A sandy sequel to last year's First Battalion, arcade tank shooter Dunes of War is one of those action games that's as forgettable as breakfast. Its routine, shoot-everything-that-moves gameplay gets you going and keeps you going for the six hours or so you roll around the desert sands of WWII blasting Panzers, Shermans, and assorted troops, trucks, and antitank guns, but you won't remember anything about it a few hours after taking it off your hard drive. Even though the action is agreeably fast paced and everything blows up real good, this is a short, by-the-numbers shooter that alternately gets the adrenaline going and gets a little mind-numbing at times.
Developer ZootFly is unabashedly retro with its approach to designing these tank games. Like its 2006 predecessor, Dunes of War resembles an old-time console actioner, with the only difference between it and the usual third-person shoot-'em-up being the fact that you're driving a tank instead of the stereotypical supercommando with a bunch of big guns and an attitude. Even being in command of a heavy armored vehicle doesn't change things much, as the tanks that you command handle about as nimbly as said soldier, or a car in an arcade driving game. That's not a big deal, though, as the focus is on action, not accurately depicting how a Panzer II tank handled in the dusty terrain of Egypt.
Levels reflect this straightforward design philosophy as well. The six missions in the game's two German and Allied campaigns are simplistic affairs where you race from point A to point B destroying everything you see and occasionally pulling alongside auto-repairing garages and armories to heal up and reload on shells. At first, this is all pretty captivating. Waves of enemy tanks and troops attack you constantly. Loads of antitank guns flank every route forward. Planes soar past and carpet the desert floor with bombs. Challenge is there, too. The difficulty is high even on the easy setting, as you need to balance the need to always keep moving ahead with caution over going too far and winding up surrounded by hostile armor. Most of the time you've got to choose between slowing down and maybe getting shredded by gun emplacements and speeding up to hit advancing tanks head-on.
But even such intensity can get tedious. Missions drag on for upward of an hour or more apiece, and there is no real variety in your actions and objectives. Crest a hill and get ready for yet another enemy armored column. Approach a hill and prepare to take out yet another line of a dozen or so antitank guns. Cruise into a village and gun down yet another succession of machine gun nests and sitting duck trucks. Sit back and hold the line against yet another enemy counterattack. Are you yawning yet?
You occasionally get tossed a curveball like a convoy escort or sinking ships in a port, but generally Dunes of War hits you with the same enemies and goals ad nauseam. So for the first 20 or 30 minutes of each level, you have a blast just roaring through the Egyptian shooting galleries. Beyond that, you have to push yourself to keep playing, as you're worn down by the constant repetition. There is never any sense of building toward a climax, either. ZootFly just piles one ambush atop of another in each mission before bringing things to a close with an assault on a town or some sort of base that is virtually identical to the towns and bases you've already blitzed a half-dozen times in the preceding half hour or so.
You're stuck with the campaigns, too. Even though the game has a multiplayer feature with conquest and capture the flag modes of play, either it doesn't work right out of the box or absolutely nobody is playing online. At any rate, numerous attempts to hook up with other players for a match online were unsuccessful, as the server was always deserted. Multiplayer is supported via LAN as well, though, so you can go up against other human tank commanders in the privacy of your own home if so inclined.
Look and sound range from serviceable to pretty good. Vehicles and buildings are nicely destructible, but the terrain is dominated by scrubby desert and generic Arabian architecture. Explosion and smoke effects look great, at least, and some missions have loads of atmosphere, like the El Alamein one that takes place under a bright desert moon. Only the motion blur effect is a problem, as it's so overdone that it's really more of a motion sickness blur. Thankfully, you can turn it off.
Sound is quite impressive. The musical score has a nifty Middle Eastern beat and is accompanied by evocative ululations similar to the Muslim call to prayer. Soldiers under your command repeat mundane battle commentary like "Goodbye!" and "Pow, right in the kisser!" far too often (many lines seem to have been recycled from the original First Battalion), although sprinkled-in random comments give the troops personality. Every now and again you'll get an interesting segue apropos of nothing, like one German conversation about ancient ruins left in Northern Africa by the Carthaginians. Battle sound effects are also great, although it seems as if they can overload the game and cause sound loops; get too many machine guns firing in heated battles and the game occasionally does a staccato seizure and locks up.
In limited doses, Dunes of War can be a mildly entertaining shooter. So if you're looking for an WWII action game to haul out for half hour stretches every now and again, you could do a lot worse. Unfortunately, the repetition that takes over after the initial thrill fades means that you could also do a fair bit better.