Playing Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is like settling into a comfortable, old easy chair, taking a sip of a fine whisky, and ordering a zillion tanks to blow the ever-loving crap out of all that stands in your way. Despite being planet-bound, in contrast to the series’ previously spacefaring backdrop, the high-level real-time strategy mechanics felt familiar and intuitive (especially if you’ve recently revisited Homeworld 1 and 2 by way of the Homeworld Remastered Collection). I was able to get my bearings very quickly and develop an understanding of the different unit types and core controls with minimal fuss, and get right to enjoying highly entertaining multiplayer and a downright blast of a campaign that scarcely sags in excitement and engaging, ever-evolving combat from beginning to end.This must be the winter of derelict spaceships in endless deserts. Between Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and The Force Awakens, this season has been filled with the stirring sight of a familiar hull rising out of the dunes, carrying with it the conviction that there’s something out there worth salvaging.But Deserts of Kharak does more than mine the iconography of a strategy classic for nostalgia. It creates a setting and story that is at once distinct from the earlier games, yet also enriched and informed by them. It finds in the desert the same stark beauty that Homeworld found in the darkness of space, and uses it as the setting for an approachable yet satisfying real-time strategy game.Deserts of Kharak takes place long before the events of the original Homeworld, but never feels overshadowed by what’s to come. As it opens, your civilization is clinging to life on a vast desert planet, besieged by technologically advanced religious fanatics, the Gaalsien, who make their home in the desert wastes. The main character, Rachel S’jek (random apostrophes rarely imply good sci-fi, but Deserts of Kharak overcomes them) departs aboard the carrier Kapisi on a do-or-die mission to recover a powerful artifact from the heart of the desert. All hell breaks loose immediately following the Kapisi’s launch as the Gaalsien embark on a final attempt to exterminate the various tribes of the northern Coalition.The carrier fills the same role as the mothership in the earlier Homeworld games, with one important difference: the carrier is a powerful warship that can turn the tide of a battle single-handedly. So on the one hand, your carrier must protected since it’s where you research new unit types and upgrades, in addition to being a mobile airbase. On the other hand, it’s a monster in combat that can be decisive in a battle.Amidst all the light and sound, I quickly felt proficient in commanding my army, but that isn’t to say this game is lacking in challenge or complexity. The diverse scenarios thrown my way were often desperate, frantic, and full of unpredictable shifts in pace and initiative. The arrival of enemy reinforcements could suddenly make a “safe” map fraught with peril, whereas an opportune assist by a computer-controlled allied force could spin a desperate holding action on the last defensible ridge into a triumphant counter-charge. There’s a give and take that prevents most missions from feeling like simply chipping away at objectives. As I navigated my massive, tank-tracked desert carrier, the Kapisi (a stand-in for the motherships of classic Homeworld), I often had to balance the risk and reward of delaying completion of objectives to gather more resources — a proposition that often meant prolonged engagements and a cost in casualties greater than what I gained in equivalent raw materials. When your surviving units persist from one mission to the next, those decisions gain tremendous importance.That makes for some great duels as players camp each other’s extraction points, stake out artifacts, and jockey for map dominance with their mighty carriers. You can turn off artifacts and just play for carriers, but I highly recommend the vanilla settings for a good mix of big battles, hide-and-seek with supercarriers, and drag races between armies racing for artifacts.The two factions, the Coalition and the Gaalsien, feel rather similar. In general the Coalition units are slightly more versatile while the Gaalsien are more specialized. The main difference between sides, however, is that the Gaalsien can produce units practically wherever they want, while the Coalition are tied to their carrier, which completely changes the relationship each side has to the map and made for some terrific blind man’s bluff-style multiplayer matches.Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak sounded almost sacrilegious at first. Over a decade since the last Homeworld game, it was going to take a game remembered for its spaceships and 3D movement and turn it into a ground-based RTS with tanks? And it was a prequel? Yet in spite of all the ways this could have gone horribly wrong, Deserts of Kharak succeeds on almost every count. It’s not only a terrific RTS that sets itself apart from the rest of the genre’s recent games, but it’s also an excellent Homeworld game that reinvents the series while also recapturing its magic.