Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Deserts of Kharak

"If you had eyes like golden crowns and diamonds in your fingertips
You'd waste it
And when you speak the words you know
To those who know the words themselves
You waste it
Such a classic waste of cool
So afraid to break the rules in all the wrong places

Have I said?
I hate to see you go, I hate to see you go..."

Brandi Carlile - Wasted

Well, if nothing else, this game will go down in history for actually trying to reverse the pulp SF "in spaaAaAace" routine.

For you filthy heathens who never played the original masterpiece Homeworld, its actions centered on gigantic spacefaring motherships filling the role of stationary production buildings in most Dune / Warcraft inspired RTSes. They drifted majestically among asteroid belts, spawning resource ships to gather the loot in and spewing swarms of smaller vessels at each other, controllable in three dimensions, until one went kablooie. It was a memorable, novel spin on existing RTS tropes and held together beautifully on its own terms, one of those rare, unique titles unequaled since... including by its current prequel.

Deserts of Kharak turns motherships into planetbound carriers, gigantic hovercraft floating not on water but churning up the sand dunes over endless deserts.
Umm, actually, I have to admit that part's pretty damn cool.

But it covers and adapts only one facet of Homeworld's greatness. The rest of the game plays disappointingly like most any other by-the-numbers top-down Starcrafty RTS. Gone is Homeworld's most unique feature, its three-dimensionality, and with it gone the emphasis on distinct ship classes and weapon types with their own relevant behaviors (autocannons, plasma bombs, ion streams) gone the formations and behavior orders, the first game's fuel gauges and turn speeds limiting heavy weapon firing arcs, etc.

Worse, much of the gimmickry which replaces these features is geared toward spicing up the campaign mode and not toward relevance in online PvP matches, which is where the original Homeworld really shone.
"Shipbreaking" comes across as a dull little chore devoid of functionality.
Most units seem pointlessly redundant.
Playing keep-away in capture the flag mode, while an excellent feature for team games where each player controls a single unit, comes across as just more frustrating babysitting in RTS games where you're already playing nursemaid to your main base, secondary support centers and your resource gatherers to boot.
The over-emphasis on your secondary resource type for tech advancement makes single-resource scout swarming, ironically, yet again the nail in yet another Homeworld game's coffin.
And let's not ignore the very abrupt campaign ending, which seems truncated for lack of funds much like Tyranny's: the final boss just materializes out of thin air at the end of a mission, before you've even had a chance to play around much with all of your units, and you crack him open like a pinata. Cue end credits.

All this (but mainly a lack of imagination in terms of gameplay) is likely why, a mere year and a half after its release, Deserts of Kharak's multiplayer leaderboard looks like this:
Yes, that's the whole list. The whole global list.
Everybody repeat after me:
"We're the robot mafia; the entire robot mafia."

Which is sad, because Deserts of Kharak really endears itself by many of its secondary features. This is a game which wholeheartedly embraces Hollywood envy and nearly manages to own it! Voice acting, random unit chatter as atmosphere, units kicking up dust as they crest sand dunes, weapon impacts, missile trajectories, campaign intros and loading screens, menus and interface flow, name anything which aids an RTS' immersion and playability, and Blackbird handled it in an inspired and professional manner. While it might not answer my calls for more three-dimensionality, it does appeal to my extremophilia in its dusty, heat-shimmering, dune-riding, warring tribal Fremen aesthetic. Even the single-player campaign as a whole is interesting enough as a story (retconning aside) a rare thing in strategy games indeed. Unfortunately, the campaign mode is not what sells RTS games, nor is single-player as a whole. Homeworld achieved its lasting fame not for its (admittedly damn good) quest for Hiigara, but for being one of the first truly engaging competitive multiplayer games of the late '90s alongside Starcraft, Team Fortress Classic and Diablo 2.

If only Blackbird had given themselves more credit and tried taking some real chances with Deserts of Kharak's actual gameplay. It didn't have to be 3D, it didn't need motherships, but it needed something more than perfunctory ship-breaking to set it apart, because as it stands it's just too big a pile of "je sais bien quoi."

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