It has been a growing trend lately to make movie-license games. Actually, it has been a long trend throughout history, to try to capitalize on movie licenses. It has usually worked, but it has also been a long-standing trend to make movie-licensed games that suck. There were some glaring exceptions to that, and hats go off to the quality people behind the games. Good examples: Dune 2, Star Trek: 25th anniversary, and Star Trek: Judgment Rites. Also Jedi Knight, Dark Forces, and probably one or two other games. The rest consistently sucked (example: any Star Trek game). Enter Emperor: Battle for Dune. To Westwood’s credit, it doesn’t suck. To history’s credit, this isn’t exactly an amazing game, either. I am being very harsh in saying that, because I was expecting a lot from this title, and my hopes and dreams were shattered like a crystal glass ball kicked indiscriminately by an arrogant child.
Let’s look at the game in more detail. As tradition would have it, you play as one of the three Houses, and, in a novel twist, you can ally yourself with sub-houses which will generally add some sort of a unit to your command, perhaps several. For example, the Fremen will add some Fremen troop units; the Sardaukar will add Imperial Sardaukar and Imperial Sardaukar elite troop units; the Tleilaxi will add a Leech and Tleilaxi weird-messed-up-brainwashed-soldier troop unit. Others do other things… but funnily, it doesn’t actually matter. The first thing you will discover when you play this game is that troops are useless. Why, might you ask? The short answer is: they get run over. In a novel implementation of computer AI, the first thing enemy tanks do is run over your troops. No longer will they run or try to get you from afar. They’ll just plunge right in and drive over as many of your people as they can. Sure, you can hit X to scatter. But units don’t scatter fast enough, which means they get run over. I tried sending squads of Sardaukar supported by Atreides Mongoose and Minotaur units. It does nothing. Literally. The Sardaukar get slaughtered first (that is, the enemy tanks drive over them), and then the real battle starts. I tried to avoid it via various means, such as sending the Mongoose first, but then the Sardaukar never actually get to fight, which depletes their usefulness. To top things off, the Harkonnen have this annoying chainsaw tank unit, which doesn’t even need to drive over units: it just chainsaws them to pieces REALLY fast. Okay. I got that off my chest. Let’s move on to other (annoying) things.
The story of the game is told in full-motion videos, a tradition Westwood has unsuccessfully been trying to get right since Command & Conquer way back in 1995. the only way they seem to be able to get any sort of acting talent into it is by throwing money at it: the list of characters for Emperor is headed by Michael Dorn, the ever-respected Worf from Star Trek. That’s where it ends, though. The characters seem to completely not care about their lines, and just spout them out without proper pauses or emotion. The opening cutscene is one of the most indicative of this, when the two Ben’Gesserith sisters are talking: I could swear they are reading off a screen somewhere beyond the camera, because the acting is bad, bad, bad. The Mentat for the Atreides is a complete dork too, and only towards mission 6 or 7 does he unwind to become simply a bad actor, instead of an abysmal one. In Red Alert 2, Westwood got around this problem of good actors costing money by hiring that famous pornstar (or whatever it is she did for a living) that played Tania, the spy girl. They made her wear tight leather, and, even though I’m sure the story writer must’ve committed suicide when he saw what became of his plot, it worked quite well, and few people complained about the stupid acting of everybody else. In Emperor, there are no hot chicks to watch, so the deficiencies shine through like private parts through stone-washed oldskool Levi’s.
As you work your way through the game, you have to perform similar things to Dune 2: specifically, you can choose territories to attack, and frequently, which angles to attack from. In a more annoying twist, you also have to defend yourself when your territory gets attacked. Now, that might be fun at first, but after a few missions you begin to realize that the game doesn’t store your elite fancy base that you built, which means you start off with a retarded generic base producing cannon fodder monkeys, with no useful structures whatsoever. I would be tempted to say that it is frequently re-positioned in silly locations (i.e. not where you originally built it), but there are virtually no strategic locations on maps, so it doesn’t matter if your base is in one corner or the other. Also, terrain is more often than not completely identical, because there is no random map generation due to the engine’s peculiarities. Specifically, this is a “new” 3D engine that allows you to rotate your camera and even sort of view the battlefield from a not-top-down perspective. Not really, but sort of. My gripe with this is that (forgive the cliché insult in advance) I think the developers spent more time developing this engine than they spent playing other RTS games in the near past. And I mean other than Red Alert. Here are my reasons to back up that claim, point-form:
- unit grouping: the keys are unintuitive (why do I have to press Alt+number to center on the unit? Why can’t I hit the number twice, like in all other games on the planet?)
- controls weird: why is it “T” to select all units of same type onscreen? What happened to CTRL+click?
- there are only nine possible groups (what happened to zero?)
