DUNE / Virgin Interactive / PC

The first Dune game is an odd one. The story ignores the novel, movie and everything else, using most of the same major characters and the setting of Harkonnen v.s. Atredies on Dune, but re-jiggers all the elements - for example, instead of getting offed immediately, Duke Leto lives for awhile and plays more of a role in the story. Paul doesn't get run out into the desert to live among the Fremen, he keeps the Atredies palace the whole time and the Fremen basically just agree to become his serfs because he has psychic powers. And instead of being a badass warrior, Duncan Idaho is a porcine bean-counter who sits on his ass in the palace the whole time doing nothing but nagging you about getting spice shipments to the Emperor. There's tons of other little differences like that, though the basic overall story arc is the same - kill the PedoBaron and Sting, run the Harkonnens off Dune and become the new Rular of Galaxy or whatever.

In gameplay terms it's also very odd, a fusion of adventure game and resource-managing strategy game. This comes off really well in some ways, but in the end the game suckers you in by being fun and interesting for about the first 1/2 and then rudely kicks you in the balls in the second 1/2.

The deal is basically that there's a narrative thread you have to follow to develop the plot by travelling around to different locations. You recruit Fremen tribes, you meet Stilgar and eventually Chani, etc. As you're doing this, the game has a real-time day-night cycle running in the background, which keeps going even if you're standing around on an empty desert screen picking your nose. Fortunately, nobody in the game ever seems to need sleep, so you just travel around handling your business non-stop with no rest.

There are two aspects to the strategy element - spice mining and military management. For about the first 1/2 of the game you don't have to worry about the military end, as you don't get attacked. Emperor Shatham will demand spice about once every week, however, so you have to keep the mills going to please him (as not pleasing him means he sends his invincible space warriors to annihalate you.) This means finding Fremen sietches hidden in the desert and recruiting them, with each Fremen tribe basically representing one unit. You have one set of prospectors that have to go around and prospect each territory under your control, then you can send the other Fremen there to mine for spice. Some of the sietches also have random Harvesters and Ornis (which make troops move about faster and which are needed to protect against worms eating the Harvesters) which you can assign to a unit.

The game really does atmosphere well. The graphics are lovely and detailed, particularly for such an early 1990s title, and the soundtrack is pretty epic as well. The writing seems like it was clumsily translated to English from some other European language and sort of makes a mockery of the book at times, but the unique cinematic presentation and well-thought-out interface will suck you in and keep you interested.

That is, until you get to the seemingly random plot trigger where the Harkonnen begin attacking you. The point at which they start sweeping into your lands and kicking your ass is way, way, way before you are ready for them.

I remember playing this one nearly ten years ago, just kind of blundering through, then suddenly having the Harkonnen come down and capture all my shit out of nowhere, which made me quit. This time I read a FAQ in advance to see what I had missed or was doing wrong ... apparently it wasn't much. Even if you keep a good pace in the game and have a well-trained army, the problem is that the equipment advantage of the Harkonnens is just too ridiculous to overcome. I had like five units trained to Expert in military, but they were all only equipped with Crysknives 'cause that's all that was available at that point in the plot. They were all stationed in the same territory, protecting a spice harvesting operation. Two Harkonnen units equipped with guns came down and buttpwned the shit out of all five *without taking a scratch*. I'm still not sure what the hell I could have possibly done about that - according to the FAQ I was using I was making a pretty good pace through the game, I had all the units trained to Expert level, there was just no possible way they could compete with the Harkonnen equipment. Seems grossly unfair tbqh.

Exacerbating the strategy problem is that it tries to go for too much "realism" by making Paul take half a day flying around to each individual territory to issue new orders to each unit. Eventually his psychic powers expand to where he can give orders remotely from anywhere, but that's not until near the end of the game, and his psychic range sucks ass for most of it, forcing you to fly around and burn time constantly in micro-management. Another time-waster is that for some reason, Emperor Shitham's spice shipment can't be sent without you physically present at the palace. So you have to constantly fly back there just to put the shipment in, taking you away from other tasks and wasting epic amounts of time. Also, for how key the Prospector units are, it seems insane that you only get one of them. Even if you hook them up with the first Orni that you find, it takes them forever to get all over and back across the map keeping up with all the new territories you gain, and they absolutely have to visit and do their thing first before you can start getting spice from them. I assume that if a Prospector happens to blunder into a Harkonnen unit and gets their ass torched, it's effectively game over since you can't open any new spice fields to mine.

The whole thing would have come off really well if they had just implemented the strategy segment better. As is the game plays like a clumsy fusion that is visually and aurally compelling, but seems nearly unwinnable unless you already have foreknowledge of every event and are bum-rushing through everything as fast as possible. Pretty colors, bad design. Sorry Dune.

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