I encountered the original Homeworld during unusually troubling circumstances. Mere weeks had passed since my mother had finally succumbed to a prolonged illness and I was adrift in space. Home was gone, the journey ahead unthinkably hard.
It’s no wonder that the plight of Homeworld’s Hiigarans sank its pincers into my mind and refused to let go. At the game’s opening the desert dwellers of Kharak are forced into nomadism by the destruction of their world, their only salvation the beacon of a distant planet they once called home. Their existence, like my own, forever changed. It’s hard to express the sense of kinship I felt with this clan of wanderers whose exodus was catalysed by loss.
Faced with a daunting reality I amassed a collection of games that I hoped would let me escape the miasma of daily life. Of this medicinal regimen, Homeworld was not only the most cathartic, but also turned out to be the most influential. Relic’s operatic RTS came to inform my perspective on gaming and the wider arts for years, and in fact, still does. What other game produces drama with no cast, theatricality with no stage, and strategic gameplay with no landscape? A flawed experiment it may have been, but a wholly unique one.
Needless to say, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, a direct prequel to the original, risks treading on hallowed ground, not just for me, but also for the devoted following that the series has amassed over the past seventeen years. The delicately assembled flavor of these classic games is idiosyncratic in the extreme; so much so that even the remastered edition was approached with caution, and in some cases scorn, when Gearbox chose to debut the collection with an all-manly man, all-guitar wailing trailer that was wholly disparate from the series’ gentile character.
Learning from Gearbox’s mistake, Deserts of Kharak adopts a more sensitive approach under the yoke of Blackbird Interactive, a studio populated by Homeworld veterans from Relic Entertainment. This prequel’s attitude to its forebears is that of an antique historian to an ancient relic. The serene atmosphere which lent the first games their unique character has been preserved, whilst the mechanical design has been titivated to accommodate changing tastes.
The reverence felt by Blackbird toward its source material is evident from the moment of launch. Homeworld’s cutscenes consisted of black and white montages, over which the low vibration of Campbell Lane’s narration (the voice of the Bentusi) would slowly unfold. These interludes were the tonal nemesis of the bombastic braindeath to be found between missions in the likes of StarCraft. Here you would find no hyperbolic gunfights, no half-second camera shots, just the glacial turning of a picture book’s worn pages.
Deserts of Kharak pulls back the curtain with similar delicacy. Drawn cutscenes return, this time in a bloom of color that acknowledges the forward transition to 2016 whilst retaining the gentle adagio of their monochrome forebears. Every aspect of production from scoring to interface brings together these overlapping impressions of past and present: familiar Arabian melodies sweep over sand swept dunes that, whilst not quite as minimalist as Homeworld’s empty reaches, imply with their homogeneous vasts the same sense of loss, of absent civilization, that the original communicated so well. In-game menus don’t dare occlude this vista (as in the original game) and trespass only slightly into the game’s all-important view of the world below. Somehow, Blackbird has transposed a space-opera onto the surface of a desert world.
I was at once transported back to those days when the tectonic rolling of capital ships through space echoed my own feeling of suspension. Strategy games, dying breed that they are, are rarely calming affairs, busying themselves as they feel they must with the creation of cacophonous death. Homeworld was a lone voice that dared speak quietly in a room of games clamouring for attention with screams and wails. Karan S’Jet spoke in soothing tones, like a priest offering comfort to his flock. The low hum of ships was unheard at a distance, as was the electric blue crackling of ion cannon fire. This same sense prevails in Deserts of Kharak: units crawl gentlemanly forward, most not even daring to gallop, and every audiovisual aspect avoids hyperbole at all costs. StarCraft has been described as a game of chess at 100mph. If so, Deserts of Kharak is a game played at 5mph, and is all the better for it.
Mechanically speaking, Deserts of Kharak is more than a redux, it’s a vast improvement on the first two games, partly thanks to its commitment to terrestrial combat across a two-dimensional plane. Homeworld’s experiment in multi-angular space skirmishing was laudable but never delivered a truly compelling tactical experience. Attacking from above, or below, was rarely advantageous, and pincer movements could be easily conducted on the more comprehensible lateral axis. By creating a map void of obstacles, and opening up the entire map high and low, the game unintentionally rendered distinctions between the vertical and horizontal functionally meaningless.
