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Emperor: Battle For Dune
For the past two years, revolutionary real-time strategy games have been coming out of the works, causing many a gamer to question the origins of the genre. Where did it start? Some people, claiming that popularity built the franchise, will hearken back to Warcraft. Others might think back to the days of DOS and CGA graphics and say "Populous". Still others might claim that it was the X-Com series by Microprose that brought the RTS genre to light. And then there was Dune II.
Very few people seem to remember the original Dune game…Myself excluded, as some readers of my Myst III review pointed out to me. I had accidentally recognized Cryo Studios, the developers of Dune, as the developers of Myst III, as opposed to Cyan Studios. The original Dune was something of a political strategy game with resource management, but little interaction with battles. Cryo will be revisiting this arena sometime later this year with their own title, "Frank Herbert's Dune".
Dune II was licensed and developed by Westwood Studios, and while it may not have been the original RTS, it certainly did influence the popularity of the series. In fact, if you were to put Dune II and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans side by side, you'd swear that the same team developed them both!
Emperor: Battle for Dune, takes place following the events in Dune II, but prior to the plot presented in the movie and books. The Spacing Guild and its fellow houses are all at odds due to the chaos erupting from the death of the prior Emperor, Frederick IV. Frederick was to decide the fate of the planet Arrakis and thus indirectly the fate of the major houses. In his absence, the three primary houses, House Harkonnen, House Ordos, and House Atreides, have all begun to openly threaten each other for control over not only Arrakis, but the very throne of the Empire itself.
Originally, the Emperor's intention was to keep all three houses on the planet, allowing each an equal shot at managing the spice harvesting. His underlying hope, however, was that the houses would destroy each other and his own elite troopers, the Sardaukar, would be able to go in and single-handedly mop the deck. Without the Emperor, however, the Sardaukar have no direction, and become vigilantes, serving whatever side they choose. Along with the Sardaukar, other minor houses wish to retain their representation as well, and thus side with whomever they believe to be the strongest ally. The science-oriented Ix, the bioengineering Tleilaxu, the Emperor's Sardaukar, the Arrakis-native Fremen, and the Spacing Guild are all vying for their own interests in the war over Dune.
Each house begins the game with its own plot, but the continuation of the plot depends on how you play the game. House Atreides seeks an alliance with the Fremen to allow for a peaceful coexistence on the planet. Ordos wishes to yoke the strength of the Sardaukar to bring them power and thus riches. Harkonnen simply wishes to rule all, and Arrakis makes a convenient battleground. The plot gets further divided as the player wages each individual battle, picking targets and occupations. For instance, if the player wishes to curry favor of the Ix, then he should avoid invading any regions where the Ix reside, and concentrate on attacking the Tleilaxu, bitter rivals of the Ix.
If you've played any of the Command & Conquer games, or Dune II, then either case should leave you to feel right at home. Dune veterans will understand the structure tree and units better, but will be confused by the controls. C&C players, on the other hand, will understand the controls better, but will take some time acclimating to the 3D terrain and the differences in resource management.
In the world of Dune, there is little of value save the precious spice known as Melange. Melange is a drug that is used in a variety of ways, extending lifespan, furthering the intellectual powers of the religious order of the Bene Gesserit, and providing the user with the means to bend reality to his will, allowing for space travel. It is fundamentally the most powerful substance in the universe, and thus commands a very high price among those who desire its power. Melange, known as spice, is filtered from the sands of Arrakis by harvester machines run by each of the houses, and exchanged for credits used to purchase more equipment.
Building an army does take money, of course, but fundamentally starts with the buildings. At the bottom of the support chain of every base is the Construction Yard, from which all sub-structures are built. If you can destroy an enemy's construction yard, you effectively prevent him from rebuilding his base, and thus turn the tables in your favor. Of course, the construction yard cannot stand on its own. Vehicle factories and barracks are constructed to train new units to defend the front, as well as push it forward. You must also have the appropriate facilities in place to separate the spice from the sand, so a refinery or two is in order. And finally, no base can run without electricity, so aspiring commanders must install Windtraps, huge electric generators powered by turbines that feed off the second-most abundant thing on Arrakis - wind.
On the surface, it seems that the game is just a clear-cut case of resource management and position defense, but there's also power management to be involved as well. Different structures require different amounts of power, and if you overload your power grid, then some structures will operate less efficiently, and others won't operate at all! Furthermore, if your windtraps get damaged, their output drops, necessitating a close eye on base maintenance. I can't count how many times I went to build a turret only to shut down all the rest of them because I was sapping too much juice.
