After the rather underwhelming remake of Dune II that was Dune 2000, it would be understandable if a follower of Westwood Studios' games recoils a bit when confronted with the premise of this game.
The setting of the game is, again, the era before the Dune novels that launched Frank Herbert to fame, when the Dune universe was rife with a lot of conflicts among the noble Houses. The late Emperor, from the ruling House Corrino, has been assassinated. Predictably, chaos ensues from the death of the iron-fisted (and fickle) ruler. The noble Houses squabble violently out in the open once more, vying for whatever scraps of power that the late ruler has left behind.
The Spacing Guild, which holds a monopoly on interstellar travel in the Dune universe and thus is an (uneasy) ad-hoc mediator between the interests of the throne and those of the noble Houses, has decided that it should exercise the privileges granted to its unique position. With ulterior motives that will only be known late in the game, it decided to make a gambit involving the most desolate and destitute yet most important planet in the galaxy, Arrakis a.k.a. Dune.
The three most powerful Houses, which again are Houses Atreides, Harkonnen and Ordos and which also happen to have a sizable presence on Dune, are given the challenge of wiping out each other from Dune, with the trade monopoly of the spice mélange promised as a reward by the Spacing Guild.
Of course, if a player sees through the layers of melodrama, the story is really only there as an excuse for the three noble Houses to go for each other's throat. Each House is a playable faction, with its own single-player campaign that has the same goal of seizing the galactic throne for itself.
Mindful of the criticism that it got for Dune 2000, Westwood tried to inject more secondary stories into each of the campaigns to make them more unique. These would have been quite entertaining: House Atreides again has to regain the trust of the very suspicious Fremen, there is yet another case of power struggle in House Harkonnen and House Ordos is up to no good again, seeking to out-maneuver and manipulate everyone else with a new dastardly scheme.
These side stories do culminate in interesting ways, and there are even a few key-points in one of them where the player may make some semblance of a choice. Yet, regardless of how the side stories play out, they always end up with the same results: the player character, who is unnamed, completely mute and always off-screen, will become the top commander and champion of the House in play, and then go on to smite the other Houses and whatever else that rears its treacherous head in said House's path to dominance.
In addition to barely decent writing, the single-player campaign also suffers from designs that were archaic, even during the time of this game. The Risk-like map returns from Dune II and Dune 2000 to give some measure of choice to the player on what move to make next, but each decision often leads to yet-another skirmish battle with the AI (which does not appear proficient in campaign mode), or sometimes missions which involve advancements in aforementioned side stories and which can never be skipped. Even these missions can seem no more different than skirmish battles.
It is dubiously fortunate that the missions and miscellaneous battles are easy to execute and complete, because the mission briefings only serve melodrama and whatever intelligence information that is provided is vague.
The poor design of the story campaign is most evident in the few final battles that the commander of any House has to battle; in these missions, the player is sent to the homeworlds of the other two Houses to destroy their headquarters and end their involvement in the current war on Dune. The mission briefing has a short description of the planet, such as the Atreides homeworld being a verdant planet. However upon entering said mission, the player would realize that the map is nothing more than Arrakis re-skinned with textures of other colours and patterns.
If there is any reason to pursue the single-player campaigns, it is the myriad of full-motion video (FMV) cutscenes. These feature stars like Michael Dorn (of Star Trek fame) and Mike McShane (best known for Crazy for a Kiss). Unfortunately, as good (or bad) as they are, they are given pathetic scripts to act out. In other words, there may be entertainment to be had from watching the ham-fisted acting in the FMVs.
However, if a player is looking for gameplay designs and mechanics which do justice to the canon of Dune and its themes of high-tech, sci-fi strife on a desolate planet of sand and rock, he/she will have a great time with this game.
Another great attraction, which is also the first one that the player will notice after entering battle for the first time, is the graphics engine. It is code-named Westwood 3D (or W3D for short), and is a derivation of the SurRender 3D engine, which in turn is middleware from Hybrid Graphics. Hybrid Graphics is known for creating code for very stable 3D graphics, and this shows in Emperor: Battle for Dune. The game is smooth; to illustrate, the frame rate stays manageable when there are a lot of happenings on-screen even on a machine which is just above the minimum technical requirements of the game.
Unfortunately, the player does not seem to get much freedom in controlling the camera that views the battlefield. The perspective of the player appears to be fixed at an angle above the plane of the map in play; there is little leeway in tilting the camera any further. Although the player still gets to laterally rotate the camera, this is the only option that can be taken all the way (that is, full 360 degrees); even the zoom option is limited. On the other hand, the limited camera controls do not affect gameplay by much. The default setting is already sufficient enough to see most of the on-screen action that is important.
The camera aside, the game looks great, for its time.
Arrakis is a desert planet with only rock and sand as natural features (other than the local fauna), so it would be understandable if a player does not have high expectations of this game's graphics (especially if he/she has also played Dune 2000, which was visually bland). However, Westwood had wisely decided that it should not use this as an excuse not to do much.
Sand and rock have many textures now; rocky terrain in particular has more polygons than a player could have expected from rocks on a wind-swept planet with serious issues of erosion. Of course, the jagged and gnarly rocks in this game are only there for aesthetic purposes as they cannot be interacted with in any way, but they are great eye-candy for an RTS game at the time. As for sand, they have understandably fewer textures, but Westwood has included a lot of decals for anything that happens over sand, such as explosions, Sandworm passes, tracks of bipedal robotic units and the tread marks left by tanks.
The new engine also allows the application of properties to terrain textures and topographies. Units on treads and wheels will have problems navigating rolling hills of sand, while certain patches of rough rock would impede movement tremendously. This is a welcome change from previous Westwood games, where terrain types do not play much of a role in battles.
The models and graphical effects for units and buildings are the true draw of the graphics. Of course, most of them consist of very boxy polygons with textures stretched over these, but Westwood has cobbled them together into distinct (if a bit crude-looking) objects that can be identified at a glance. They also have lighting effects that make them stand out from the rest of the map, especially at night.
Speaking of night-time, matches in Emperor: Battle for Dune can be held during the night. There is not much difference between matches set during day-time and night-time, e.g. the differences are merely aesthetic.
The vehicles and buildings in the game appear to have limited animations, but they are otherwise appropriate to their nature. Infantry units, however, have more animations, with their idle and victorious animations being especially interesting to look at.
Besides graphics, the game also offers great unit tech trees for the three very different Houses in the game, unlike Dune II and Dune 2000 in which the three Houses share a lot of common units. Much like other Westwood RTS games, the player will have to raise armies that are capable of defeating those of enemies and also demolish their bases.
The buildings are the backbone of every army, so they will be be described first.
The Construction Yard returns in this game as the most critical building of any player. As expected, its sole function is to build other buildings which will be more directly responsible for raising armies.
The Windtraps also return to provide a source of power for buildings. Like in the previous games, the Windtraps remain the only source of power for bases (if the Construction Yard's slight provision of power is disregarded).
Then, there are the buildings associated with the most important resource in the Dune universe, spice. Refineries still act as collection points for any spice collected by Harvesters. They can now be upgraded to have more off-loading ramps, up to several, to support the harvesting activities of more Harvesters. They also niftily come with a free Harvester and Carryall each. (Consequently, they are quite expensive.)
It is worth noting here too that Refineries also come with some spare Carryalls and Harvesters – all free – though the player is not given any idea of how many spares that Refineries have left.
There is only a single factory to use to build vehicles now, compared to the two in Dune 2000. The Factory still needs to be "upgraded" to unlock more advanced units, however, and like Dune 2000, this upgrade option is only for this purpose.
Every House now has aerial units, so each has the capability to build hangars. Hangars also need to have the aforementioned hassle of being upgraded to unlock more advanced units.
The Starport was a much-appreciated addition in Dune 2000, so it was smart of Westwood Studios to retain it. Like its previous incarnation, the Starport allows the player to purchase units from arms dealers in the Dune universe at wildly varying prices, but with the advantage that they come in complete shipments instead of piecemeal transfers.
The Palace returns in this game as both symbols of vanity and also as prerequisites for the use of each House's superweapon, which will be described later.
There does not appear to any significant attempt on the part of Westwood Studios to differentiate the respective infrastructures of the three Houses. Any differences that they have are mainly cosmetic; Harkonnen's buildings are very industrial-looking and belch a lot of smoke, Ordos' are stylized and sinister-looking, and Atreides' have more dignified looks, appearing nobler.
The aforementioned buildings essentially stick to traditional designs that have been established in Dune 2000, with some streamlining. This can be a bit disappointing to those who had wished for more differentiation between the Houses.
However, a couple of Houses do get their own special buildings. House Atreides gets a landing pad to re-supply some of its aerial units with ammunition. House Ordos gets to upgrade their Outpost into a unique variant that does more than just unlock branches of the tech tree and provide a radar map.
Their defensive structures are also different from each other's, which fans of the Dune RTS games (if any) would appreciate (especially considering the bland towers in Dune 2000).
