Rambling Amidst the Dunes: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

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About as close as we’re ever going to get to Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak box art.

Today I will be breaking my personal injunction against talking about video games on this blog, partly because I recently found something really cool that I want to talk about, but mostly because I’ve been down in the dumps for the better part of several months, and I just want to write about something again. So, here we are.

The cool thing in question is Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, a prequel game to the long-running space real-time-strategy Homeworld series. Developed by Blackbird Interactive and published by Gearbox Software, it was released to no fanfare in January of this year. I only found out about it a few weeks ago, after watching a Let’s Play of the game. While I’ve been out of the real-time-strategy scene for a long time (and, truth be told, I was never that good at any of them to begin with), a lot about the game piqued my interest, so I dropped a ridiculous amount of money on it and took the plunge.

To properly talk about Deserts of Kharak, I’m going to have to backpedal a bit and explain the setup of the first Homeworld game, released way way back in the misty past of 1999. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (though in all actuality it’s probably the distant future in the Whirlpool Galaxy), there was a windblown dustball of a world named Kharak, upon which dwelt a hardscrabble people that called themselves the Kushan. After digging up a starship in the desert and discovering their interstellar origins, the people of Kushan banded together to build the Mothership, a great colony ship that would transport their race to their ancestral homeworld of Hiigara. The game itself opens as the Mothership is beginning the shakedown cruise that will test the ship’s hyperspace drive. Naturally, things go immediately awry when the Mothership is set upon by pirates on her maiden flight. After holding them off, the Mothership returns to see Kharak in flames, and the truth is revealed: thousands of years ago, the Hiigarans lost a war to the Taiidani Empire, who exiled them from Hiigara and forbade them from ever again using hyperspace technology. As punishment for breaking this forgotten edict, the Taiidani returned to flash-fry Kharak’s atmosphere, wiping out all but a few hundred thousand of the Kushan, stashed away in orbital cryostorage in preparation for the journey to Hiigara. From there, the stage is set for a classic quest story, as the Kushan brave the dangers of the galaxy and the wrath of the Taiidan to make their  way to their promised land. An old story, but told well through both the narrative and the mechanics of the game.

Deserts of Kharak winds the clock back about a century and restricts its focus solely to Kharak. At the opening of the game, things are not going well for the Kushan. Kharak, a geologically inactive ball of rock and oxygen not much bigger than Mars, is a planet rapidly becoming uninhabitable. All the oceans and biomass have been swept away by the encroaching sands, and given the circumstances it seems likely that the atmosphere is leaching away into space as well. The Kushan are divided into “kiiths,” or clans, and there is little agreement over what is to be done. The kiiths clustering around the still-habitable north pole have banded together into a “Northern Coalition” to pool their resources and pursue an aggressive space program. However, they are opposed by the Gaalsiens, an exiled kiith who dwell in the deserts of the middle latitudes, preach of dire consequences for anyone who tries to leave Kharak, and enjoy a curiously high level of military technology. Matters finally come to a head when a mysterious power spike out in the deep desert is picked up by a Coalition satellite. After an initial expedition is lost with all hands, the kiiths of the Coalition outfit a new, bigger expedition to plunge into the heart of the Kharakian wastes and uncover the source of the readings. You take command of the contingent manned by kiith S’jet, the kiith of scientists, and over the next thirteen missions you trek deep into the desert, battling both the elements and the marauding Gaalsiens as you search for what you hope against hope will be the salvation of your people.

One of the most interesting aspects of Deserts of Kharak is how it translates the mechanics of the old Homeworld games from a space-based environment to a land-based one. Homeworld didn’t work off the same playbook as most real-time-strategy games of its time. Whether you went the Star/Warcraft route or the Command & Conquer route, the basics were the same: you had your central headquarters building, your unit-production building, your technology-tree unlock buildings, your base defenses and your superweapon. In Homeworld, your Mothership and your fleet are everything. Everything is mobile, and if you want to do anything, you need ships, and if you want to build or research things, you need to do it from the Mothership. Additionally, while most strategy games drop you into new missions with wildly different setups, in Homeworld your fleet and resource bank carry over from mission to mission. They’re mechanics that prompt a surprising amount of investment in the player; you’re not a general being dropped in by Command to handle some aspect of the front, you’re the leader of a band of brothers, alone on a perilous trek to the Promised Land. When you lose an expensive or high-ranked unit, it’s not just an inconvenience. You’re losing someone you invested in and managed for missions. It’s simple, but surprisingly effective.

Much to its credit, Deserts of Kharak contrives a way to recreate this design. This time around, your home away from home is the S’jet expedition carrier Kapisi, a hulking combination aircraft carrier and war factory that lumbers across the desert on immense tracks. Let’s get some pictures of her:

S'jet Carrier Kapisi

The Sakala-class expedition carrier Kapisi, forward dorsal perspective. This thing is peak science fiction.