Also, Dune plays resource management slightly different from other RTS games. In C&C, for instance, funds were generated by refining the toxic ores which periodically regenerated. In Starcraft/Warcraft, the resources on each map are fixed, but your peasants/drones/SCVs/probes were generally close to their homes, meaning that you usually only sought what was close to your town. In the world of Dune, however, Carry-alls are used to ferry the harvesters to and fro, meaning that you could effectively harvest your opponent's spice fields if you so desired. Of course, harvesting so far away from home takes longer, and poses more of a risk to your Carry-all and harvester, but things like this happen on Arrakis. Most enemies won't think twice about stooping to shoot on an enemy harvester, but typically they're so far away that it's not really worth it, and so spice collection is more of a game of "grab it as fast as you can".
While other games say they have a branching storyline, Dune produces one very effectively while meshing it with the tactical battle management system. Each of the three houses picks a region to take during its turn, which means that while you're attempting to invade the lands of your rivals, they might be fighting it out between themselves, or they might both pay you a visit, requiring you to defend your land. Or, and this is one of the most overlooked ideas I've seen in an RTS, you can simply forfeit the region and let it get taken over by your rival. If you're just looking to blast through the game, or you want to make things longer and more difficult for yourself, then you can decline the opportunity to defend your lands and move on. Furthermore, whenever you are on the attack, you have the opportunity of picking the point of entry based on what bordering regions you control. This removes the concept of a scripted mission and makes things a little bit more random. Add this to the sheer number of missions you face, and you're in for a long but satisfying ride.
Emperor adds more than just a third dimension to the mix with this new RTS. Several useful features have been added which enhance the possible strategies of the game, depending on whether you come from the Westwood camp or the Blizzard camp. Some of these features have been present in the C&C line, others in the *craft games, while a few are totally new.
Waypoints were available in Starcraft, and very useful, but not quite as good as they are here. In Starcraft, you could issue a waypoint set to a unit or group of units, and they'd immediately follow it as if it were a path. In Dune, however, you can set up a permanent waypoint guide, and just have units move to the first node on the map. I didn't try to set up multiple simultaneous waypoints, but I assume that it's possible, because this feature is just too useful to be held back by such short-sidedness. Another useful function of the waypoint system is that you can "wrap" the nodes by ending the path where it starts, effectively making a sentry path for units to patrol. This surpasses the Patrol feature given by Warcraft and Starcraft. And on top of all that, the waypoints are always visible, so managing them is easy. It'd have been nice to be able to toggle them off and on, however.
Rally points are also available, but without reading the manual to figure out how to do it, it's a near certainty that you'd not stumble upon it immediately. And really, that's the only area I can fault this game. The interface may be intuitive at times, but in breaking from the norm, it also makes the learning curve more difficult. Selecting units is a hassle too. Normally, you just draw a box around the soldiers you want, but unfortunately the box seems to favor excluding units rather than including them. I had a hard time trying to select a single unit in a sea of other soldiers from time to time. Also, there wasn't any way to select all the units onscreen of a particular type. Normally I'd think that it'd be right-clicking on the unit to select, or double-clicking, but neither of these is effective, nor do they seem to do anything anyway. In fact, the only function that right-clicking serves is to cancel whatever mode your cursor is currently in. Seems rather wasteful to me…
Other elements of the interface were much more thought out, of course. The sidebar is transparent and has no background, so you can actually see activity through it, and it doesn't get in the way. I'd have liked to be able to move it from one side of the screen to the other, at times, but if it was in the way, I just rotated the camera until it wasn't bothering me anymore.
Outside of the gameplay interface, however, I was awed. I've never seen a game installer that really made me say "Wow"…and this game has it. The only other installer I can think of that I really enjoyed was for Final Fantasy VII, and that's because it showed some very nice renders while playing the Final Fantasy Prelude theme in the background. There's not one thing in the Emperor installer that just grabs me, but it just looks and sounds nice. Sure, it's just playing music while doing yet another slideshow, but the progress meter looked cool. This wasn't your father's InstallShield, for sure. And it's not just the installer. The menu system in the game is very well done, with nice 3D backgrounds and neat visual effects. It sounds lame for me to talk about it, though. You just have to see it for yourself…especially the game's configuration screen!
While we're on the subject of 3D, let's talk about how this game's biggest change goes over. At first, the game seemed kinda tricky, and the units didn't seem to look very good. Of course, they have to be relatively low-poly to keep from slowing the game engine down, but some of them looked just weird. Once I zoomed out a bit, though, I had a much easier time managing the playfield, and everything looked just right. Tanks looked like tanks, infantry looked like infantry, and buzzsaws like…um…buzzsaws.