- useless units abound (advanced carryall? We’ll get to it in a second, it deserves a paragraph)
- saving and loading games takes a completely stupid amount of time
- unit AI is completely stupid: people will just sit there when they’re bombarded by mortar fire
- can’t queue actions for units (Total Annihilation did this like ten years ago, come on)
- units seem to get “veteran” status when they get kills, but that doesn’t seem to affect their performance in any way (they die just as fast, and they’re just as stupid when it comes to acting under fire)
- units move at whatever speed they want. You group a bunch of Sardaukar and Mongoose units, tell them to attack a base, Sardaukar get there first, Sardaukar be killed quick. Useful. I would clap, but will anybody hear the sound of one hand clapping?
- Stemming from that problem is another one: if a fast unit follows a slow unit, he’ll consistently hump it from behind, and never think of circling around it to pass it. In a way, that solves the problem of one unit getting to the destination faster than the other. In another, more realistic way, it’s a design flaw.
- There is no point in conquering all the territories that you see. There is no indication that it’s a good idea to do so, either. You can just build yourself a straight path to the enemy home sector, conquer it, and boom, you’re done.
- If you don’t ally with two subhouses, you will automatically be allied to them at the end of the game. Related gripe: every house has an absolutely IDENTICAL last mission.
- Turret range is too short. Conversely, units don’t realize that it’s too short, so they go up point blank to it to kill it (example: air units). I guess that cancels out.
- Why do I need engineers to conquer a building? You mean, if I send a squad of Sardaukar into an enemy factory, I can’t assume control of it? It will magically resist, even though everybody inside is dead?
Now to my original complaint about advanced carryalls. You see, there are two types of transport units. There is the normal carryall, which takes care of working on your harvester. It is a very stupid unit, because it will do very stupid things. For example, it will fly around merrily when your harvester is under attack. Sometimes, it will pick it up, then think, “Wait, we’re the Atreides! We will not retreat!”, and drop it right back down on the same spot, in the middle of the enemy. If you’re lucky, it’ll drop it on a soldier, but chances are it won’t. It’ll sometimes ignore your harvester, prompting it to start crawling through the desert all by itself. And if there’s a wormsign? Oh, it’s too cool for wormsign.
That’s the carryall. The advanced carryall is the big brother of the stupid carryall. The dyslexic retardation goes in the family, though, and it probably gets worse with age. The advanced carryall is completely useless, even more so than the normal one. It doesn’t land, so you can’t repair it (not like you can repair the other one, either). It doesn’t do anything automatically, so if a harvester is under attack and the carryalls are all busy in the corner of the map doing something, the harvester can forget about hitching a ride. It’s also annoying to control, because it flies around in circles. And why do we need two units, anyway?
In the game, there are two ways of creating new units. The first, and the more traditional, is to build them in a factory of some sort. For some dumb reason, the more factories you build, the more absolutely nothing happens. That is, if you want to get a speed boost building certain units… well, you can’t. The second way is via ordering through a Star Port, which is always out of stock on the item you need, takes way too long, and sometimes has the delivery vehicle crash into the star port, so that when the next one comes, they get a twosome going, and you can forget about using the starport in this mission. That’s not a feature, by the way, that’s a bug.
The graphics in the game are not too bad, though, I got to give the developers that (see my rant about time developing vs time playing, above). Vehicles have headlights (we’re ignoring the fact that there are no vehicles on Dune, normally), things explode nicely, and only the worm looks a bit lame when it eats vehicles – it looks more like it headbutts them. The pseudo-epic music is not bad, as well.
Besides that, the game plays just like a normal RTS. There is pretty much nothing groundbreaking about it, and while it’s arguably “nicer” than Dune 2000, it also had a higher plank to stand up to (I always viewed Dune 2000 as a “Dune II for Windows 95”, while this was supposed to be “The Next Dune”). It’s enjoyable as a game, but I’m not sure it’s enjoyable as a Dune – it wasn’t to me. Coupled with abysmal load times, stupid AI at times (and at other times, way, way too smart AI), and strangely incoherent scripted sequences and unpolished links between missions and campaigns, it makes for a somewhat dubious achievement of a game. I acknowledge that a lot of people will enjoy it – this is one of those “fringe” titles (that is, it isn’t ubiquitously “bad” or “good”), but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wish I did. Caveat emptor.
Finally, I would like to leave off with this quote from the troubleshooting FAQ for Emperor, explaining why the game apparently doesn’t work on some computers.
Seventh, you may attempt to install Emperor on another system to be sure that the CDROM isn't faulty.
If so, you can find CDROM drives at your nearest computer retailer for as low as $20 US Funds. An investment that will ensure your ability to run programs developed by various software companies.