Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Review

To See A World In a Grain of Sand

We cling to the Kapisi. Battered and fragile, it is our home now. It is a massive aircraft carrier crawling through the endless shifting sands that stretch across our planet, Kharak. Thousands of miles from home, on a fool's errand to find some MacGuffin that might save us from the expanding deserts, we are alone. When we launched this expedition, traitors and zealots destroyed everything we left behind; our only choice is to press on.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, despite its otherworldly setting, creates believable drama through stellar writing. With emotive subtlety, layered characters, and a pervasive, all-consuming dread, it cinches the heart and holds you in duress. You are alone and the Kapisi is all you have. Kharak excels in generating hopelessness, and much of that comes through in the muted desperation of its battle-worn characters. They've all fought for as long as they can remember, and you can hear that in their speech. A sly comment on the radio is met with a warm rigidity. It's strange, but affecting to hear the essence of humanity underneath characters' military-forged demeanor.

Your ship is your mobile base of operations in this fleet-based strategy game. Like others of its sort, you gather resources, conduct research, and build out units, turrets, and weapons of mass destruction to field against your opponents in battle. The campaign follows the Kapisi on its journey to find a powerful artifact. At first, the ship is something to protect. It is slow, almost painfully so, but it grows with you. As you push on through the campaign, you earn and unlock more abilities for your benevolent monster. Much like the progression of the StarCraft 2 sub-series, it's beautiful and satisfying to watch the machine you spend so long guarding and protecting mature into a weapon of terrifying power.

Kharak chisels the genre down to its bare essentials and iterates upon them with tenacious precision, making for a real-time strategy masterpiece. Anyone familiar with the strategy genre understands the broad rock-paper-scissors planning that forms its backbone. While games like Starcraft are expansive and use 20 or more unit types, Kharak cuts these down to only seven fundamentals--resource gatherers, fast-assault vehicles, tanks, artillery, cruisers, aircraft, and your carrier. Each is identifiable with a simple quadrilateral, which distills a chic language to communicate only what you need. "These diamonds are flashing red, I should send my squares to help." It sounds silly, but it helps you stay informed and constantly engaged.

The strategic map shows the sensor ranges of your fleet and perfectly summarizes the complexity of a warzone.
The strategic map shows the sensor ranges of your fleet and perfectly summarizes the complexity of a warzone.

That's important, because your opponents are fast and vicious. You have to develop your strategies on multiple fronts all at once. It's a tough task to get everything up-and-running by the five minute mark, but it's critical. Without clear and concise communication between player and game, that sort of rapid expansion and management is all but impossible, but Kharak nails it.

Even if you're not following the battlefield's visuals, constant radio chatter will help you stay informed, too. And once again, sharp writing and shrewd acting both sell the world and help you play better. Whether it's a commander calmly-yet-emphatically telling you that you've lost Control Group One, or that scanners have identified incoming enemy tanks, every snippet works to break down the walls between you and the game. Certain clips are repeated too, organically highlighting their import. These touches, while insignificant keep your mind where it needs to be--planning and strategizing.

There aren’t any massive research or technology trees here. Unit and carrier upgrades are still important, but the focus of minute-to-minute management falls onto balancing unit types and their position. Each unit has a clear advantage and clear strength, and only the mighty carrier is a jack-of-all-trades. The catch there is that it resembles a fusion of the King and Queen in chess. Spearheading an assault with your carrier is a powerful tactic that can turn the tide of almost any battle, but once you lose it, you're done.

When you’re not directing the carrier’s production or resource-gathering, battles revolve around the light-heavy-ranged trio of basic units. You have to push each front and keep several squads around to guard explorers as you seek more resources to build up your forces. From there, you'll jump to light aircraft and small land-cruisers, and that's it. These developments are important, but the speed with which you can hit the technological cap means that balancing your approach and grabbing resources is more crucial than ever.

Cutscenes are sharp and communicate the story of Kharak beautifully.
Cutscenes are sharp and communicate the story of Kharak beautifully.

Refined simplicity does have its shortcomings though. And Kharak is somewhat bare-bones. The campaign, while the most compelling story I've seen in a strategy title in years, is only about ten hours long. Multiplayer and skirmish modes only have a handful of playable maps too. With only two factions and no integrated modding support, some players may soon exhaust all that Kharak has to offer. Though, if that's the price of such an ingenious game, then I'll pay it.

Homeworld was always about loneliness. It was always about clarity and focus. Kharak isn't new in that regard, but it is special. It shows us that when you get things right -- and excel -- that formula isn't easy to exhaust. Kharak does its part to add to that, though. Its use of voice acting and efficient visuals is a brilliant addition that's far from superficial. It helps narrow the scope of what you need to manage, so that it can load you up with as much as your brain can handle. It’s a fast, daunting experience that's tough to shake, making Kharak as intoxicating as Homeworld has ever been.

The Good

  • Gripping, pervasive atmosphere
  • Exceptional writing and acting sells a tight military drama
  • Focused play drops all but the bare essentials
  • Masterfully executed design

The Bad

  • Too few skirmishes and multiplayer maps

About the Author

Daniel spent 10 hours playing Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak's campaign, and another 15 hours in multiplayer and skirmish matches.