Sandworms are the spice in Dune: Awakening’s otherwise quite familiar survival simming


When Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, I’m pretty sure he didn’t envisage the rise of a species of videogame, the survival sim, which would one day itself suffer an unsustainable population explosion during the layoff-ridden years of 2023 and 2024. What does it take to survive as a survival sim, in these days when every other game seems to be a survival sim? What separates the fit from the extinct? If you’re Palworld, the answer is gleefully borrowing and travestying monster concepts from a celebrated Nintendo series. If you’re Enshrouded, it’s all about having a really neat building system. And if you’re Dune: Awakening, the next game from Conan Exiles developer Funcom, the trick may lie with sandworms.


I caught a preview of this latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novels at GDC last week, and came away surprisingly enthused about a game you could ungenerously characterise as a giant, orange-brown map with overly punitive thirst and temperature mechanics and more-or-less the same construction and crafting rhythms we see in every other survival game under the Arrakeen sun. Sandworms? They break things up a bit, which is to say, they burst through the desert and swallow you like plankton. I can take or leave a lot of what I’ve seen of Dune Awakening, if I’m honest, but the idea of playing hide and seek with a mapwide, burrowing monster while racing other players to gather the all-important spice melange is absolutely a prospect I can get behind.


Let’s surgically/crudely divide this write-up into the stuff that feels more routine and the stuff that excites me. In column A, we have the base premise of setting out into a massive world full of crafting resources and walling off one little corner of it, while scaling a tech tree and amassing gear, wealth and vehicles, with or without the assistance of other players. The game begins with you being interrogated by one of the novel’s Bene Gesserit arch-manipulators, for reasons unknown. In the process, you’ll pick a planet or culture of origin, such as Harkkonen and Atreides, a background such as Bondsmen or Na-Familia, and a vocation such as Mentat or Swordmaster – all of which correspond to traits and abilities. (Unlike in Conan Exiles, you don’t get to customise your character’s genitals. This is serious grown-up sci-fi, you know.)


A character creation menu from Dune: Awakening, showing the player choosing a Harkkonen background


A character creation screen for Dune: Awakening, showing different hairstyles

Image credit: Funcom


Your character can wield three active abilities at once, with combat following a rock-paper-scissors balance between ranged and melee builds, involving gadgets such as flying, motion-sensitive Hunter Seeker drones. There’s also “magic” in the shape of Mentat abilities that allow you to (for example) mathematically model the presence of enemies through walls. Base-building sees you placing a hologram, then filling it in, which means you can lay out a plan for yourself and collaborators before committing the resources, as in Nightingale. There are NPC hubs with opportunities for training and trading, and “dungeons” in the form of abandoned eco laboratories beneath the planet’s surface. These are designed to last around 15 minutes, and are obviously where some of the juiciest raw materials are found.


It all feels quite cut-and-dried, indeed, massively dehydrated, and some of the elements lifted from the Dune books and films feel more like visual flourishes modded into a non-licensed sci-fi MMO. I was especially disappointed to find that Funcom haven’t tried to recreate the bizarrely unintuitive process of melee combat in a universe where personal forceshields stop incoming objects that are travelling above a certain speed, though I’m sure it would have been an utter nightmare to implement, even in an offline simulation. Instead, combat appears to hinge on relatively straightforward gambits like using a knee charge to close the gap and chaining attacks to build a multiplier.


A player placing building templates in Dune: Awakening
Image credit: Funcom


The more you see, however, the more the Dune source material asserts itself over the things Awakening shares with its many rivals. Take the all-importance of avoiding the sun and watching your water levels, which makes exploration on foot a delicate process of hopping between always-moving shadows. Expose yourself for too long and you’ll incur a heatstroke debuff. You can travel about more freely after sunset, of course, but there’s an additional threat in the shape of patrolling Sardaukar air units sent by the Corrino Empire. You can also acquire a stillsuit which recirculates your own water, but this just extends the time you can spend on the hoof before needing to find a water source. As in the books and films, it’s possible to harvest the bodily fluids of the dead and even drink their blood on the spot, at the cost of a status effect, if you lack the means to convert it into drinking water.