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The Kapisi cruising the dunes with her escorts.

From there, most of the traditional ships of Homeworld are reworked into suitable forms. Instead of fighters, you get armored cars, tanks, and aircraft. Instead of smaller starships, you get armed crawlers akin to the things they used to transport the Space Shuttle. As for infantry, the game neatly elides the issue by making the scales and environments too inhospitable. Even the smallest vehicles stand some 6-7 meters high, and the endless kilometers of wasteland where the mercury rarely drops below 30 degrees Centigrade creates an environment only slightly less formidable than the depths of space.

As for the resource management, early on in the game the source of the Gaalsien technological edge is uncovered: Kharak is an immense graveyard of crashed starships. In every mission, you’ll be supplying yourself by uncovering sheared-off ship compartments, blowing them open, and mining out their both their resources which you use to build and upgrade your fleet, and their special artifacts which grant some great benefit to the Kapisi or her fleet. (In true Homeworld fashion, you’ll generally be trying to figure out how to keep the mission from ending so you can strip-mine the map before it’s time to go.)

I suppose if there is a weakness, it is how the story of the game is told. The original Homeworld is a relic of the old days of game storytelling, where the mechanisms to tell a story and describe a setting were still crude, and developers who came up with this great new fantasy world would expound on it in a fat manual full of lore. While a part of me does miss that approach, I have to admit it isn’t exactly easy to get involved in a game when everything you need explained is in something you don’t have. Deserts of Kharak is made for Homeworld fans, and if you’re new to the series you should probably spring for the “Expedition Guide” DLC and do a read-up on the first game just to get the proper context. (Just as an example of this, I’ve seen a few reviewers idly looking at the game from a postcolonial standpoint, wondering if the Gaalsiens are the victimized party in the conflict. After working my way through the lore of the first Homeworld, it seems to me that the crux of the Gaalsiens is that they are ultimately correct in their fears, but they don’t offer any viable alternative.) As for the basics of the story, the game is focused more on the quest than on character arcs, so the feeling of narrative progression is driven through the gameplay and outside challenges, but the few characters in the game are relatively pleasant. If anything, you’ll probably find yourself liking Rachel S’jet, the Kapisi‘s science officer, by virtue of the fact that your drive her around the battlefield as a specialized “hero” unit, but ultimately this is a story about the group and the mission rather than the individuals.

For myself, one of the major reasons I enjoyed Deserts of Kharak was in trying to pick out all the various influences. As the reviewer at Killscreen noted, the years of Middle Eastern wars have left their mark on the Homeworld universe. A lot of the game does seem to be aping the modern American military aesthetic, with men and women in flight suits and miked helmets, of the cool blue glow of telemetry readouts on plasma screens, of war machines silhouetted against the desert dusk like a Lockheed-Martin ad. Whenever you have an idle moment, you can zoom in to your units and hear them chatting with each other or with the Kapisi‘s comm officer over the official channels. Even some parts of the soundtrack include the processed warbling of radio transmissions. Still, I do think it is possible to focus too closely to the parallels; one of the things I love about the game’s setting is that it creates a bit of that uncanny effect I love, where you see people who look and sound like contemporary Americans but very clearly aren’t. There’s also interesting things to see when you look at the game in the context of both science fiction and gaming. The giant war machines, the land carriers and such, are Golden Age constructs designed to awe with sheer mass alone, the sort of things you still see in comic books and in fantasy contexts. There are, of course, the inevitable comparisons with Dune, but despite sharing the mythological milieu and the ersatz Middle-Eastern names, Kharak is an Arrakis stripped of its mysticism and orientalism. On the other hand, just as Aliens became the core influence for the first-person shooter, Dune itself can lay claim to being the father of the real-time-strategy genre itself. Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, developed by Westwood Studios and released in 1992, is not the “first” real-time-strategy game, but it codified the tropes and mechanics of the genre for years to come, depicting a land war on Arrakis between noble houses over control of the great spice fields. Deserts of Kharak also pays homage to Westwood’s most famous series, the original Command & Conquer. The Northern Coalition, a multi-kiith alliance that favor slow, heavy vehicles in a tan-white paint scheme leading punishing frontal assaults, and the Gaalsiens, a secretive band of high-tech zealots who prefer hit-and-run tactics in small, light vehicles, decked out in red, black, and face-obscuring gas masks, are essentially GDI and Nod by another name. (There’s even an ion cannon superweapon!)

Anyway, that’s what I thought about Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. While I’m probably not going to try my hand at the earlier games (particularly Homeworld 2,which has massive gameplay and story problems), I’m glad I picked this one up, and I’m glad I spend several hundred words blathering about it to the internet.

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Rachel S’jet from the opening cutscene, mulling over things.

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