I said in my review of Dune II that I didn’t “get” Dune, and clearly needed to read the book. That probably sounded like I was blowing the series off. This is not the case. I actually did go out and buy the book, I actually did read it cover to cover, and I actually thought it was pretty nice. Favorite story ever? No, but I now at least can say that I understand the plot and its universe. And it proved an excellent primer for this game.
It’s interesting to note that both Dune and Dune II are basically the same game – build an empire on Arrakis and drive out the Harkonnens – they just go about the methodology in different ways. Dune II is the beginning of the traditional RTS. For this Dune, Cryo (who would also do KGB) has cooked up a curious little Adventure/Management hybrid. You’re forced to manage the bands of Fremen warriors scattered about the sand, vaguely similar to an RTS, while simultaneously following the journey of young Paul Atredies and expanding his abilities. A pragmatic (and slightly callous) way to look at it is to say that Dune is a managerial sim that won’t let you get better at it until you watch a few cutscenes from the novel’s plot. But in truth, the effect is a little more seamless, and much more enjoyable.
You play as Paul and begin on the day your family inherits your new palace from your mortal enemies, the Harkonnens. Characters loiter around the chambers and fill you in on backstory, as well as offer pretty clear directives as to how to go about the game. Loosely, you’ll have to travel around the planet and convince the cautious Fremen to work for you. Once they’re recruited, you’ll assign them tasks of spice mining and locate equipment to assist them with that task. The Emperor will make weekly demands for production, so your first concern is filling your vaults with spice to meet his ever-increasing quotas. Once you’ve got a solid production engine, you can start training some of those Fremen as fighters and start clearing Harkonnens out of the north.
Throughout all of this, you’ll meet characters from the novel and hit all the major plot points from it. The difference is that, while much of the events are unchanged, they’ll come in different context within the game. There’s no Dr. Yueh. You never get forced out of the palace and exiled into the desert. Gurney and Kynes are around for the entire time. Chani literally falls in love with you overnight. All of this is to accommodate the game mechanics. Rather than controlling the entire planet and having you fight as hidden guerrilla warriors, Harkonnens only have territory to the north, which sets up a more standard territorial battle between two armies. Characters fulfill specific game roles – you’ll need Stilgar to convince some tribes to join you, you’ll need to talk to Duncan Idaho to ship spice out – so they can never die or leave your side. The basic plot and events are the same, just “gameified” a little to support the managerial sim. So if you have a report on Dune due, don’t play this game in lieu of reading the novel.
Your efforts to liberate Arrakis are mostly controlled through an icon-based map. You can see all discovered Fremen settlements, and their workers if you’ve rallied them. Workers will change colors based on their assigned task, and run though an animation loop if performing their task uninterrupted. Their icon will also change to reflect equipment provided to them, so you can quickly see who needs the new harvester you’ve uncovered and send them to retrieve it. A smaller, secondary map shows spice levels in a particular region. Arrakis is divided into territories “controlled” by single settlements. So you can’t begin mining in an area until you discover its hidden sietch and send your prospecting team out to investigate. After you meet these requirements, the map for that area gets updated automatically, and can tell you at a glance when and where you need to reposition your harvesters.
Initially, you will have to physically travel everywhere to meet new tribes, check in with rallied ones, or change their orders. As you progress through the story, you’ll be able to telepathically contact troops in a wider range from your current position. You’ll also have visions of major events, or be contacted about issues that need your attention. Some interesting scenarios transpire out of this, like a plague breaking out at a camp, but almost every one is scripted. You will get a few grumblings earlier on if you try to mix northern and southern tribes, but I only had to deal with this twice. Once you become the Fremen Holy Man, no one questions your orders.
Days progress from morning to night at an accelerated pace, with the tint and color of the world screens changing accordingly. It’s a lovely graphical effect that rarely gets referenced in the game itself. The only one who gives a shit about the passage of days is the Emperor, and your only real concern is making it back to the palace on “spice day” to manually send the requested amount. Travel across the planet does take time into account however, and there were quite a few days where I was bumming around the deep desert and barely made it back to the palace in time. Missing shipments will eventually draw an invasion from the Emperor’s Sardaukar legions, which is altogether a bad thing. It’s incredibly easy to avoid, and thus, earnestly should be.
