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Emperor: Battle for Dune

Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Westwood
Developer: EA Games
Media: CD/4
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

The biggest change from, well, everything else that Westwood has made since Dune II and Emperor: Battle for Dune is the use of 3D graphics. Instead of the standard tile-based rendering of the rest, whether isometric or 'flat-out', Emperor uses real-time rendered 3D graphics. The game is actually quite gorgeous because of this; while it suffers the same 'indecipherable infantry' problem of almost every 3D RTS ever made, scrolling around Arrakis is a sight to behold. Which is a good thing, because precious few maps involve anything other than waging war on the sandy planet's surface.

Frighteningly enough, the default graphics levels are pretty low, even on my machine. When I jacked it up all the way, the game looked even nicer, but it ran like crap. Turning it back down, I realized that even in a 'low' graphics state the game looks very, very nice. Hopefully it'll look even nicer on my Sledgehammer with a GeForce 5, but until then I'll have to stick with the current settings.

The FMV in the game is classic Westwood: acting that dances on the edge of cheesy and solid without ever really straying into either territory. You'll recognize quite a few of the characters--notably the dukes of Atreides and Harkonnen--and a lot of the confuddlement may come from the nonlinearity of the plot. Eh.

Emperor sounds quite good as well. The voice acting is solid, if repetitive; the sound effects are nice, if nothing amazing. The music, on the other hand, is spot on, evoking both the movie and the original game. Trust me, I can hum the theme from the original even today. Argh. Good stuff here.


And while Emperor: Battle for Dune presents a few new options in terms of gameplay, in the end it's the same sort of stuff Westwood's been turning out for years. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on your personal tastes; while I enjoyed playing Emperor, I realized that I had much the same experience playing Red Alert 2 a few months back.

Those of us who fondly remember playing the original Dune II (or even Dune, which had more story than action but nonetheless did a good job of presenting the world) will sigh with pleasure once you see the familiar bushy brows of the Atreides Mentat or the fat, loathsome glare of the duke of House Harkonnen. Emperor is set immediately after Dune II; with the Galactic Emperor dead, the throne must be filled, and the three houses decide to do a sort of 'dance of death' on the surface of Arrakis. The winner takes all.

For the most part, Emperor plays like pretty much every RTS since Dune II. You construct your base, build your units, and crush the enemy. Indeed, it plays a lot more like Dune II than most, for obvious reasons. The two resources in Emperor are power, gained by using windtraps, and credits, gained by harvesting spice.

This is the first place that old-schoolers will notice a difference [other than the 3D]. Emperor automanages the harvesters for you, picking them up and sending them out with carry-alls instead of requiring you to babysit them. You can upgrade the refinery to have even more harvesters, which is nice. The taking away of micromanagement duties is always a Good Thing in games like this.

The other major change you'll notice in the game is the addition of subhouses. These five groups, ranging from the Fremen and Sardaukar to some rather bizarre alien races like the Ix, each add a couple of units to your repetoire. You can befriend them in the course of the campaign, or simply pick which ones you have when you play skirmishes.

The core campaign lets you choose from one of the three main houses. The battles are waged on an overworld map, one very similar to the map in Dune II--although this time you have much more control over what's going on. You can pick your line of attack, and often have to defend against the enemy from your home territory. Some of the battles that occur are 'plot battles', which get you new allies or progress the story. Others are 'kill foozle' or 'defend foozle', thrown in to make the game longer.

Unfortunately, this non-linearity ends up hurting the game experience more than I'd have liked. You really feel no attachment to what's going on in the game--progression has to be its own reward. It's a shame, really.

If you tire of the single-player campaign, you can always skirmish against the AI, or play with or against your friends on the Internet. The ability to do cooperative campaigns is intriguing; the ability to deathmatch is much more appealing in the short run. The game offers a lot of options for multiplayer, and the subhouses mean that every side is somewhat unique. Nice.


Unfortunately, the AI in Emperor is decidedly sub-par; I played on the middle difficulty level at first and walked through most of the game. Blargh. It gets a little better in the skirmishes, but even then I felt that the AI could use some serious shaking-up. Fortunately, Internet play capabilities mean that once you've mastered beating the weak computer opponent you can switch over to beating much stronger human opponents in real-time.

Game Mechanics:

While the game has moved into 3D, much of the controls seem stuck in years past. Where are my unit agressiveness controls? Where is my convoy mode? Why can't I make true, easy formations of units? Questions like this plague me. The UI is another issue; while it looks undeniably gorgeous, some of the buttons are obscure until you've played around with it for a while, and some things like the power meter are just too hard to read. I like style, but when it detracts from the gameplay it can be frustrating. Saving also seemed to take an inordinate amount of time during battles, but it was well-nigh instantaneous outside of them. The menus were easy to navigate and the options were easy to configure; there's a lot to tinker around with under the hood of the game.

While it's really much more of an evolution than any sort of revolution, Emperor: Battle for Dune is sure to please fans of the original game and those who like Westwood's RTS games. Those looking for something mindblowingly new and original should look somewhere else: almost everything in Emperor is tried and and true. But for those who don't mind a little nostalgia and a lot of destruction, Emperor may be just what the doctor ordered.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:

Win9x/Me/2K, P2 400 with 600MB HD Space, 64MB RAM, 16MB VRAM 3D accelerator , 4x CD-ROM, mouse, soundcard

Test System:

Athlon 1.1GHz running Win98 SE, 512MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS w/ 32MB RAM, SoundBlaster Live!, 8x DVD-ROM

Windows Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force Expansion Pack Windows Empire Earth

Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated