issues with the game’s resource model as implemented in the campaign, sadly. Combat sequences and objectives seem, so far at least, to be juxtaposed in an odd way against resource gathering. It’s as if the game, while expecting you to be able to manage a battle on multiple flanks, does not simultaneously find you capable of harvesting resources. There have been considerable lulls in the campaign while harvesters and support carriers trudge their slow way across the admittedly gorgeous desert to slowly and deliberately harvest resources needed to expand my armies and progress. These sequences detract in a noticeable way from the otherwise excellently crafted missions and engagements.

Speaking of combat engagements…

Gameplay

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So, let’s take a moment to talk about the actual gameplay. The Carrier itself has several light weapons (at least, in the tutorial and early campaign. Perhaps in skirmish/multiplayer it can research additional armaments?) and the interesting ability to shunt a limited number of points to its defenses (armor), weapons (damage), repair rate for nearby units, or range. This makes it somewhat customizable to the situation, which is welcome. The limited number of units I’ve thus far encountered: LAVs, Armored Assault vehicles, and Rail Guns, I’ve had some cause to take issue with.

I’m holding off judgment of the game’s combat systems at this point, as I have yet to access the full research tree or unit list. But, for the moment, hear me out.

As you may know, I value what I call “player agency” in RTS games. This means, in essence, that there should be as few obstacles as possible in between the player and their execution of their plan. ‘Old School’ RTS, for technical reasons, tend to emphasize this with little automation going on. Newer RTS tend to automate more processes for the player which, while convenient, can interfere with or delay player actions at critical times.

There’s no hard and fast rule to this, but my opinion is that where possible, the player’s ability to perform in the game should not be interfered with. And this is the root of my issue with some of the design of units in Deserts of Kharak. The Light Assault Vehicle, or LAV, slides around like a Mario Kart on ice, circle-strafing its target all on its own, rather like a fighter. This makes them somewhat cumbersome to control, and makes getting individual LAVs out of combat for repairs a real challenge. It’s visually very fun, however.

Armored Assault tanks, thankfully, don’t do this and come equipped with a line of sight blocking smoke screen, which comes in handy when dealing with their natural predator, the surprisingly ubiquitous Rail Gun. I have no real complaints with the operation of Armored Assault vehicles at this time. Rail Guns, however, are in an odd place.

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Deserts of Kharak has a system where units on higher ground deal additional damage to units on lower terrain, which I appreciate. This makes terrain, one of the main differentiators between space-based and ground-based RTS, a very important tactical consideration, which helps validate Blackbird’s decision to set a Homeworld game on the ground. However, terrain height variances make Rail Guns much worse than a mobile artillery platform would be, as indirect fire over dunes or rocky cliffs would be possible, while Rail Guns tend to spend time firing into sand if improperly placed. While this does emphasize the importance of positioning, an overall good thing, it does make the use of Rail Guns in such an environment somewhat questionable.

The core interaction with the 3 basic units thus far introduced to me is Armored Assault > LAV > Rail gun > Armored Assault which is an understandable but fairly underwhelming cycle. I’m hoping that access to the full unit list will make this fairly vanilla system more interesting. Also, if a player is able to get the jump on Rail Guns with Armored Assault tanks, they will beat the Rail Guns in an even fight, but Rail Gun range can make this challenging, so the speedy LAV being able to close makes the matchup more even. Rail Guns in numbers can take out LAVs decently, though without more testing I’m not sure of the cost efficiency of such an operation.

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I know I’m waxing verbose about this small piece of the larger game system, but I do have concerns about its implications on the larger balance and flow of combat in Deserts of Kharak. In a game that de-emphasizes economy as DoK does, combat operations are the hook on which the game’s depth and complexity will be hung. If the basic combat systems aren’t fulfilling, that’s a potential red flag for the game’s longevity and ability to satisfy RTS gamers.

A last concern I have stems from the tutorial, which introduces players admirably well to how the game is controlled. At one point, though, the player is given the ability to launch an attack via fighter. I was, I suppose, expecting a system similar to what is seen in the Command and Conquer games, where the aircraft have to land to restock and refuel, but are otherwise controllable by the player. This is not the case. Air units, at least those utilized in the ability introduced in the tutorial, are fully AI controlled and simply perform attack passes before returning to the Carrier. Again, as above, in a game which de-emphasizes economy and basebuilding, I found myself somewhat baffled by the decision to take control of air units out of the players’ hands. Perhaps this will make more sense in multiplayer, but it certainly took me aback.

To Be Continued…

So where do I stand after a scant 3 hours of looking at Deserts of Kharak? Well, I’m eager for more. The campaign is one of the best I’ve played in recent years, the game is gorgeous and the mobility and customizabilty of the Carrier is more than welcome. The game runs well on my modest gaming rig (a surprise) and much of the experience is spot on.

I have some outstanding issues with my early perceptions of the amount of automation in the game, from the movement profile of the LAV to the lack of control apparent in air forces, I’m wary that DoK may be sacrificing depth for convenience. I am going to give this another couple of hours of skirmish and multiplayer (and campaign!) to determine, however. The game is engaging enough to leave me wanting to see combat with all of the toys tools available.

In future videos and articles, I will be putting the mechanics of the game through their paces, evaluating the research system, tech tree progression, map design and a variety of other topics I want to get elbows-deep into before forming a solid opinion regarding.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know in the comments if you have played DoK and have any thoughts you’d like to share!

See you next time.

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10 thoughts on “Sand in Uncomfortable Places: Deserts of Kharak First Impressions

  1. Well, I beat the campaign, did a few skirmishes as Coalition. Can’t comment on Gaalasian tech tree, but here is what you will get going forward:
    -Missile Battery heavy vehicles, anti air with an aoe ground attack ability on a cooldown
    -Bomber and Gunship aircraft, bombers do a lot of damage, gunships kill lots of units before they go home.
    -Battle, Artillery and Assault Cruisers, which are like the capital ships in HW. I find they make all the t1 units useless once you get them in SP. Artillery cruisers are amazing and fire indirectly at very long ranges, taking out a lot of targets if they hit. Battlecruisers backed up with Support Cruisers are pretty tanky. Support Cruisers get anti air ability.
    -Cruise missile at carrier

    The t1 units are pretty garbo and I stopped using them as soon as cruisers became a thing. Railguns especially are too tedious to micro.

    In the campaign, CUs are near limitless and RUs are precious, you want to save it for tech, big airforce and making the end game cruiser army. Balanced force of cruisers wrecks everything and do does a big air force but it is pricey. Be careful not to lose too many bombers and gunships.

    Overall, the campaign is pretty easy, and i feel they could have made it a coop campaign if they used the Sakala as more than a plot device. It is really short too.

    I did some skirmish and the resource model changes entirely. At your main you have 2 CU and 1 RU sites, with a ton of resources each, and have to expand by breaking apart wrecks, then putting 4 Scavengers and a Support Cruiser by it (each wreck contains 1 RU and 1 CU site each). There appeared to be 2-3 wrecks per player to expand to. At the same time, you have to fight over the artifacts. At the default artifact capture limit of 5 the game takes about 10-15 minutes. In that time, trying to econ as hard as possible and beeline aircraft I could get a Gunship, 2 Bombers and 4 wings of Fighters. I didn’t see any non Support/Production Cruisers in my skirmishes. You have to tech through t1 ground units to get to them. The pop limit is increased by dropping ‘logistics modules’ in skirmish, cost 250 for 15 pop, max 115 IIRC. In the campaign it comes from artifact captures.

    Also, you can give orders to the aircraft like in CnC if you select them, don’t bother trying to double click them as they fly around. Dragbox and click their icon instead. Often if you scramble all your aircraft you end up with idle aircraft that can still shoot, if you give them a new ground location they will sortie there instead, if you give them an attack order on a specific unit they will attack that.

    My verdict so far is the game isn’t bad, it isn’t amazing either. I wanna give it a lot of points for being pretty, but I ended up spending almost all the game in sensors mode, because the max zoom otherwise was too close in.

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    1. Thanks for the report! I’m very much looking forward to seeing the game “as it’s meant to be played” instead of basing my impressions off of about 2 hours of campaign. :p

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  2. It looks like a good game. My only fear is that it is going to be painstakingly similar to Ashes of the Singularity once it comes out….

    I struggled between picking which game i would like more because of this.

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    1. Hey Michael! I’ve played both and see very few similarities between the games, besides both being RTS. Ashes of the Singularity has literally thousands of units running around on huge maps where the players conquer territories (as in the Company of Heroes games), build tons of production and upgrade structures, and command multiple disparate armies. It really does feel more like Supreme Commander.

      Deserts of Kharak, on the other hand, has a mobile base with limited or no support structures, limited resources and far smaller unit numbers, with a focus on unit abilities and upgrades. There are really very few parallels I can detect so far. This is a much less “macro” scale game, and a much more tactical game (though for such a large scale game, Ashes feels pretty tactical to me).

      I enjoy both, but it’s hard for me to recommend either as I have little experience with this game and Ashes is still pretty early in its development cycle. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ashes ends up being the longer-lived title however. I have high expectations of that game.

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