Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak in the test - is that still Homeworld?

Author: Martin Deppe
Date: 2016-01-22 18:30:00
17 years after the ingenious strategy classic Homeworld, the prequel Deserts of Kharak crashes on a desert planet. Worried question: Did the fun survive?

Looked at the sand

The best news: Despite the dimensional jump, Deserts of Kharak, which is set around 100 years before the first Homeworld, has not become a 08/15 real-time strategy game. Because we find many virtues from the space predecessors here. Above all, a steadily growing fleet with ever better units, which we take with us in the excitingly staged campaign over 13 missions and are constantly developing.

Instead of unwinding the worn-out procedure of building the base, stealing resources and pounding the army out of the ground, which has pushed the real-time strategy to the edge of the abyss, we feverishly with our mobile carrier mother ship »Kapisi« and the heroic scientist Rachel S'jet in her lively three-axle Baserunner.

Our mission: Somewhere on the literally devastated world of Kharak, a wrecked spaceship was discovered that is supposed to catapult our people off the planetary sofa and into space. We want to go there! It's just stupid that there are roughly a trillion plus one enemy between us and the saving anomaly. Namely the nasty Gaalsien - and a trillion grains of sand. The former constantly, but really constantly, send attack troops on us. About every minute such a mini army scurries past our viewing radius or straight towards us. Mostly, however, directly into their doom.

Comb the desert!

And the grains of sand? We can no longer see them after the fourth mission at the latest. Sure, such a desert planet usually consists of desert per se, but how about oases, bases, at least some variety? After all, there are the sand masses in the variants desert by day, desert by night, desert at sunrise, desert at sunset, desert with sandstorm (which rubs off the armor of careless units in a snap).

After all, there are tactically usable elements such as narrow gorges and easily defended plateaus, dunes and cliffs not only offer height advantages in combat, but also cover thanks to the realistic firing lines. Yes, the developers are exhausting the desert setting to the full. Nevertheless, the sandy-brown planet will eventually come to our attention - and we understand why Rachel and her people want to get down there so badly.

The fact that the trip through the permanent desert doesn't turn into dull shuffling is due to the great atmosphere. Because of the heat and the occasional sandstorm, our sensors only look a few ridges of the dunes - and an army of the Gaalsien could be lurking behind the next. Even if it doesn't, the constantly sounding (English) radio messages between our units keep the tension between our units.

Regardless of whether it is “Keep your eyes on the scanner!” Or “Enemy signature detected!” (There is only English voice output with German subtitles), the slogans always reflect current events, comment on kills and losses. At the same time, Deserts of Kharak shines with outstanding art design, desert ships, buggies and tanks look great, powerful, harmonious and - like the menus - perfectly capture the Homeworld style.

And again and again there are well-staged cutscenes to be seen that elegantly merge from the actual game events into the beautifully drawn films - and back again. By the way: In-game cutscenes are not precalculated, we always see the units actually involved and their positions, instead of prefabricated X tanks and Y cruisers. Disadvantage: We cannot intervene while a sequence is running. If you are unlucky, you will even lose units helplessly while watching.

Flying scissors, stupid paper

And losing this unit is quick. Because Deserts of Kharak is based on a brutal rock-paper-scissors principle: While a heavy railgun dismantles armored opponents over half the screen, it has no chance against a squad of light attack vehicles. Because these nimble LAFs circle the gun like Indians around a wagon castle, so that the railgun can no longer even aim.

The LAF, in turn, do not get any cuts against homing missiles, because they don't care about the rumge curve. Attack cruisers and battle cruisers are packed to the brim with heavy cannons and special attacks, but they die faster than artillery and railgun fire than a house fern in the Sahara.

Nevertheless, the balance wobbles alarmingly, at the latest when researching the fighter-bombers, of which our flagship carrier can bunker up to 15. Because the aviators reach their target faster than any ground unit, fire target-seeking missiles from an almost foolproof distance and immediately turn off again. Whereby "target-seeking" really means target-seeking, because in contrast to railgun, tank cannon and Co., air-to-surface missiles almost always hit their target and cut through armor like paper.

