In borrowing conventions from earlier games, Westwood managed to make its latest project interesting enough and enjoyable enough to be worthwhile for virtually anyone who's ever liked another game of its type.
Emperor: Battle for Dune is the latest in Westwood Studios' long line of real-time strategy games and the spiritual successor to its early '90s game Dune II, which single-handedly defined the genre. Like Dune II, Emperor is based upon the famous science fiction universe found in the Dune novels by Frank Herbert and in the 1984 movie by David Lynch. As in its predecessor, Emperor lets you assume command over the military forces of any of three distinct factions that are fighting to gain ownership of the desert planet Arrakis and its invaluable resources. The game emphasizes fast, intense skirmishes over complicated tactical decision-making, and it features an impressive 3D graphics engine that really helps bring the fiction of the game to life. Emperor also gives you a lot of options and a lot of replay value, between its three single-player campaigns, its skirmish mode, and its robust multiplayer features.
Emperor may be Westwood's first fully 3D real-time strategy game, but fundamentally, it plays much like its predecessors. That is, you view the action from above the battlefield and typically must establish a base of operations and then start producing a variety of units with which to destroy all of the enemy's forces and defend against any retaliation in the process. To fund your military efforts, you'll need to earn money--specifically, by harvesting and processing the invaluable chemical known as the spice Melange. An in-game tutorial quickly explains all this. Actually, unlike in most conventional real-time strategy games, the resource-gathering process in Emperor is fully automated. You can even upgrade refineries to support up to two additional harvesting units so that a single refinery can do the work of three. Flying carryall vehicles automatically ferry harvesters to and from spice fields, and should one of your harvesters or carryalls fall under attack and be destroyed, you'll get a limited number of replacements for free. This system works well--it's a relief to not have to micromanage your economy and to be able to concentrate on fielding a strong military instead. Of course, though your harvesters will do their jobs autonomously, they'll still depend on you to protect them.
As in most real-time strategy games, each mission in Emperor begins with the battlefield being almost completely shrouded save for the area around your starting units. Like in the Command & Conquer series, once you move units through the shroud, the shroud disappears for the duration of the battle. In skirmish mode and multiplayer mode, Emperor does let you toggle a true fog-of-war option (similar to other RTS games) that requires you to maintain line of sight, which will certainly affect your strategy in battle. Either way, reconnaissance in Emperor is simple: Each of the three playable factions has access to a cheap, defenseless scout unit that can clear the map quickly and easily. Therefore, as with the resource gathering, scouting in Emperor is made as simple as possible so as to let you concentrate on combat.
The variety of units found in Emperor isn't exhaustive, but it's diverse and entertaining. Aside from a few universal types of units such as harvesters and scouts, each of the three playable factions has completely different military forces. The units of the honorable House Atreides are direct and imposing, and most effective at long range. The wicked House Harkonnen's units are extremely deadly but require good tactics for best results, as most of its units can be readily countered by troops they're not specifically designed to destroy. The forces of the mercenary House Ordos are physically weaker but also perhaps the most versatile. They're fast and equipped with regenerating energy shields that protect them from initial damage--yet Ordos units suffer noticeably if their shields are breached. Though the units across all three sides are different, the three sides' structures are analogous. So, depending on which House you're controlling, you'll have to use a different strategy in battle, but setting up base infrastructure and gaining access to more-powerful technologies will be the same straightforward process regardless.
Emperor actually features five ancillary factions in addition to the primary three, and you can select any two of these as allies prior to multiplayer matches or skirmish battles. You may also gain the favor of a couple of them during any of the game's three campaigns. In practice, an alliance with one of these gives you access to an exclusive production facility, which in turn lets you produce two additional units. Some of these are quite powerful and collectively lend even more diversity to the battles in the game. The extra factions include the Fremen, native nomadic warriors of Arrakis; the Sardaukar, fanatical soldiers who fight in the name of their emperor; House Ix, a sect devoted to advanced technology; House Tleilaxu, renegade masters of genetic manipulation; and the Spacing Guild, who monopolize space travel in the known universe.
A lot of the units in Emperor are cleverly designed, aesthetically appealing, and memorable. In spite of this, you'll likely find that your strategy in battle focuses heavily on certain units and all but neglects certain others, either because they seem too overpriced or too underpowered. Part of the reason is because your tactical options in Emperor are fairly limited, most notably in that you can't easily assemble your units into formations. Groups of units also have trouble maneuvering around each other in close proximity. They often won't be able to get around one another, and when attacking, they'll move toward their target in a disorganized mass--you'll invariably lose your front line to defensive fire just because there's no good way to send in your forces. Aside from the lack of formations, Emperor doesn't have many options for determining unit behavior. Units such as the Harkonnen buzzsaw, which are clearly designed to overrun enemy infantry, are fundamentally less useful because they won't overrun infantry on their own. The various units in Emperor do a fine job of shooting at enemy passersby, but when a situation calls for anything subtler, you'll always have to take direct control yourself. Finally, some of the smaller infantry units in Emperor can be very difficult to distinguish from each other, let alone pick from out of a crowd. At least the game's 3D camera control is simple and intuitive; you have limited ability to zoom in with the mousewheel, and you can also rotate your view as necessary.