The dunes of Kharak are the antithesis of this arrangement: height is everything. The basic tenets of combat bear a great similarity to the under-acclaimed RTS Ground Control, which was one of Homeworld’s more sophisticated contemporaries. Units attacking from the high ground receive accuracy and damage bonuses, transforming peaks and crests into a valuable resource. Smaller forces, cunningly puppeteered, can overwhelm assailants of far greater numbers. In these circumstances there exists no better environment than a desert to serve as playground. Kharak’s endless sine waves and craterous traps provide ample opportunity for ambush, or to mount defence, ensuring that players never forget that what is coming is secondary to where it’s coming from.
Of course, the ‘what’ still matters. The specter of rock, paper, scissors which looms over every strategy game is ever-present in Deserts of Kharak. Light assault vehicles counter long-range railguns which themselves rip apart armored assault vehicles which in turn make mincemeat of light assault vehicles, and so the dragon continues to devour its own tail eternally. There is nothing unusual in this, nor should it come as a surprise that most units now possess abilities which require human activation, or that for the first time a Homeworld game features a version of the hero unit. After a decade on the bench it would be folly for Homeworld to eschew all of the conventions to which strategy players have become accustomed.
Where Deserts of Kharak distinguishes itself, as did its predecessors, is its spiritual core: the mobile base. With the exception of Homeworld: Cataclysm’s Kun-Laan, which featured a cannon of enough stature to redden the cheeks of Freud, the franchise’s distinctive motherships held little tactical importance outside of research, resource harvesting, and unit production. The Kapisi, the land-carrier which bears the hopes of the S’Jet clan deep into the desert, is a different beast. In addition to performing its parental duties as center of operations, this mechanical leviathan serves as queen of the chess board.
It’s possible to shunt power from the Kapisi’s reserves into its four subsystems: range, weapons, armor, and repair. Said reserves are finite, and initially it’s only possible to power one subsystem at a time, but as the campaign progresses players can upgrade the Kapisi’s core and allocate ever increasing amounts of energy. What results is a dynamic vessel affording more utility to an armed force than any other unit. Relegating the Kapisi to defence and collection of resources would be madness. During my playthrough the carrier was seen charging headlong into the enemy ranks, armor at full, soaking up damage from hostile cruisers. At other times I would lay the Kapisi as a physical barrier to block an enemy’s retreat, or funnel every last watt into its ranged capacity to gently whittle down my foe’s artillery from a safe distance. The Kapisi is no hero unit – it is general, mother, footsoldier, and cavalry all rolled into one.
It consistently surprises me how Relic, and now Blackbird Interactive, can engender emotional attachment between players and inanimate vessels. The mothership of Homeworld, with Karan S’Jet at its core, took on an unusual dualism where it was both person and polis, the face of a civilization and the civilization itself. Whether in cutscene or in-game, Homeworld was always reluctant to make celebrities of its human cast so that the ‘us’ could become synonymous with ‘mothership’.
Deserts of Kharak introduces a cast of characters – Rachel S’Jet, a scientist, along with her brother and a couple of chorus-level personas – but the star of the show is once again its vehicular titan. The Kapisi carries with it the dreams of the entire clan, not only by means of its mission, but also through its omni-utility and sense of presence in any given activity. This behemoth is the beating heart of the S’Jet force, and its relative mobility, which is often forced by enemy aggression, creates a sense of nomadism similar to the original Homeworld. When the carrier moves, your home moves with it.
As engulfed with uncontrollable nostalgia as I may be, I’m positive of two things: firstly, people who played the first two Homeworld games will love Deserts of Kharak. Secondly, the Homeworld games have no peers in contemporary gaming. The StarCrafts and Planetary Annihilations of this world will continue throwing disproportionately sized rockets and wrestling with emotional depth much as a lubricated monkey might a vicious anaconda. Meanwhile, the Homeworld games will stand apart as testament to the power of delicacy and reserve. Whilst this latest installment might not leave me with the everlasting impression the original did, it’s hard to imagine how another successor could have done the job better.