The Machine Gun Post gives House Atreides an efficient option to decimate assaulting enemy infantry very quickly, while the Rocket Turret offers it long-ranged protection against armoured enemies and aerial units.
House Harkonnen has the short-ranged Flame Turret, which ignores shields (more on this later) while spewing out a lot of damage in short time. However, it does explode quite spectacularly when destroyed, making it a hazard for any nearby buildings. In addition to this, Harkonnen has the terrifically effective Gun Turret, which has a battery of quadruple-linked autocannons which can fire on all kinds of units, including aerial ones, though it doesn't have as much range as a Harkonnen player would like.
House Ordos' defenses, as befitting its insidious nature, consist of the Gas Turret and Pop-Up Turret. The former launches toxic gas grenades which can especially damage infantry and corrodes vehicles a bit too, but is otherwise unremarkable. (In fact, it appears to be only there to showcase the W3D engine's ability to produce gaseous polygons.) The Pop-Up Turret is a like the Machine Gun Post, only stronger and having the ability to hide when not firing.
House Ordos' defenses, as amusing as they are, do not appear to be balanced well, unfortunately. They are actually quite weak and disappointing.
Other than the defensive structures mentioned above, the three Houses have access to concrete Walls. Unlike Dune 2000's Walls, which are a hassle to build, the ones in this game can be built in entire stretches with a single command. Sadly, the Construction Yard still has to build them one block at a time, which can be frustratingly slow when a player wishes to wall-off vulnerable sections of a base quickly.
The biggest improvement in the base-building gameplay which this Dune RTS game has over its predecessors is the removal of the need to build concrete slabs as foundations for buildings, which while adhering to Dune canon, was a tedious activity in-game.
If a player can come to grips with the (rather simple) building tech trees, the player can then unlock units to be produced and included in his/her army.
The Scout is the very first unit that any House gets when they first explore their respective tech trees. The Scout has a simple function, which is to scout, though there are subtle differences among the variants for the respective Houses that can be exploited. For example, House Harkonnen's scout is the slowest in moving and attracts Sandworms more easily than the other two; the last trait can be used to harry enemy Harvesters by luring Sandworms over to them.
The other units have actual weapons, which also mean that they can kill enemies, gain experience and new combat ranks, much like the units in previous Westwood games. Every subsequent combat rank (there are two) that a unit type gains grants it improvements that are unique to itself, at least in terms of statistics. For example, the Light Infantry, which can be fielded by both House Harkonnen and House Atreides, starts out pretty much the same for either House, but subsequent combat ranks differentiate them from each other; House Atreides' Light Infantry gains more health, allowing it to hold its ground better, while House Harkonnen's deals more damage.
Yet, some of these benefits would have been more useful if they had been available to said unit by default. For example, the Atreides Sniper, at Rank 3, gains Stealth capabilities, which he would have better benefited from if he had them from the start.
Other improvements include typical improvements in armor and weapon damage. However, speed improvements appear to be mostly exclusive to Ordos units, which do not seem to be a wise gameplay-balancing decision, because these improvements make them terrifically fast and almost impossible to deter from performing hit-and-run attacks, especially on Harvesters.
The Engineer, for better or worse, returns complete with his original debut ability (in Westwood games) to capture any enemy buildings wholesale; the restrictions introduced in the Red Alert games are gone. However, he is relatively slow compared to the other units (especially vehicles) in the game, so he is more vulnerable in this game.
Most, if not all, of the units in the game are quite remarkably well-balanced (at their default combat ranks, that is). For example, the Atreides Kindjal infantry can deploy anti-armour weapons, which are effective against vehicles and buildings, giving Atreides an early-match advantage at raiding enemy bases. This is balanced by Ordos' own Mortar Infantry, which can rip apart enemy infantry when deployed, and Harkonnen's Flame Trooper, which can rush enemy infantry and roast very quickly.
The vehicles in the game are a lot more interesting than infantry units. Some of them are intended to show off the themes and personalities of their respective Houses.
The Buzzsaw and its brutal offensive properties (of being able to assault enemy infantry and kill them outright from mere contact despite being classified as a light vehicle) is a reflection of Harkonnen's less-than-subtle personality. It can also ruin spice fields, making it a viable option for Harkonnen players to damage opponents' early-match efforts to rise up their tech trees.
Harkonnen is also portrayed to use bio-chemical weapons, in the form of the Inkvine Catapult.