A couple of other standout bits: 1) you can equip a grappling hook and suspensor technology to sort of transform the game into Just Cause – zipping to the summit of a rock outcrop in order to perform drop kills on players below, then latching onto a friendly ornithopter and letting it carry you away into the sunset. 2) You’ll have to worry about sandstorms, which drop visibility to nothing and swiftly shred any vehicles caught in their embrace. If you’ve grappled onto an ornithopter and it pilots merrily into a sandstorm, your best bet is to detach with prejudice and find a crevice to wedge yourself into.


A player driving a sandbike through the desert in Dune: Awakening
Image credit: Funcom


Funny stuff, potentially. But the aspect of Dune Awakening that really makes me drop my pen and assume the brace position is the presence of sandworms. These vast, subterranean creatures are present everywhere in the world, sending up huge clouds of grit as they burrow about. Rather than being a kind of all-pervading, escalating terrain hazard akin to, say, the Eye of Sauron in certain Lord Of The Rings adaptations, they’re actual NPC monsters with their own whims and territories, and a dynamic list of things they want to track down and eat. They also come in several sizes: the largest ‘grandfather’ worms are capable of downing entire processions of vehicles in a single gulp.


As in the books and films, when you walk on the open sand, drive a sandbike or do anything that sends out vibrations, the local sandworm may notice and come to investigate. If they discover you, they’ll breach theatrically to let you know the jig is up, then attempt to run down and swallow you – switching the perspective to a head-on deathcam view. Funcom aren’t specifying how, just yet, but getting eaten by a sandworm is a fate worse than death at the hands of another player or human NPC. It’ll cost you more than a portion of your resources. Sandworms are to be avoided at all costs, then, but there are ways of deceiving them and even turning them to your advantage. You can place a Thumper to distract them, for example. Less calculatingly, you can dive off your sandbike and make a break for the nearby rocks while the sandworm devours it. Or you could drive that bike toward a rival group of players, then majestically deploy your grapple to flee the scene.


A massive
Image credit: Funcom


The elementary thrill of avoiding sandworms is sharpened by the game’s focus on harvesting spice, a sorcerous substance generated beneath the surface of Arrakis and periodically jettisoned in the shape of glittering “spice blows”, which can be seen from miles away. Spice is the most important resource in Dune Awakening, as you’d expect. You’ll need to ship tithes of the stuff to the Empire, though I’m not clear on whether this is conditional on you, say, entering towns and using their services, and you can also seemingly ingest it for power-ups at the risk of becoming addicted. You can gather spice on foot, but you won’t get filthy rich that way. Better to bring a whole crew of perhaps 10 players or more, with at least one player driving a massive spice harvester – which will dramatically shorten the time before a sandworm appears.


As in the books and films, the basic bulk-harvesting setup is for one player to fly a carrier ornithopter, keeping watch during the process and swooping down to scoop up the harvester when they see wormsign on the horizon. Which might sound unproblematic, but obviously, carrier pilots may be tempted to leave exfiltration till the very last minute, to ensure the largest possible haul. And then you have to factor in the doings of rival harvesting teams, who may seek to place you higher on the worm’s to-do list. One example I was given is circling an enemy harvesting operation and casually switching on your forceshield, because worms hate the reverberations given off by forceshields more than anything else. Then, all you have to do is stay close to the panicking rival crew without getting swallowed, while your own harvesters wait for their moment to dive in.


The belated characterisation I’m reaching for here is: what if Dune Awakening were not, in fact, a survival MMO, but an extremely distant cousin of Hunt: Showdown – an expansive, sweaty bout of player-versus-player-versus-boss, where a dozen or more harvesting teams strive to turn the neighbourhood worm against each other? I really like the sound of that, and that’s without taking into account Funcom’s plans to let you ride the worms at some point after launch, which will surely be the absolute mother of all PvP balancing headaches. As and when Dune Awakening launches – there’s no release date yet – I suspect I’m going to give minimal attention to the well-travelled base-building and crafting elements, and simply offer my services as outrider to any players planning a massive spice raid.


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