Emperor's Spice Flows Strong

Emperor: Battle for Dune
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A couple months ago the Sci-Fi Channel released a three-day miniseries based on Frank Herbert’s Dune. Needless to say, I was not impressed with it. Being a fan of the 1984 David Lynch movie, the new color schemes, the whiny version of Paul Atreides (where’s Kyle MacLachlan when you need him?), and the way too elaborate costumes were too much for me. Not to mention the fact the miniseries DVD lacked key features that were promised on the back of the case. If only the David Lynch movie would have a special edition DVD, as opposed to the barebones release currently available, then I would be set.

In the meantime, I have been a little tired of the formulaic nature of real time strategy titles. Don’t get me wrong. While Tiberian Sun was nice, and Red Alert 2 was quite impressive, it was still the same thing over and over again. Also, other RTS titles try to add 3D as a gimmick, but fail because camera management must be added to the picture, sometimes with awkward results (Force Commander, anyone?)

Remakes of Dune 2, the RTS title that started it all, were planned all the way back in 1998, when Dune 2000 was released. It failed because it didn’t add anything new except for a new graphic engine for the time (based on the Red Alert engine) and some FMV cutscenes. Fortunately Westwood went back to the drawing board, and with Emperor: Battle for Dune, they did more than just add a 3D engine, they made a new RTS game that excels beyond any expectations that I had.

Now I’m sure that everyone knows the storyline behind the Dune series, and how it revolves around a planet of the same name (actually the planet’s real name is Arrakis). This planet becomes the center of the known universe because it is home to the rarest, most precious mineral known to man, Melange (aka the Spice). The Spice is known to extend life, expand consciousness, and is necessary for international travel. It is said whoever controls Arrakis, controls the Spice; and whoever controls the Spice, controls the universe.

Three houses are the top candidates to take control of Arrakis. House Atreides, from the water planet of Caladan, House Harkonnen, from the volcanic Geidi Prime, and the mysterious Ordos, from the ice planet of Draconus IV are all in the race.

However, the game Emperor takes place years after the original game. The Emperor Corrino is assassinated by his concubine and as a result the throne is currently vacant. The Spacing Guild summons the leaders of the three competing houses and informs them that a military action named the War of Assassins will be fought for the Emperor’s seat. The war is to take place solely on Arrakis, with the stipulation of no atomics to be used. (Why is it the Harkonnen still get to use the Death Hand missile?)

During the course of the War, each House will either be attacked or assisted by five other sub-houses: the Fremen (blue-within-blue eyed nomads of Arrakis specializing in stealth attacks), the Sardaukar (the Emperor’s former elite hunter-killers specializing in heavy weaponry), the T’leilaxu (specialists in mutating enemy soldiers or vehicles), the Ix (whose Projector tanks can make their force look bigger than it actually is), and the Spacing Guild themselves.

The basic combat formula is the same as before: build a base, harvest as much Spice as possible to increase your income to build more units and structures while defending your base and striking the enemy’s. However, the addition of the new sub-houses adds more units, providing a new mix to the old formula.

Adding to this formula is the new 3D engine. After the horror that was Force Commander, I was expecting the worst. Imagine my shock when I took control of the game and had absolutely no problem with the camera at all. In fact, most of the time it’s not necessary to mess with the camera at all, as everything is set in an optimal angle. There might be some issues with zooming out the camera to get a full perspective of the combat zone, but that’s pretty rare. In addition with the new 3D engine, laying out the base is much easier. Since structures can now be rotated to easily fit the rock landscape (once again, structures can’t be built on sand, only on rock), packing army structures in a base can be easily done.

The 3D engine also runs surprisingly well on my computer. The base requirements ask for a Pentium II 400 with a 3D accelerator card, and on my Athlon 700 with Voodoo3 it is very smooth. Only when a lot is going on will the game stutter (sometimes badly) but it is very rare. Not only do the buildings and vehicles look nice, but the infantry units can be easily recognized, and the explosions have to be seen to be believed.

The interface is also easy to control, with 5 main item tabs to select from: structures, infantry, vehicles, structure upgrades, and a special button to order units from the Spacing Guild (providing a Starport has been set). While an infinite number of units can be built using a queue setting, only up to 6 units can be purchased from the Guild at one time. These created units can also be directed to head to a selected area once they are created, so they will easily be taken right to the battle rather than being directed. It just makes everything easier.

Even better is the fact the game is not linear. Rather than go from one mission to the next, the game structure follows a giant battle map to select the next available area for attack. Strategies of moving reserve forces in the area, or choosing an area with a high reinforcement count come to play, and adds more to the depth of the game. This is something which has been lacking in other RTS titles.

The whole presentation is excellent as well. The set design, as well as the costumes for the FMV segments, is based thankfully on the David Lynch film, and the game as a whole does not forget the universe of its namesake. I was also impressed with the soundtrack, particularly with House Harkonnen, which sounds like it came directly from the Lynch film.

I did notice a couple small flaws in the game though. First as I mentioned the 3D engine tends to stutter on mid-range systems when a lot is going on. I also noticed a couple AI faults that EA has been well known for. One of my units can be in front of an enemy while on guard mode, and he won’t attack; he’ll just sit there and get destroyed.

Enemy bases are the same way, as it seems like my usual three-hit combo always works: Harkonnen Death Hand missile on construction site, followed by repeated airstrikes by my squadron of 10-12 gunships, then using Devastator heavy mechs (at least 5) to mop up the area. The AI issues aren’t anything serious, and I’m sure a patch will come around soon to remedy these problems.

In the end Emperor has finally done something new for the RTS genre: adding more variety and pre-mission planning while also adding a 3D camera system that actually helps rather than hurts gameplay. This is the game that Force Commander should have been! How could a great game like this get anything less than 5 Gems?

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