In the Dunes, the Carriers: Deserts of Kharak Non-Review

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Not too long ago, I took a quick look at freshly-minted RTS Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, the mobile-base, ground based Homeworld prequel. The content of that article was derived solely from my experiences in the tutorial and the first several missions of the campaign: hopefully valuable information to some of you, but by necessity incomplete in capturing the whole player experience when playing this game.

I’m now back with tons more gameplay and ladder losses under my belt, and feel more prepared to weigh in on the details of this title. Without further ado, here are my thoughts regarding Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

Note: while this is intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the game Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, it is not the policy of Wayward Strategy to review games, as such. The diverse nature of gamers in general and RTS enthusiasts in particular make it feel presumptuous for me to tell you how to spend your money. It is my goal to simply provide for you a fair and balanced look at this title, and allow you to draw your own conclusions. Any recommendations I make about the game in this review come with caveats.

For this article, Deserts of Kharak was purchased by Wayward Strategy staff at retail price, and was not provided by Blackbird Interactive or Gearbox.

The Basics

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Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is an RTS which has the dubious honor of taking the Homeworld series out of space and onto the ground… the barren ground of a planetwide desert, no less. And while this seems to be risky, even perhaps foolish, at first, I think I am not mistaken in stating that it actually works surprisingly well overall.

In place of the iconic Mothership of the first two Homeworld games is the Carrier, a massive ground crawler that actually reminded me somewhat of the crawler from Skyshine’s Bedlam, the turn-based tactical journey game that released last year. In both games, the players are tasked to care for not just an army, but a population that travels across a barren waste in search of a semi-mystical and vaguely defined salvation. It is here, of course, that the similarities end, and of course the comparison could also be made to the original Homeworld as well, whose plot is driven along similar lines.

In Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, unlike in most other RTS but in keeping with the Homeworld spirit, the Carrier is the center and mother to the player’s entire operation. It is the resource drop off point, the barracks, the research center, and more. In modern terms, the Carrier could be viewed as somewhat analogous to a singular Mother Goo from Grey Goo in some respects, taking all of these functions upon itself.

Also notable is the lack of a research ship as seen in the original Homeworld, or other supporting vessels. There are economic support vehicles for both of the game’s factions but in each case production is limited to a single unit (in the case of the Coalition faction you play in the campaign) or a single class of unit (in the case of the Gaalsien you fight in the campaign). There is also a Baserunner unit, which I’ll get into in a bit, when I discuss multiplayer. But mostly, the player’s force consists of the Carrier, harvester units, and their army. The Coalition in particular makes use of deployable structures, but there are few other economic or non-combat requirements in the mix.

In some ways, the streamlining of the Homeworld formula is the game’s most notable change and success. If we’re being honest, maneuvering in 3 dimensions could be a bit cumbersome at times: a 2D plane on which to operate is simply more manageable. Additionally, with terrain like cliffs which block pathing and obstruct line of sight, sand dunes which can also obstruct line of site, elevation which confers bonuses or inflicts penalties (low elevation is a bad place to engage) are welcome features that add depth to interactions and I think are welcome. Additionally, terrain that is traversable by different types of unit can create interesting dynamics at times: most notably, narrow valleys which army units can traverse but Carriers must circumvent. This makes for occasional sword-and-shield maneuvers as armies poke through choke points and retreat when they’re in danger.

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In RTS, I feel that terrain is very important. In too many RTS, maps are passive participants, not adding considerably to the gestalt of the play experience. In games like Company of Heroes, Dawn of War or Red Alert 2/3, the map plays a more active role in the player’s strategic and tactical decision-making, and we see these considerations as well in Deserts of Kharak. Engagements are shaped and influenced in meaningful ways by the terrain, which provides the player more to think about. I’m all for it.

Lastly, before continuing on to a more substantive discussion of mechanics and gameplay, I want to reiterate something I said in my previous Homeworld DoK coverage. This game is gorgeous. The ship models are on par with what is seen in Company of Heroes 2, and puts Deserts of Kharak in the running for most visually engaging RTS we’ve seen. Certainly, in recent years, but perhaps one of the most visually impressive RTS ever created. The user interface is underwhelming, with 90’s era health bars and thin green/white/red lines for selection, targeting, pathing etc, but the in-game modeling and visuals are absolutely top notch.

The heads up display is less impressive, taking the player back to conventions seen in older RTS. With games like Grey Goo, Planetary Annihilation, and Company of Heroes putting significant work into immersive and intuitive UIs, Deserts of Kharak’s is underwelming. But this is, to me, a secondary consideration. It’s easy to forgive the lack of UI polish with everything else going on in the game.

