Thursday 12 February 2015

Dune (1992)

The planet Arrakis is the source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance in the universe. House Harkonnen is mining the spice, but the Emperor is keen to encourage competition amongst his subjects and sends the Harkonnen's blood rivals, the honourable House Atreides, to carry out mining elsewhere on the planet. Badly outnumbered by the Harkonnens, Duke Leto Atreides sends his son Paul to win over the native Fremen to their cause.

Video game box art c. 1992.

The Dune franchise may have begun as books (with Frank Herbert's original Dune, published in 1965), but it later enjoyed a lot of success as a series of video games released in the 1990s and early 2000s. No less than five games based on the series have been released, most of them strategy titles, but it's the very first that remains the most faithful to the novels and the only one that really tries to get to grips with the characters.

Dune was released in 1992, created by Cryo, the French purveyors of weird, atmospheric adventure games. In order to get the story working as a game it had to take significant liberties with the source material. For example, the Atreides and Harkonnens are mining different parts of Arrakis at the same time, there is no massive attack on the Atreides palace by the Harkonnens that leaves the family and retainers scattered over the planet and elements such as the Spacing Guild and Bene Gesserit (apart from Jessica) play no role. Significant characters from the books, such as Dr. Yueh, the Shadout Mapes, Alia and Rabban are also completely missing.

Immersion in character is not the game's strong point, as we can tell from the absence of the "What, I know, you've raised me over the past fifteen years," dialogue option.

The game is structured as an adventure. Playing Paul Atreides, you move around the Atreides palace talking to characters including the Duke Leto, Lady Jessica, Duncan Idaho (the novels' most enduring character, here randomly reduced to the role of a fussy accountant), Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat. These characters will give you odd jobs to do, but your main goal is to win over the allegiance of the Fremen. This is done flying around in an ornithopter and visiting various sietches (Fremen cave-towns). Early in the game the priority is convincing the Fremen to mine spice for you to send to the Emperor, but eventually you have to track down the Fremen leader, Stilgar, and begin building the Fremen into a military force.

At this point the games turns into a strategy title. You can train up Fremen troops (Gurney Halleck's presence speeds up training considerably), give them better equipment and send them out to sniff around for Harkonnen bases. One a Harkonnen fortress is identified, you can send your troops to attack. This is a bit uninvolving: whilst there are mechanics to take part in battles, they are completely pointless and can risk you getting killed, so it's better to stay out of it. Once a Harkonnen fortress falls, you can loot it for equipment, interrogate prisoners and rescue captured Fremen forces. Whilst the hands-off approach to combat may reduce you to a spectator, it also helps give the game much greater longevity than its more famous sequel, Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis. While the gameplay of Dune II has dated horrendously, especially considering the improvements in AI and interface made by its numerous successors, Dune remains pretty involving to play even today.

As in the books, Jessica seems to have more strategic nous than just about anyone else on the planet.

Later in the game you get to meet Liet Kynes, the planetary ecologist, who gives you the means to start transforming Arrakis into a verdant garden world. A nice balancing act proceeds to develop as you have to mine spice to keep the Emperor happy, keep your own military forces rolling onwards and keep the ecological work going to give the Fremen renewed morale.

On the plus side, the game has aged very well. The graphics are a bit basic by modern standards but still acceptable (especially the more advanced CD-ROM version with voice acting and animated sequences). The mix of adventure game and strategy remains fairly unusual and compelling, and the game captures the atmosphere and feel of both the novels and the 1984 David Lynch movie successfully. The game's approach to the film material is a bit odd: for some reason the developers only had permission to use the likenesses of certain characters, so Paul resembles Kyle McLachlan and Jessica resembles Francesca Annis, but Gurney looks nothing like Patrick Stewart and Feyd-Rautha certainly doesn't look like Sting. The game also uses the movie versions of the stillsuits and sandworms, but develops its own look for ornithopters (weirdly shortened to "ornis" rather than the book-and-film-preferred nickname of 'thopters) and harvesters. It's a grab-bag of styles that works better now, with the source material less fresh in the mind, than it did at release.

The Fremen are pretty happy to work for you, despite you being a total stranger who just showed up to ask them to work long hours to make money you can send to the despotic Emperor.

On the negative side, the game is pretty easy if you know what you're doing. I was shocked that it was possible to play a full campaign in a single afternoon. The military stuff is simplistic, with it being too easy to steamroll the Harkonnens as long as you make sure you keep the training up and re-equip after each battle. Some old bugs from the when the game came out are still present, such as your troops automatically losing a battle if you try to fast-travel or time-skip whilst the engagement is still going on. The writing is also atrocious. Okay, the game came out in 1992 and was translated from French, but this was the same period that LucasArts and Sierra were still producing tons of well-written games, so the hideous dialogue grates quite badly. The game also doesn't do a very good job of explaining basic concepts from the setting, so those unfamiliar with the source material may end up feeling quite lost.

Dune (***½) has, against the odds, aged far better than its more influential sequel and remains enjoyable to play right now. Unfortunately, getting it to work today is quite tricky. I still have a CD-ROM from the late 1990s which I was easily able to get working with DOSBox, but others may have to resort to tracking down cheap copies of the game online. Due to complex rights issues, the game is unlikely to be re-released on services like GoG. However it'd be interesting to see if it could come to mobile devices as they would fit the game quite well.

1 comment:

TerokNor said...

Not sure how the CD version fares in this, but as for the original floppy version: the music. The music! The best thing ever written for the AdLib card.