And even if the AI opponent has anti-aircraft units with them, we hardly lose any planes because their hit-and-run tactics simply leave no time to defend themselves. But it gets worse: Enemy units can always be shot together motionless from the air. We tried this out in different missions; even after three or four air strikes and a dozen lost buddies, the rest of them wait like a herd of cows for the butcher instead of at least retiring. And raw material harvesters like to stand motionless next to mined deposits - even under fire.

Deadly carrier

The raw materials are available in the variants red and blue, whereby red occurs more often, and the rarer blue is used for high-quality units such as combat cruisers and aviators. We usually have enough of it. But if we accidentally burn our planes because we overlooked enemy flak and have to build new ones, the raw material store is quickly exhausted. In addition to resources lying around bored, the blue ones in particular are hiding in large wrecks that protrude from the sand at predetermined positions on the map.

Our heroine Rachel can blow this debris open, then the raw materials will tumble out - if we reach them. Because the wrecks like to lie behind enemy lines and generally not at all where we should actually be. So we have to accept detours, exciting thing. Resources that have been blown up and lying around can be dragged with harvesters in supply cruisers or our flagship carrier. What is going on incredibly lame in comparison to the hectic battles, here urgently had to speed up the time.

The units also move very leisurely, so that there is always idle between individual battles, and we have to watch our tanks and harvesters sneaking around. And not only is an acceleration key missing, the rest of the key assignments cannot be changed for the release. That can be annoying.

For example, we have to laboriously press »F« to attach the camera to a unit instead of simply pressing the middle mouse button as in the old Homeworlds. And we don't move the map section with WASD, but with the arrow keys. The developers are considering adding a change option if it turns out to be "important". We would say: yes.

After all, we always find artifacts in blown wrecks that we can pack into our carrier. This brings us instant bonuses such as discounts when building cruisers, but also boosts for our wearer. For example, improved cooling, with which we can get more out of our flagship.

We are allowed to distribute its energy over four systems: reactive armor, automatic repair of nearby units, firepower and weapon range. With every mission, our carrier becomes stronger, but also extremely strong, especially with repair cruisers in escort. The richly armored warship with superior armament and range single-handedly tears whole columns of tanks and gun batteries to ruin.

Saving multi-front fight

In short: The Kapisi is simply overwhelming on all three levels of difficulty. She can do many missions on her own: Instead of stealing awkwardly with Rachel into an enemy base and switching off the turret control systems with an EMP blow, we can just as easily drive the carrier around the outside and switch off the cannons with missiles. We do not accept the argument "then it doesn't work!" Because the dangerous path with Rachel is about as attractive as climbing Mount Everest - only to find out that an escalator leads up on the other side.

Even worse: towards the end of the campaign, the mother ship can even shoot down a cruise missile. It reloads for a very, very long time, but dismantles entire troops when it hits. Even if we shoot him at random on the sensor map where red circles indicate enemy groups. If we miss, we just reload the score and shoot elsewhere. We only need our normal units for emergencies.

Or for those missions in which the carrier does not play a major role. For example, because he has to park behind a narrow ravine that is too narrow for him. Or because there is a fire on several fronts that he cannot be on at the same time. Then Deserts of Kharak shows its strengths, we have to constantly protect harvesters, hold positions, rescue battered battlecruisers, and be careful on several fronts.

In its best moments, Deserts of Kharak develops a wonderful hectic pace, everything happens at the same time, we lose railguns to nimble attack buggies, the Krezer are under artillery fire, the bombers are caught in flak fire on approach. Then the new Homeworld forces us to make mistakes - and that's great! For example, we have to decide at lightning speed whether the sensor squiggles are now telling a harmless two-man patrol or whether our downfall is rolling in. Where are we sending troops to? Do the harvesters need protection? Can Rachel reach any wreckage unmolested?

Then at the latest we have to constantly switch to the schematic sensor map, which has three major advantages: It shows almost the entire map and all visible units as tactical symbols. And we can continue to issue orders, and in theory we can even spend the whole game here. And third: it is pleasantly cool blue, not desert brown!