Westwood Studios returns to the sand dunes of Arrakis in hopes of striking pay dirt, not in spice, but the spirit of the world that launched the real-time strategy (RTS) genre in 1992 with Dune II. Instead of rediscovering that winning blueprint, they turn up a voracious monster lurking beneath the dunes: formulaic RTS design with the distinct Westwood Studios' signature. Emperor: Battle for Dune showcases the same old reliable RTS gameplay with a new facelift, but the sands of time have shifted against it.
Emperor: Battle for Dune revisits the epic battle between the three powers of Dune: House Harkonnen, House Atreides, and House Ordos. The triad has long offered a variety of tactics from which to choose. Will you be devious and aid the Ordos or will the "might is right" justice of Atreides prevail? Minor factions, including the book's native Fremen, will offer to ally, increasing the number of unique units on the field. Decisions made early on will affect the entire game, while maintaining a careful balance.
Although the setting has become tiresome (after all, it is the third Westwood RTS game set in Frank Herbert's universe, never has it been rendered so gorgeously. A new 3D engine gives you the option of playing from the traditional overhead view or rotate into a 3D world of tornadoes, worms, and war. The camera is easy to manipulate and freshens up the presentation. The units are also nicely realized; each side has its own fashion, styled mostly from the David Lynch movie.
Switching to polygons has also helped the spice worms become the hulking behemoths they're supposed to be. The world is still gritty, barren, and mostly a burnt orange, but the care given to the units more than makes up for the desolate landscape. Purists will enjoy immersing themselves in a world where eagle head facades and long cloaks are the order of the day.
As nice as the graphics are, they don't overcome the fact that the game is still grounded in the basics of the worn-out genre with the same flaws. Harvesters still have the wonky AI algorithm issues that date back to the age of Dune II. Even air transports can't help harvester woes and tank rushes still beat any long-term strategy. However, for the first month of Emperor: Battle for Dune's release, only those who preordered the game got anti-air units, forcing many to switch from rushing tanks to rushing aircraft. Fortunately, air defenses can be restored with a downloadable patch.
Somewhat surprisingly, there isn't much variation in mission types. It's still the simple game of form a base, harvest, build, and destroy, with the occasional small squad action thrown in for good measure. The patented action is still there and finely honed, thus fanatics of such games will feel right at home. These age-old conventions are double edged; gamers have supported the genre and are familiar with the controls and gameplay, but lack of innovation could create a backlash from buyers wanting more.
The full-motion video cut-scenes are also showing their age. Being named Kane's second-in-command in Command & Conquer was impressive in 1995, but actors addressing the camera as if you are there is now kind of silly. The writing and acting has also gone downhill; characters huff and bluster their way through ill-conceived lines with laughable zeal.
Apparently, the idea is quantity over quality, as there are many minutes of the cheesy acting to wade through to get back to the fight. Sound effects and music still remain topnotch, faithfully carrying out the early precedent of excellence. As usual, the worm effects are perfect, and the meaty destruction of your units left too long in the sandbox is unmistakable.
Overall, this isn't a bad game by any means, and the action is as addictive as always. If Emperor: Battle for Dune was a clone made by a lesser company, it would have been stellar. As it is, though, Westwood Studios has pushed the license and design one step too far. Cleaning up the vehicle but not improving the engine that drives it won't always sell. Emperor: Battle for Dune is easily playable but just as easily forgettable. Even diehard fans of RTS games should hold on to their money and demand more.
Graphics: The game sports a new 3D graphics engine. Units are detailed and faithful to the styles inspired by the movie. The landscape, however, is uniformly barren and mostly orange.
Sound: Westwood Studios consistently produces fine work in the sound and music department and this title continues that trend. Worm effects are especially well done.
Enjoyment: Another RTS produced by the company that started the genre. The game features the same old reliable gameplay, which is fine if you aren't yet tired of it.
Replay Value: Three storylines to play through and multiplayer games keep the forces of Dune at war for quite some time. But, it's still more of the same from earlier releases in the series.
People who downloaded Emperor: Battle for Dune have also downloaded:
Dune 2000, Dune 2: The Battle for Arrakis, Dune, Warcraft 2, Command & Conquer: Generals, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Dune 2
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