The rest of the game looks fantastic as well. Cryo’s artists were incredibly talented, and the entire look of the game is striking. The movie was obviously an inspiration, but not a bible, so you get a nice blend. That flying box from the flick is replaced by a proper Ornithopter. Paul looks like Kyle MacLachlan, and Jessica looks like Francesca Annis, while everyone else is an original creation true to the book. The various rooms in your palace are distinct and opulent. The technology looks believable. Worms manage to look giant and awe-inspiring. Deserts look appropriately vast and foreboding, with impressive skies and terrain both day and night. A little sprite-based 3D sequence plays whenever you fly over the desert for travel. It’s almost useless graphical fluff (and you can skip it every trip) but there are times you’ll have to take limited control of the flying sequence to scout around for new settlements.
The spice game is really pretty simple. Tribes get better at their tasks as they spend more days doing them, but it doesn’t take anyone too long to reach expert status, making veterans less important. As long as you provide each troupe with harvesters and an ornithopter (to prevent worms from eating the harvester) then they are totally autonomous. You’ll need to reposition them as their current area gets sucked dry, but this isn’t too hard to manage either. By the end of the game, I had about 20 times the Emperor’s last (and largest) spice request, and I never came close to not meeting a quota.
The war game is fairly simple as well. You give tribes the job of “Army,” and they set about training themselves. Gurney Halleck can be dropped off at any sietch to train Fremen in warfare, and his presence at least doubles (and probably triples) the speed at which troops attain Expert status. There’s only so much spice on Arrakis, so once you vacuum the majority of it up, you’ll have plenty of Fremen to assign to army. I basically planted Gurney well away from the Harkonnen border and sent all new tribes to his “Gurney Halleck’s School of Ass Thrashing.” In under a week, they came out ready for the front lines, or my money back.
Soldiers can be sent on espionage missions to uncover Harkonnen forts and give an indication of their strength. Once you have a location, you move bands of troops to that area and watch them attack automatically. Just like mining, battle is a numbers game you have no direct influence over. However, you can – and should – stack the deck in your favor. Assigning small groups to mining and keeping your 2,000+ man Fremen bands for war is a good start. Checking the progress of the battle and pulling out groups that are getting slaughtered is another.
And exactly like the miners, soldiers are more effective as you find or purchase weapons and assign them. The weapons are really just modifiers to boost their invisible attack rating, but you can get a good idea that kitting your troops out properly will always have positive results. That’s about as difficult as it gets. Later forts have up to three groups of defenders (maybe 7,000-8,000 men), but when you can have up to seven Fremen groups attacking the same fort (closer to 14,000 men) and arm them all with atomic weapons, there’s really nothing that can’t be taken down.
Your final consideration is motivation, which is improved by assigning Fremen to ecology. This path gets explained as the game goes on, and rather than spoil a little bit of Dune for those who haven’t read it, I’ll leave this one a mystery. Functionally, it works the same as mining and army. While it does affect the planet itself, thus altering strategy for both sides a little bit, its real effect is in driving your troops into fanaticism. Expert Fremen with 100% morale are basically the game’s “I win” button, and while I never got to complete the ecology project (and I don’t know if you actually can), the morale boosts it gave made the game fly through the final battles.
If it sounds like Dune is easy, that’s because it is. You’ll have to know how to play to succeed, but the game does so much initial hand-holding that foreknowledge of the book isn’t needed. It’s also just plain fun. It’s complex enough to make you feel clever, but not overly elaborate. It’s primarily a game of moving icons around a map, but it’s got enough feedback to make you feel proud of your accomplishments. It makes story changes for gameplay, but respects the book enough that any Dune fan can enjoy the interactive experience of taming Arrakis and liberating the Fremen. Not a must-play, especially when it doesn’t add anything not already found in the novel, but still an enjoyable weekend sim.
Beautiful art and art direction. Light, fun managerial sim that’s true to the novel.
Can be hard to track everything going on toward the end, but that’s really a limit determined by your brain and not the game. You never get to fight Sting at the end.