Atreides' reliance on air-power shows in its use of the Ornithorpter, which can strike ground targets with fusillades of rockets before retreating. Atreides also has the Air Drone, which is a mid-match solution to making raids on enemy Carryalls.
House Atreides appears to have embraced the use of robotics, fielding bipedal Mech units like the missile-equipped Mongoose and the Minotaurus, which fulfills the role of artillery support. It is worth noting here that robotic units, e.g. those with legs, will move across all terrain at the same speed, including slopes.
Ordos vehicles all start with self-repair capabilities, giving them much needed staying power in the battlefield to compensate for their poorer health and armor. They are also all hovercraft units, giving a tremendous advantage in mobility over the other two Houses' vehicles.
House Ordos also apparently uses a lot of suicidal troops. Its Saboteurs can ruin enemy bases very quickly if they managed to sneak into them, and House Ordos even has an aerial version of these in the form of Eyes in the Sky, which can rain deadly debris onto anything they explode over. (They also release their pilots, which are incidentally Saboteurs.)
Other units appear to be conventional and practical inclusions in the Houses' armies.
True to Harkonnen's straight-forward attitude to war, there are vehicles like the Air Defense Platform, Gunship and Missile Tank.
House Atreides has the Sand Bike, which is an early-game unit that can do reconnaissance and make raids against groups of enemy infantry, as well as preempt any hostile attempt to sneak Engineers into their bases. Atreides also has an APC to ferry troops and a Repair Vehicle to conduct field repairs.
The Ordos also has a counterpart of the Sand Bike in the form of the Dust Scout, but it has hovercraft capabilities. It also has a hovercraft APC. For offensive purposes, the Ordos makes use of Laser Tanks and Kobra artillery.
Next, there are the iconic units that the Houses are known to field. These also incidentally happen to be the most powerful units in the game.
Harkonnen's Devastator returns as a Mech unit, but apparently the conversion from a tank platform to a bipedal robot chassis was not entirely smooth; the Devastator is the slowest unit in the game, and for it to be effective, it has to be ferried around in Advanced Carryalls, which makes it vulnerable to air raids.
Atreides still has the Sonic Tank, which retains its ability to damage anything along its line of fire, as well as being the only vehicle that can reliably damage Sandworms and drive them away.
The Ordos has the Deviator, which temporarily turns over control of enemy vehicles over to House Ordos. It can be tough to micromanage a lot of turncoat vehicles, but the tactical advantage is tremendous.
It is worth mentioning here that some otherwise mundane units have quirks that can be quite amusing and may have tactical value. For example, the Advanced Carryall, which is available to all Houses for the purpose of picking up any kind of ground vehicle, can also be used to grab enemy vehicles and deposit them elsewhere.
There are some units that appear to be in the game mainly for visual novelty (if their contribution to gameplay balancing is disregarded). Incidentally, many of them belong to House Ordos, of which Westwood appears to have problems balancing against Harkonnen's brute force and Atreides' steadfastness while attempting to retain its themes and personality.
The Ordos Chemical Trooper is essentially a weaker variant of Harkonnen's Flame Trooper, while, conversely, the AA Trooper is a stronger variant of Harkonnen's Trooper. The Ordos Anti-Aircraft Mine is also clumsy to use, especially when compared to the much more efficient Atreides Air Drone.
The other Houses also have some units of dubious worth. For example, Harkonnen's Assault Tank lacks a turret, so it has serious difficulty fighting more agile enemies.
(As a side note, a tank without a turret is effectively an armored fighting vehicle of the "assault gun" category - which incidentally has been rendered obsolete in the real-world.)
Knowing that Westwood took the easy way out in designing some units to fill in strategic gaps can be quite disappointing.
In keeping with Westwood tradition, every main faction in this game has super-weapons. Yet, these do not exactly stick true to Dune canon; two of them do not appear to have been documented in any novels.
The Atreides Hawk Strike, when used on groups of enemies, causes them to flee in terror right out of the map. It gives the impression of a psychic weapon, which by itself is very uncharacteristic of House Atreides, which prefers more noble and honest methods of defeating its enemies. The Ordos Chaos Lightning is also another psychic weapon, which causes affected units to go berserk and fight each other, regardless of their affiliation.
As unseemly as these weapons are, they are quite functional in what they are supposed to do: ruin the advance of enemy armies. The Harkonnen Death Hand is the only super-weapon (and a returning one from previous Dune games) that is earnest in what it does, and that is explosive destruction. It is also the only super-weapon that can damage bases, perhaps giving Harkonnen an unfair advantage (though the Death Hand has the longest cool-down time).