Mechanics + Multiplayer

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Deserts of Kharak’s strongest element is assuredly its campaign. As I mentioned in my previous article, the campaign is hauntingly atmospheric, full of starkly vast spaces and lonely stretches of desert, and challenging. I’ll touch on this more in my next section. The multiplayer, at least in the game’s launch state, falls short of the promise of the game’s mechanics.

One of the strongest and most interesting elements of the game is the Carrier’s mobility. However, in both the campaign and the multiplayer, this seems oddly de-emphasized. It is as if the developers were being cautious, or were unsure of how to design around this unique feature. In the campaign, the Carrier is often left up on a plateau or stuck down in the dunes, while its armies swarm around the map completing objectives and fighting Gaalsien battlegroups. Similarly, in multiplayer, I seldom found myself moving the Carrier much, if at all, especially when playing Gaalsien.

The layout of most multiplayer matches incorporates a somewhat traditional RTS setup, with roughly a third or so of each map sectioned off into a “base sector” or “home turf” for each player, and it is in these that most or all resources on the map are found. The central and contested map area tends to feature the mach objectives: 3 automatically respawning relics Artifacts that must be collected by a player’s Baserunner and deposited at their drop-off zone. The first player to retrieve 5 of these Artifacts (or who destroys their opponent’s Carrier) is the winner.

In practice, this setup actually works fairly well for the most part, aside from the negligible mobility requirements for the Carrier (which to me are a crying shame). Conceptually, I have some deep issues with this setup.

First of all, despite the attention to detail the rest of the game receives, drop-off areas are just an arbitrarily-placed ring of pylons on the map. There’s no real asset or logically-driven factor behind the placement of these zones: the only goal was apparently to have such a zone and to place it in an area of the map roughly equidistant to each player’s start location. In terms of map design, it’s functional but scarcely supportable. Any existing game asset: structures, dropships, some sort of supply cache etc, would make this design more sensible within the game’s context. I certainly hope that future map designs take into account the story they’re telling. What are they delivering their artifacts to?

Also, the Artifacts themselves automatically self-extract at regular intervals. Sensible, to be sure, but again a bit uninspired. Perhaps such a design was tested and turned down, but I can’t help but want my Baserunner to have to manually extract each Artifact, and to defend it while the artifact is extracted, and then defend it (as is currently the case in multiplayer) en route to the drop-off zone. Such a system should seem to feel, to me, more satisfying mechanically as well as in the context of the story. Should they release modding tools for the game, I plan to test such a system myself.

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The pacing of multiplayer feels appropriate to me, with matches tending to last around 10 minutes if the players are matched well, the player constantly expanding their force and building new units, the choices the player is making being meaningful: tech to air, or focus on railguns, or power through to cruisers? Scouting is difficult, thanks to Carriers coming equipped with weapons of not inconsiderable firepower.

Actually, I have found that Carriers are well situated within the context of the game. They’re able to take out small groups of units early on, but midgame armies give them pause, and can wear them down over time. Late-game units pose a serious threat, and if Carriers take them out, it would be with considerable damage to their hulls. So, the Carrier ends up being a powerful supporting unit without devolving into a MOBA-style hero (which would be a tragedy).

With access to the full unit lists of both factions, I’ve become more-or-less at peace with the unit design in Deserts of Kharak. Unit abilities are a welcome addition, such as the Gaalsien Missle Cruiser’s ground-targeted area of effect attack, which damages friendly units as well as foes, and is a counter to enemy light attack vehicles only if it manages to hit them. Rail Guns still feel odd to me as an alternative to artillery weapons, but as I mention in my preview, they work well with the game’s line of sight system so I can appreciate the choice.

Air units feel quite powerful, but I believe that a recent patch (released shortly before the publication of this article) implemented a balance fix to air units. Additionally, in opposition to my earlier statement, air units can, in fact, be individually controlled, though their default area attack command is a simple way to get some mileage out of them. They are best handled through the sensors manager, by the way.

On the topic of air units, the game’s counter system escalates greatly with the addition of Air, and Cruisers, each of which require a deep commitment from the opposing player in order to properly counter. Cruisers have many times the hull integrity of smaller craft, making them require a significant anti-armor investment from opponents, and air units move fast and hit hard, requiring (again) significant preparation from opponents to properly counter.

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Scouting is of paramount importance in Deserts of Kharak, which is frustrating in part because of a number of factors. First, fast units tend to be fragile, and losing units early can be quite bad due to the fact that all units are produced from the Carrier (or from expensive Production Cruisers if you’re playing Gaalsien) meaning that falling behind in army size can be a terrible challenge to overcome. Secondly, an enemy’s unit choice can in most cases only be inferred, as upgrades and research are evidenced on the game map. So, you only really know they’re going Cruisers if you see one. Ditto, air units. I expect that scouting strategies will mature as the game itself matures.