The landscapes are very well done, with beautiful textures making the scenes look almost sloped and pre-rendered, when they're done in real time. Units explode realistically, and some units, mostly Harkonnen, even do splash damage causing everyone around them to feel the shock. The buildings for House Atreides bear a very similar resemblance to the buildings in Dune II, while Ordos and Harkonnen have been given structures with much more appropriate features to them. Harkonnen buildings are all dark red and look as if they were made from the stones of Hell itself, with a very sinister purpose. Flame-cannon guard towers and gallows complement the Harkonnen building assortment, while Ordos' buildings vaguely resemble those of the Protoss from Starcraft, with an esoteric feel to them that suits the Ordos well.
Last but not least are the special effects. Carry-alls leave shadows on the ground that change size as they hit tall buildings, sandworms have crackling static electricity around them as they move through the ground, and tornadoes even toss about on the surface, whipping up sand and garbage and…um…debris, as you can see in the photo above. Tornadoes cause damage to structures and units, but if infantry get too close to the vortex, they get sucked right up and tossed about in the twister for a minute or so. How's that for weather effects?
Sound effects and music are pretty good. The music gets repetitive after a while, and I really miss the dynamic music that Dune II used which was based on your situation in the battle. The Ordos music was decent enough with a sci-fi feel to it, but as music goes, just wasn't anything terrific. Harkonnen and Atreides, however, have much more fitting and worthwhile music to listen to. The sound effects are really good, but they have a distinct flair of Command & Conquer leftover in them. You can almost hear the "k" pronounced when the Ordos troops say "moving", as if the Ordos were Russian. The Atreides and Harkonnen have what I would consider to be "funnier" voices, giving the game a slightly more lighthearted feel, a la Starcraft. It was great to be mired in the middle of a rough battle and then mildly selecting a Vulture only to hear "WHADDYOU WANT?" in your ear. The Harkonnen Buzzsaws have a similar feel, while the Atreides units all have a D&D lawful-good feel to them.
The movie clips are excellent, in standard Westwood tradition. Voice acting gives the game's plot a very dramatic feel, and the props and images used are right out of the classic movie, giving the game a great amount of continuity and alignment. The game even features some well-known talent for the movie actors, with Michael Dorn of Star Trek fame playing the Duke of the Atreides, and Michael McShane (Friar Tuck in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), playing the Baron of Harkonnen. The other actors and actresses are no less than excellent, and conveyed great performances.
If you actually run out of missions to play against the computer, then you can always go online and try out your skills with the millions of other Assassins on the Internet. Gameplay can be configured as team play, free-for-all, melee…all your standard game modes. A fast connection isn't totally important here as much as a reliable one is. However, Dune generally plays with more units than most RTS games, which means there's more data coming down the pipe at once, so modem users beware.
Multiplayer is fun, though, and using the Westwood online game-matching service a la Battle.net, it's really easy to find a match to go into. Not in the mood for searching out a decent opponent, but don't want to play a full campaign either? Emperor also includes an offline skirmish mode that lets you play one quick battle tailored to your specifications.
Also, the game isn't totally about full-scale war. Several of the missions involve commando raids and guerilla tactics. Be careful on these missions, though. Once you lose a unit, it's gone, and you can't just crunch all you want, because they're not making more. Still, these missions offered a fun break from the crazy world of build-shoot-build-some-more. They vaguely reminded me of the small-party missions in Warcraft and Starcraft.
The game looks good, plays good, and sounds good. But does it feel good? Sure. I really enjoyed playing Emperor, even if I did it in a mad rush! Once I finish this review, and the sooner the better, I can get back to bringing House Ordos to glory and riches by grasping control of the Lion Throne and annihilating Atreides and Harkonnen forever! Well…okay. Maybe I'm taking this a bit too seriously, but honestly. This game will take a lot of time before I get tired of it. I wish there were a few more units for each race, but there are so many as it is, with the sub-houses to diversify the game, so that, realistically speaking, the game experience will be different every time you play.
One other note I'd like to point out about Emperor is its stability. Westwood released a patch for the game before it was even released. Traditionally, any time before where I've seen this happen, the game wound up being very stable to start with, and was of excellent quality. Emperor is no different here. The patch solves a few very minor issues, mostly with multiplayer. It doesn't fix something that should've worked in the first place, nor does it make the game winnable. I could have done this whole review without the patch installed, I'm sure. That speaks volumes about quality.
With everything said, Emperor is another wonderful game competing for my attention, and it certainly has it. I haven't had an RTS in a while (Fallout Tactics doesn't count) that was this broad, and offered this much in the way of gameplay. It certainly seems like it will take me weeks to finish, but they'll be happy weeks, indeed.
Did Westwood create a new "Father of the RTS" with Emperor? Probably not. But they've broken a lot of new ground here in this game that we'll no doubt see plenty of others treading across in the future. Still, this is now sacred ground, and there will be a lot of people worshipping this ground for time to come.
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