How the Homeworld game series could come back from the dead

The sci-fi strategy series was in limbo for 13 years, but under a new developer, it could be poised to make a comeback.

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Kharak's vehicles have a battle worn, weathered appearance.

In 1999, developer Relic Entertainment released Homeworld, the first fully three-dimensional real-time strategy game. Unlike Dune II, Command and Conquer and a handful of other RTS titles before it, Homeworld allowed players to move spaceships not only on a 2D plane, but along a vertical axis as well. As RTS games were still coming of age, Homeworld set a precedent for innovation in the genre.

With Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, the upcoming series entry under publisher Gearbox Software, developer Blackbird Interactive is returning to the franchise's roots in order to push it forward. As a team, this is the studio's first game. But as individuals, the members are no strangers to RTS design: some worked on the World War II-based Company of Heroes. Others worked on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II. And some even worked on Homeworld, back during the series' infancy.

"We're staying true to the tone of a Homeworld game," Blackbird founder Rob Cunningham said during a recent demo. "But it's very much a prequel. So we need to make a new, more advanced game, but at the same time, make it feel like it falls earlier in the Homeworld chronology."

The solution? To bring Homeworld to the ground. As its title implies, Deserts of Kharak unfurls across an arid, sandy landscape. This allows Blackbird to use an older, more weathered aesthetic than its more futuristic early titles, while also trying to fine-tune the ground strategy many RTS players are more accustomed to in 2016.

As opposed to the interstellar dogfights and naval battles of Homeworlds past, Deserts of Kharak focuses on vehicle combat across dunes and plateaus of varying elevations. These formations are more than visual details, though: one of Blackbird's central design tenets, and one of the things Cunningham and his team hope will set Deserts of Kharak apart, is terrain control. The reboot is designed to make you consider the environment from a tactical standpoint every step of the way.

During the demo, lead designer Rory McGuire demonstrated some of the possibilities the terrain provides. In a late-game campaign mission, the enemy forces converged on the Khashar Plateau, which the friendly Coalition faction was using as a natural landing area for supply ships.

While setting up defenses around four choke points leading up onto the plateau, McGuire showed some of the units available to the player, which run the gamut of land-based vehicles: artillery cannons with parabolic projectile arcs; faster scout vehicles with machine gun attachments; long-range railguns that function like the riflemen of an infantry division; and finally, the Expedition Command Carrier, which constituted the centerpiece of McGuire's force. This behemoth was outfitted with numerous gun emplacements and, more importantly, a squadron of fighter jets and bombers capable of quick air strikes.

"[Desert of Kharak's] combat ebbs and flows," McGuire said as he positioned a chunk of his force at the top of a gradual hill. "You have to react as you go. It's like the Wayne Gretzky quote: 'Some players go where the puck is, others go where the puck is going to be.' You have to think ahead."

McGuire's elevated position gave him a boost to attack power, and better sightlines down the sloping surface enemy vehicles would soon traverse. By using what he called a "terrain dial," which was inspired by Google Earth's 3D App, the designer discerned where best to position the remainder of his defenders -- blue areas signaled better elevation, and therefore, better places to attack from.

As enemies advanced, the advantages the terrain afforded McGuire became apparent -- his close-range vehicles shredded the enemy's front line, while his railgun, bringing up the rear, picked off the more distant lines. If any stragglers made it past McGuire's defenders on their overlook, his veteran Carrier made short work of them.

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The campaign's tutorial mission begins in a Coalition base on the mysterious desert planet.

The mission, by and large, comprised a standard king-of-the-hill defense scenario. But by incorporating the environment, in ways both obvious and subtle, Deserts of Kharak uses modern RTS design to bring an old franchise into a new era. Add in six-player multiplayer, a custom game mode, and a narrative driven campaign, complete with characters and plot lines of its own, and the newest Homeworld could be poised to bring the series name back into the strategy conversation.

As Cunningham put it during the demo, the reboot plays like a modern "vehicle fantasy," in a dynamic environment, with an iconic title attached to it. Deserts of Kharak's January 20 release date will tell if Blackbird can revive a franchise once in limbo, but as of now, Homeworld shows early hints of life.

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