It’s difficult going into additional depth on the multiplayer, as balance is an evolving beast. It’s moderately paced, with units in most cases dying relatively slowly due to low damage-per-second, per-HP. This is moderated as units tend to move slowly relative to their attack range, meaning that getting an injured unit out of combat for repairs is no mean feat. With the dual objectives of “take out enemy Carrier” and “capture more Artifacts” both benefiting from a sizable military commitment, both are possible and roughly equally attractive, which in some ways is a plus.

Overall, I feel that I’ve been hard on the multiplayer, as I feel that BBI and Gearbox have some growing to do in this area. I feel that fundamentally, there’s a workable product here that just needs some TLC to turn into an excellent one.

Campaign

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The campaign is the game’s strongest suit, and is likely alone worth the cost of entry. The campaign makes the titular deserts of the planet Kharak into vast and lonely places, often inimical to life or technology, and riddled with the secrets of civilizations both ancient and current in the game’s story.

Mechanically, some interesting steps are taken. In an early mission, the player’s Sensors Mode is taken from them via distortion caused by sandstorms, and in another, dust devils threaten the player’s forces as they explore the map. Enemy forces come fast and frequently, and skillful play is required to maintain one’s own forces in the light of limited income and abundant enemies. Likewise, as in the original Homeworld, units are maintained from mission to mission (if the player prefers, they can use default forces for a given mission, to minimize the impact of unit composition choices from previous in the campaign from altering the player’s performance). I greatly enjoy, as I did in the Ardennes Assault campaign, this ‘iron man’ feeling of the persistence of consequences in an RTS setting. You’re not just fighting battles, you’re surviving in a harsh and unforgiving world.

My biggest complaints with the campaign are twofold. First, in many missions map size forces extended slogs across the desert. While this is a welcome lull in some cases, it often feels frustrating, waiting for slow-moving units like Support Carriers to cross the map to further the player’s position. This extends to harvesting operations, which in some cases are separated from combat, so that the player is asked to harvest and train units outside of combat, which again adds to the overall length of each mission, and intentionally or otherwise, left me asking myself if the design team felt their players incapable of simultaneously managing combat and resource gathering.

The other frustration I felt was that occasionally, the player is unable to utilize the Carrier as a mobile base. In many situations, it is stuck on a cliff or otherwise behind an obstruction through which it cannot pass, but its unit can. This is often, thankfully, turned into a tactically interesting situation requiring the player to manage their army on the field, and defend the Carrier and its harvesting operations, so at least it was mechanically interesting. It did happen fairly often, however, which led me to wonder how well some missions’ design would hold up if the Carrier were allowed free reign.

Overall, however, let me clarify that this campaign is one of the best you’re likely to find in an RTS modern or classic. Despite some hesitation to allow players more free use of the Carrier, it’s well told, overall well paced, and generally an atmospheric delight. Please note that while I understand some creative liberties were taken with the Homeworld story, I am unable to point those out specifically at this time. Perhaps an astute reader would point them out in the comments? Either way, this did in no way diminish my enjoyment of the campaign, though it might if the player is a major fan of the franchise.

Recommendation

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Deserts of Kharak has launched with an excellent campaign and a rough-around-the-edges multiplayer. It launched, furthermore, without replays, observer mode, or bindable hotkeys, which some players consider essential to their enjoyment of a title. It is gorgeous, atmospheric, and at times as cumbersome as the Carriers it tasks the player with utilizing. But it has a heart and a soul. I find myself, despite all of my quibbling complaints, drawn back to it, to turn over another facet of its design, to try a different tactic in a multiplayer whose community is already sadly diminished. It’s drawn me back away, for now at least, from Planetary Annihilation and Company of Heroes 2, as I continue to gain appreciation for how it functions. I believe that over time, Blackbird Interactive will solve the multiplayer issues, add features requested by the community, and bring multiplayer up to a quality where it can be enjoyed by shoutcasters and viewers. It’s mechanically sound, only polish is lacking at this point.

As negative as I may have been at times, for me it comes from a place of desiring to build up something to be the best it can be. As someone not overly nostalgic of the Homeworld franchise, but deeply interested in the implications of mobile production in RTS, I have high expectations and high hopes for Deserts of Kharak, and I feel that it is a worthwhile game to play.

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One Comment on “In the Dunes, the Carriers: Deserts of Kharak Non-Review

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