The three major Houses are not the only ones with forces on Arrakis. They can also contract the support of otherwise neutral factions by building their emissarial buildings, effectively taking them on as mercenaries. However, any player may only take on two. In single-player, the Fremen are only available to House Atreides, while House Tleilaxu is not available to the Atreides (for reasons that would be obvious if the player knows of this lesser House's nature).
The Fremen, having canonically resisted any attempts to subjugate them and being nomadic natives of Arrakis, are preternatural guerrilla fighters who will never attract the murderously hungry attention of the Sandworms. They are also, oddly enough, highly resistant to sonic weapons. They come in two types: the Warrior, which is basically an enhanced sniper, and the Fedaykin, who are more battle-hardened Fremen armed with sonic weapons (likely supplied by the Atreides) and are the only units who can summon and ride young sandworms for a short period of time (which is still enough to ruin any enemy army caught out in the sand).
The Spacing Guild is not available in the single-player campaigns, but in multiplayer, they can be contracted to supplement the player's army with the Guild Maker, which is a fire support unit that uses lightning strikes, and the NIAB Tank, which also has a lightning attack but is more powerful and also has the ability to teleport to another part of the map, not unlike the Chrono Tank of Red Alert 2.
The Imperial Sardaukar, who are canonically divested of their duty to the throne in this game, can be contracted to offer their strong power-armored infantry to the player. Regular Sardaukar have powerful machineguns and have lots of hitpoints (for infantry units). Their more Elite members are even better armored and have laser weapons that can be used like energy beam guns for ranged combat or as swords in assault rushes against enemy infantry (which can be a very entertaining sight). Sardaukar-only armies can be a handful to defeat, so they are balanced with expensive recruitment costs.
House Ix - which deliberately keeps its ambitions low so as not to be dragged into conflicts among the bigger Houses and to profit from these - offers their employer the Infiltrator, which is an explosive stealth drone that can be used for observation purposes or to blow up targets of opportunity. It also offers the Projector Tank, which apparently can create corporeal clones of any unit - including those of enemies' - and use these against the opposition. Unfortunately, Westwood appears to have overlooked the inclusion of any special abilities that the clones should otherwise have.
House Tleilaxu, which is a pariah House because of its dabbling in ghastly technology, offers the Contaminators, which are practically the Dune version of highly infectious zombies that can subvert infantry-dependent armies (especially those that include Fremen and Sardaukar units). They also have Leeches, which are variants of the Contaminators that prey on vehicles instead of infantry and are impossible to remove without using Repair Vehicles or Engineers.
One can say that the inclusion of these mercenary factions is a good move on Westwood's part, as it introduces more diversity in the tactics that the player can have.
Perhaps an aspect of the game that is even better than its graphics are its sound designs.
Sound effects in this game are appropriately sci-fi: zings accompany energy weapons and hits on shields, warping of metal coincides hits on vehicles, beefy booms signify explosions, etc.
Voice-overs for units in this game are fortunately not as terrible as the uttering of lines in the FMV cutscenes. Most of them are either in character (i.e. appropriate to the canon of said units) or are corny quips (especially those for the main Houses' units).
The musical soundtracks of the game are written and performed by artistes who may be familiar to Westwood followers. Frank Klepacki, who has worked on soundtracks for Westwood games before (including Dune 2000), provides most of the in-game soundtracks, especially those for battles where his blend of rock and orchestra provides great ambiance. David Arkenstone provides the music for calmer moments in the game, such as the starting phases of matches where his New Age leanings give the sense of optimism that anxious players would appreciate (or not). Jarrid Mendelson provided the insidious and disturbing soundtracks associated with House Ordos (as well as for a certain mission very late into the game).
The multiplayer and single-player skirmish modes for this game would offer a more enjoyable experience than the single-player campaigns would. At launch, Westwood provided match-making services that help players get into matches with others of their skill level. The game also offers matches that mix human and AI players together, though only four can join a match on the Internet, which can be a disappointment.
Curiously, the game does not have a map/scenario-editor at launch, which would give the impression of lesser value if compared to other strategy games at the time that have editors in their packages.
Perhaps the most interesting feature in this game is the inclusion of online campaign co-op mode, which has not been done before in earlier Westwood games (but would be later implemented in them after Westwood had been acquired by Electronic Arts).
In conclusion, Emperor: Battle for Dune marks Westwood's jump into the 3D environment domain with great game designs that used the best of the mechanics that Westwood had devised and utilized before, and then some small new ones that are nonetheless interesting. However, if one is looking for improvement in Westwood's story-telling skills, this is not it.