Voice Module








In Memory
Sean Pettibone

The Real Time Strategy gaming genre has come full circle with the release of Westwood’s Emperor: Battle for Dune. This update of the classic title Dune II, the game which defined and revolutionized RTS game play, once again returns us to the desert planet of Arrakis where the spice mélange is the key to profit and the giant sand worms are to be feared. Utilizing both true and tested design architecture originally created by Westwood as well as borrowing from second-generation RTS games, Emperor has proven to be an interesting and fun game that most strategy fans will appreciate. 

The latest game from Westwood studios and EA games, Emperor: Battle for Dune, not only continues   the impressive line of RTS (real time strategy) titles that the design company has become famous for, but also pays homage to the game that helped pioneer RTS in the first place: Westwood’s own game from the early 90’s, Dune II. Although not completely original in its game play, Emperor does add many new features giving it somewhat of a unique approach when viewing the game as a whole, but still retaining the familiar qualities that RTS gamers appreciate and expect from a title within the genre.

As with its predecessor, Emperor once again is set within the author Frank Herbert’s rich and highly detailed futuristic series of novels entitled Dune. Interesting enough, Herbert’s sci-fi universe has had a renaissance of sorts as of late, leading to new novels written by the late authors son based upon 20 year old notes developed by Herbert himself, as well as whole new film interpretations of his written work. This resurgence of popularity with the Dune concept more than likely played a large part in the revamping of the classic title by Westwood (although 1998 did see the release of a polished reversion of Dune II, now titled Dune 2000), but didn’t force any sort of hurried actions on the part of Emperor’s development. Some thought and creativity was put into this latest game by Westwood, and is able to stand on its own as a title without coming off as yet another last minute re-tooled knockoff trying to cash in on a current trend.

The premise behind Emperor remains close to the original game, and still does not require any sort of previous Dune knowledge to play or enjoy. Set 10,000 years in mankind’s history, the game takes place on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), the only known location for the spice mélange. The spice is the most valuable commodity in the known universe, allowing long-term space travel to exist as well as extending life for anyone that ingests it.  Mining rights for Dune have long been delegated by the Emperor to various Houses (fiefdoms within the Imperium controlled by nobles) giving power, prestige and riches to whomever gains control of the planet. The all-powerful emperor of the universe is now dead, however, and his throne is now up for grabs to whoever can control it.  Three of the most powerful houses within the Imperium, House Harkonnnen, House Atreides, and House Ordos have mobilized their forces in a desperate attempt to exploit every resource to gain the precious throne of the emperor. The key to victory is to control spice production on Dune…and whoever controls the planet will take the throne. 

The RTS aspects of the game remain true to the genre, giving you the common ‘above-action’ perspective of the main battlefield. Typically, you establish a base of operations from which you produce other varieties of units, weapons, troops, defensive structures, etc. In order to fund your operations, solaris are earned (the Imperial currency) by harvesting and processing spice found in patches across the desert wasteland. As with most RTS games, as you gain more funds the opportunity to expand your base of operations grows exponentially, granting access to research facilities which in turn create bigger and better units that you can use for your own exploitation. One last aspect of common RTS gaming within Emperor is the shroud affect, where at the start of a new mission the entire field is dark, save the initial combat and harvesting units. As you explore the area the shroud disappears, allowing you to view those known portions of the battlefield for the duration of that particular map. From that point on, the purpose is simple…to battle with the other two competing Houses through multiple battlefield campaigns in order to win control of Dune. To help with all of the interface material and game ideology, an intensive tutorial of all basic game play mechanics is readily accessible from the games main menu.

The three main Houses portrayed in the game (Harkonnen, Ordos, and Atreides) are all playable within the single-player mode of Emperor, and contain their own unique sub-plots, twists, and surprises. Each House also has a different philosophy regarding war, which in turn affects their style of combat, weapons, and defense. The noble House Atreides (the good guys of the game, actually) combine long-range weapons with a loyal and extremely well trained core of infantry that can be imposing to it enemies. House Ordos tends to be secretive and deceptive, utilizing stealth and advanced technology (shields, hover-cars, etc) for intensive hit-and-run tactics that can be devastating to its foes. The third major player of the game, the infamous and vile House Harkonnen, are purveyors of death and destruction, utilizing anti-personnel weapons that incorporate such nastiness as fire and poison to decimate their opponents. Each individual House has its own set of unique units for combat purposes that follow the lines of each of the faction’s particular style of war and mannerisms. Though not exhaustive by any means, there is enough variety within the separate House’s units to make playing the different House campaigns interesting, not to mention giving Emperor that much more re-playability. 

An interesting aspect to the overall playability of Emperor comes in the form of sub-plot allegiances that your House can form on the side that can help with your campaign during the course of the game. Five ‘sub-houses’ make their presence during the game, each with their own unique traits, goals, and overall skills. Your house can ally with up to two of these groups, allowing you to produce several types of specialty units from exclusive production facilities that can add even more diversity on the battlefield. The sub-houses include the fierce Fremen, nomadic warriors native to Arrakis; the Imperial Sardaukar, fanatical soldiers devoted to the Emperor; the technology advanced weapons dealers of House Ix; the Tleilaxu, masters of genetic manipulation and bio-engineering; and the secretive Spacing Guild, the controllers of space travel through the Imperium. Although not a necessity to play the game, forging alliances with these groups can be entertaining to say the least.

On a positive note, the overall game play of Emperor was solid for an RTS genre title. Although this happens to be Westwood’s first fully 3-D RTS title, the behavior, controls, and perspective remain similar to Dune II, Command & Conquer, and other popular games. The added functionality of a 3-D environment does come in handy, however, allowing the player to rotate the scene and zoom in and out for more detail and a better perspective of the action during battle sequences. The modeling used within the game was also impressive and highly detailed, showing the intense thought that went into the development of this game.  Everything from landscapes, to units, and even structures were very pleasing to the eye and were diverse and extremely unique in comparison to other games.  This was definitely evident when you first encounter the infamous Arrakis sand worms, huge beasts that randomly attack anything caught on the open sand.

The in game cut scenes, storylines, and overall plot was also well planned and executed, adding even more dimension to Emperor. Keeping the extremely detailed and rich sci-fi lore of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe isn’t an easy path to take, although Westwood was able to tackle the challenge well by utilizing credible actors and voice over talent for each of the three separate House Campaigns. Some recognizable faces within the movie-quality cut scenes include Michael Dorn Star Trek fame as the Atreides Duke, Michael McShane as the Baron Harkonnen, and Vincent Schiavelli (of Ghost and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) portraying the incessant House Harkonnen advisor/mentat. 

Though the positive aspects of Emperor are plentiful, the game still has quite a few issues with it that can

The other issues with the game are relatively minor in comparison, mainly dealing with well-known RTS problems. For starters, the lack of a stable unit formation control is apparent with Emperor, making it a difficult task to form up fighting units into better and more organized groups. They also have problems with moving in and around each other when in close proximity, not to mention tending to move to a set location in a disorderly fashion. Unit behavior settings are also non-existent, which have been extremely popular in other titles, adding to the mess when trying to control psuedo-formations of troops. One final problem to address would have to be the ‘Unit-Crutch Syndrome’, which tends to plague most RTS games at some point or another. More times than not, the player will find himself utilizing certain units more than others to complete a mission, regardless of the availability of other weapons/units. The reasons for UCS are varied, ranging from overpriced hardware, to underpowered units. - JM