Deserts of Kharak can’t be a real Homeworld game, it’s not even set in space. Right? Wrong. That’s about as off as saying it can’t be a Call of Duty game if it’s not set in World War 2, look where that went. The first thing you’ll notice about Deserts of Kharak is how much the Carrier resembles the old Mothership, it’s a mobile base that produces units, collects resources from Scavengers, fabricates new units, unlocks upgrades and is armed with a range of weaponry. It doesn’t take long to work out just how Homeworld like the game feels, everything from the visuals, the voice acting, the story, the economy to the raw gameplay itself. It’s quite impressive how authentic it feels, despite being a completely different setting and from a new development studio, albeit with a few of the original team.
The Multiplayer mostly revolves around countering your opponent’s army composition and managing your production. All the units make up a soft counter system which creates a great dynamic since everything needs to be used differently to fulfill their intended role. For example, Railguns counter Armoured Assault Vehicles(AAV), but need to remain at long range, and should use high ground for additional effectiveness. Light Attack Vehicles(LAV) counter Railguns, but need to charge up close and are easily warded off by AAV’s, so it’s often necessary to use their mobility to outflank or ambush the Railguns. Hidden beneath the large scale and wide zoom lies an abundance of micro such as focus firing, unit preservation, kiting, using high ground and shunting power systems to modify the Carrier’s combat capabilities. Additionally, units can be upgraded with abilities to provide more utility such as a quick speed boost or smoke shells that can negate the range advantage of Railguns.
The game flows excellently due to the artifact retrieval game mode, in which players must capture artifacts and escort them to their extraction point. The artifact retrieval mode is integral to the success of the multiplayer, as the Carrier can deter economic harassment. Once the players start to expand their salvaging out away from the Carrier, harassing salvagers and support cruisers becomes very effective, mainly because combat units are generally out contesting the artifacts. The positioning and decision making becomes tense, between attacking and defending the three artifact spawns, and harassing and defending the salvagers. Deserts of Kharak is an exciting multiplayer experience, it feels fast paced and frantic, but not in a taxing APM sense. There’s also a large emphasis on scouting, both in terms of positioning as well as monitoring the opponent’s army composition and tech.
Deserts of Kharak is the best multiplayer RTS we’ve had in quite a while, but tragically, it’s potential for a thriving multiplayer community is completely squandered by a few core issues and a lack of vital features. First and foremost, the game is region locked. 2016, and we get an RTS game that’s region locked… It’s absurd. This is particularly an issue for me since I’m in Australia, which is probably the smallest region. I went to play some games on launch day and was met with a blank server list, followed by searching on automatch for 22 minutes with no luck. Fortunately, steam invites seem to work fine, so I was able to play custom games with people on my steam from Europe and America. I’m pretty embedded within a few RTS communities, so this was an easy workaround, but what if I didn’t know anyone, and I was left to fend for myself? Turns out you can change your download location in Steam settings which will move you to a better region to find games easier. Of course, I didn’t know that until somebody told me. So why the bloody hell is Deserts of Kharak region locked, especially when you can play with no problems from people all around the world? Well, probably because of the games horrendous networking issues.
When Deserts of Kharak lags, it lags hardcore. I don’t understand why exactly, but if you get a small amount of lag, it seems to mess up the entire game. The game will slow down and stop at an obnoxious rate, and chances are players will drop. I didn’t seem to have any issues playing 1v1, but as soon as I tried some 2v2’s, half of my games ended up with severe lag and everyone dropping. Most likely, there is someone to blame with a laggy connection, but lag in an RTS game isn’t normally the end of the world. Sure you’ll get a bit of delay, and maybe a few waits here and there, but lag in Deserts of Kharak seems to break everything and becomes unplayable. I’m certainly not the only person to experience these, other users have reported the same issue. So this is just speculation, but the region locking was probably a half-arsed solution to the networking problems of which Deserts of Kharak suffers.
Team games really aren’t my cup of tea, so I could have managed with that, but it doesn’t stop there. Deserts of Kharak has no replay support or observer mode. No. Replays. You know how in every RTS game how you can watch replays and it’s great? Yeah, you can’t watch replays in Deserts of Kharak. The lack of replays is so frustrating for me personally as I am a Shoutcaster for RTS games, and I’m always super keen to expand our content onto hip new RTS games. I was excited to do content and shoutcasts for Deserts of Kharak because I think the game is fantastic. But I can’t… it’s physically impossible for me to produce shoutcasts for the game because there is no replay support.
Replays are so important for an RTS games’ multiplayer community because content draws people in and gets them excited to play. Let’s Players and Shoutcasters are free marketing for a game and should be embraced. It’s also necessary to keep a healthy multiplayer community, which is what causes players to introduce their friends to the game. Replays and subsequent content, are a tool to teach new players how the game works and showcasing the top level play out for everyone to witness and learn from. It will increase the overall skill level in the game, which results in a lower skill gap between players causing a better experience for everyone involved. Posting ones replays can be used for asking for advice on forums, to expose balance problems or report bugs. It’s also necessary for the community to run tournaments, no one is going to bother if a tournament can’t be viewed. Omitting replays was obviously just because they ran out of budget and time, but it’s detrimental to the longevity of the game, so is it really saving money in the long run? Observer mode is also pretty important too, especially for tournaments, but certainly isn’t as vital as replays.
My last peeve is the complete lack of rebindable hotkeys; this isn’t necessarily a problem if the default hotkeys are flawless, but the hotkeys in Deserts of Kharak leave a lot to be desired. For example, the camera is rotated by holding down right click, the same button that issues unit commands. Since it’s a button you’re pressing all the time, I would often accidentally rotate the camera. I’ve gotten used to it now, but it was a little frustrating and would have been entirely avoidable if I could just change it to something like ALT. Players should always have the ability to customise the controls and hotkeys to suit their preferences and past experiences. Grid layout is objectively the most efficient, but if you have a player that’s invested thousands of hours playing Starcraft II, then that player is going to want a hotkey layout that resembles what they have ingrained in their muscle memory.
This review pains me to write because I genuinely enjoy Deserts of Kharak. It seems like Blackbird Interactive had a solid idea of what they wanted to deliver, and realised that vision fantastically with a well-developed set of mechanics and unit dynamics. Fans of the original Homeworld games, in particular, will appreciate it’s authentic revival of the franchise. I hope they fix these issues and implement the missing features soon before it’s too late and the multiplayer community dies off.