Once upon a time, there was a game company which invented one of the mainstays of the modern video game industry. This company was bought out and brutally dismembered for its most valuable franchises, with the name soon dropping from record. The Company? Westwood Studios. The Genre? Real Time Strategy. It's killer? Electronic Arts. The game which invented the Genre wasn't the famed Command and Conquer franchise for which it was bought out, it was actually "Dune 2" based upon the Frank Herbert book. This game had a squel, "Dune 2000" and another, "Emperor: Battle for Dune". This commentary is about the third game. Emperor was among the last games put out by Westwood studios before EA bought them out. It takes place in an alternate continuity from the books, almost a pre-requisiste for a balanced game.
For the record, I hate Frank Herbert's work. I only read Dune, but found the protagonist so contemptable in artificial perfection that I ended up rooting for the Harkonnen. Now, it takes a lot to make me root for the loathesome pedophile over the designated protagonist. I found the depection of the Fremen the least believable of all, escpecially where their noncombatants are stated to have eradicated a contingent of elite Sardukar, and it happened 'off screen'. While it is possible for locals to utilize their superior knowledge of the local terrain to wear down the numbers of a body of professional soldiers, this takes a long time, and usually results in a large number of local casualties. This sort of war of attrition usually costs the locals more in terms of lives and devastation than the interlopers. In the book, this sequence is reported to take very little time, and result in the complete eradication of the Sardukar contingent. Unless the contingent was a single fire team, or a similarly small group, this is patently unfeasable, especially with the range advantage the troops had over the Fremen.
Dislike of Herbert aside, the game Emperor is based upon the visual style of the David Lynch movie. I regard this aspect positivly since I liked the style of that film, despite it's storytelling shortcomings (many of which were a direct result of the source material). As with many of Westwood's works, Emperor has several FMVs using much the same style. A number of the actors are people you may or may not recognize. For the most part, the casting is all right, but whoever decided that Michael Dorn would be suitable as Duke Atreides might want to think about changing careers.
I mostly played as Harkonnen, because their unit loadout tended to fit my playing style more than anything else. The other two options for playable factions include Atreides (for obvious reasons) and Ordos - which Westwood pretty much invented for the games to create a third faction. Being a separate continuity, the characters from the books were replaced by Westwood's own to increase their poetic licence. Their characters pretty much mirror those they replaced. Baron Rakan replaces Baron Vladimir, Duke Achillus replaces Duke Leto, Gunseng replaces Feyd-Rautha and Copec replaces Rabban. Luckily, no character replaces Paul, and the game is better for it. As far as I can tell, none of the mentats have names, only being called 'mentat'.
As one might expect, gameplay revolves around protecting and extending the spice harvest to finance the construction of base facilities and combat units. This mechanic makes sense for a faction like the Harkonnen, where the failure of a sector would rest upon the regional commander, and would not be subsidized. This makes less sense for the other factions, as they tend to utilize a different doctrine and would provide additional support to subcommanders. The objective being to seize or retain control of portions of the north polar region of Arakkis. At least I assume it is the traditional galactic enclave, as the map is circular and doesn't wrap at the edges. I won't dwell on how sandworms got into the enclave, though I assume it was because the rock wall was breached at some point as happened in the original source material. I blame the Fremen.
In each area, the main objective is always simply "defeat the enemy" with side quests from the sub houses. Every so many battles at the start of the game, you will trigger a plot event based upon your faction. The Harkonnen plot revolves around the struggle for succession to the Barony between expy Feyd and Expy Rabban, excuse me, Gunseng and Copec. Once the existing Baron, played by Mike McShane (aka Brian Blessed Lite) is assassinated, the player must pick sides. Something about this plot point always bugged me. Recently I realized what it was - there was no option of "Attempt to seize power for yourself". While fighting both pretenders to the throne would make for the most difficult battle of the set, it would also be the most interesting option. In the end, you would present the Landsraad with a fait accompli. I'd have preferred that option. Just see the Bene Gesseret try to figure out what to do with both the Harkonnen and Atreides bloodlines exterminated. As I said, it wasn't available.
Most of the side plots come from courting the sub houses. Your options are reported to include the Sardukar, the Fremen, the Ix, the Tleilaxu and the Guild. In practice, your choice of houses decides your choice of allies. For example, as the Harkonnen, the Fremen are immediately out, the Guild never shows itself before the finale and the Tleilaxu are next to impossible to court. As such, you end up dealing with the Ix and Sardukar.
The main problem comes after you finish the faction specific side-plot. You are given the impression that the only thing left is to crush your enemies. And until you reach one of the capitals, that is all you have to do. Starting a capital assault initiates the endgame. If you retreat or lose from this point on, it's game over, even though there was no penalty for doing so before save for the loss of a single region. Once you take the capital, you instantly move on to assaulting that faction's home world. After the homeworld assault, you get moved on to the finale. Note - never once did I mention getting to destroy the other remaining faction, because you don't. Whichever faction you don't initiate the first capital assault against gets off lightly.
The finale comes right out of left field, and it's against the spacing guild of all people. While throughout the game, Westwood establishes that the Tleilaxu have an ulterior motive in their dealings which doesn't suggest support for any of the three factions, the Spacing Guild plot seems almost ludicrous. Here goes - they plan to empower a worm with psychic ability and install it as emperor... Riiiiiight. And they apparently released a drug into the water to make the troops remaining on Arakkis follow them. I get the impression that their deadline came up and they had to write something to meet it, however cracked. Needless to say, the second half of the plot is the weakest element of the game, though the gameplay istelf remains fun throughout.
-- Robert McCarroll