Real-time strategy games feel like a dying breed these days. Used to be that you didn't have to look far for a great new RTS, whether it was called Age of Empires, StarCraft, Command & Conquer, Warhammer 4K: Dawn of War or a host of other worthy titles.
Lately, though, more focused strategy games like League of Legends are cutting into the genre and moving it away from many of the elements that I, personally, love. I want to take a handful of units and a small base of operations and develop it over time into a massive army that can crush my foes.
One of the classic RTS standouts was Homeworld, a deep space epic that was distinct in part because its battles were never planet-side. Dozens of ships soared through the blackness of space in dogfights that were always a wonder to behold. While the action of other strategy games could feel "flat" thanks to their overhead viewpoints of units on the ground, Homeworld felt boundless.
So it's a bit of a surprise that the new Homeworld prequel, Deserts of Kharak, is decidedly terrestrial. Instead of an interplanetary journey across the stars, this is a trek across a desert. How could a game in which most of your units have wheels feel like Homeworld?
Quite spectacularly, as it turns out. Deserts of Kharak isn't just a great Homeworld game -- it's a refreshing return to real-time strategy greatness.
Despite the setting, this game has most of the same DNA that fans of the original Homeworld games found so compelling. You're still escorting one big vehicle from one place to another. The amount of resources and units you have still carries over from mission to mission (forcing you to think not just about the objectives at hand, but the objectives in the future as well). You can still pull the camera way back to a tactical view of the map. And most importantly for the aesthetics-minded: unit movement and battles still look really cool.
Furthermore, all that core gameplay stuff is bolstered by a good story told in part by some fantastically-styled cutscenes.
So what does all of this have to do with Frisco-based developer Gearbox Software? Let's back up a bit.
The original Homeworld, released in 1999, was developed by Relic Entertainment and published by Sierra Entertainment. Same for 2003's Homeworld 2. But in 2004, Relic was bought by publisher THQ, and the Homeworld rights went with them. And there they sat ... for nearly a decade.
Then in 2013, THQ went bankrupt. Among other licenses on the auction block as the company went out of business were the rights to Homeworld. So Gearbox (then based in Plano) snatched them up. The story goes that they didn't have much in the way of plans for the property at the time. Gearbox's Chief Creative Officer, Brian Martel, just really liked the series and really liked the idea of Gearbox owning it. So they bought the rights and quickly started putting together remastered versions of the first two games.
But off on the sidelines during all this was a small developer Blackbird Interactive. Made up of former Relic developers, they were hard at work on a spiritual successor to Homeworld that they were calling Hardware: Shipbreakers.
It was going to be a Homeworld prequel in everything but name ... until they teamed up with Gearbox.
The folks at Blackbird Interactive had also bid on the Homeworld license, but (obviously) they lost the auction. They were good sports about it, though, congratulating Gearbox on the acquisition. But talks between the two companies didn't stop there.
Mere months after acquiring the Homeworld rights, Gearbox and Blackbird struck a deal. Gearbox would not only let Blackbird use the Homeworld name, they would also invest "millions" more into the game's development, helping ensure it would be the best new Homeworld game it could be.
It was undoubtedly the right call. It's clear that Deserts of Kharak comes directly from many of the minds that made the original Homeworld games special, and the effect is felt in the gameplay.
"Gearbox is not in the best spot to make a sci-fi RTS successor," Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford told Polygon. "We've become expert at production and that's where we can help." A lesser company might not have made that same call. Gearbox could have easily scrounged together a team (heck, possibly from any Age of Empires developers that are still in the D-FW area), thrown together an RTS, slapped the name Homeworld 3 onto it and sold it to thousands of desperate fans that have been waiting more than 10 years for a sequel.
It's possible that Blackbird could have turned Hardware: Shipbreakers into an awesome game on their own. But now we have an awesome Homeworld prequel that should please both fans and newcomers alike. For that, both they and Gearbox should be applauded.
Because for the first time in a long time, it looks like Homeworld might have a bright future.