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Dune Awakening has the spice to convert me into a survival game addict

I was treated to a hands-off presentation of Dune Awakening at GDC, and developer Funcom could hold the winning formula for a survival banger on PS5 and Xbox.

Dune Awakening preview GDC: a man firing a laser gun, creating a major explosion next to a close up of the character

Survival games have, historically, failed to keep me engaged for long periods. It’s not the fault of the genre, rather, it’s the byproduct of my utterly chalked attention span. My time with Valheim was short-lived, while Rust wore away at my mettle after a smattering of hours. Hell, even Palworld’s monster-taming twist barely kept me locked in for more than a few days. Though I’m about ready to throw in the towel and accept the genre isn’t for me, after checking out Dune Awakening at GDC I have been convinced to take what could be my final stand on the sweeping sands of Arrakis.

I’d already seen a fair amount of footage from Funcom’s survival MMORPG heading into this year’s conference. Yet, despite my adoration for Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic adaptations of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel series – films that I currently quote daily – Dune Awakening hadn’t really clicked with me due to my aforementioned cerebral deficiency. Coming away from the half-hour showcase, presented by executive producer Scott Junior, I’m convinced that not only could Dune Awakening become one of the best survival games out there, but that it could be the game that finally gets me to lock into the genre.

At its core, Dune Awakening doesn’t do anything that rocks the ornithopter. There are resources to be gathered, gear to be crafted, and dungeons to explore – it’s about as standard fare as you can get. However, as Dune’s narrative chiefly hinges on the bitter struggle for survival in an unforgiving world, Awakening’s systems strike an unsurprisingly excellent balance with the game’s source material.

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On Arrakis, everything revolves around water and the psychedelic substance known as ‘spice’ – the latter especially in the mid-late game, Junior tells us. Much of your initial time on the parched planet will be spent scavenging the local flora for precious drops of H2O to keep you alive (though licking too many weird plants will, shockingly, make you sick). A familiar sight for those who have read the books, or recently seen Part Two, you’ll also be able to siphon blood from enemies as the Fremen do. At the expense of your health, blood can be consumed on its own if you’re caught short of a few sodden sprigs. Eventually, you’ll be able to fabricate a purification device that turns it into water like some sort of vampiric Brita filter.

As you progress you will reach a point where water is no longer an issue. At one point, Junior loads up a character ~5-10 hours in that already has a Stillsuit – a very convenient bit of utility wear that will recycle your sweat and turn it into water. This is arguably the most important piece of gear you’ll acquire on Arrakis, seeing as staying in the sun for too long will give you heatstroke – a status condition that rapidly dehydrates you until you dip back into the shade. Already, there’s a clear progression system for addressing your watery needs, and the best part is it’s wholly synergistic with Herbert’s magnum opus.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

For me, spice is where things really start to get, well, spicy. The coveted substance, known more formally as ‘Melange’, is the most important currency on Arrakis. According to Junior, spice is used in-game for everything from paying taxes to upgrading abilities. As spice is a major catalyst for conflict in the novels, you should also be prepared to fight for it in Awakening.

Dune Awakening preview GDC: a series of vehicles moving through the sand at high speeds

Towards the end of the presentation, Junior gave us a glimpse of a spice eruption – a billowing, purple cloud that can be observed from a great distance. As the spice settles, it takes on its characteristic rust-red hue, indicating that it’s ready to be hoovered up by a ground vehicle that you and your homies can build together.

To get you to the Dune dust quicker, transport ‘thopters can be used to drop your hulking spice hoover into the fray. Junior says spice eruptions can be 100 meters wide, requiring several hours to deplete their riches fully, so brace yourself for the long haul. This already sounds like quite the task, but everything is always more complicated on Arrakis…

Alongside the scores of players who will also be contesting you for the lion’s share of the loot in the multiplayer game, you’ll have to be mindful of the giant worms – Shai-Hulud – that patrol the sands and will make a beeline for anything that dares upset them. Oh, and there are sandstorms. Big ones. Sandstorms so large that anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in them will instantly die. So, yeah, keep an eye out for those too as you’re looking to get out of dodge.

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Though I didn’t get to see any PvP during the showcase, the intense scenes unfolding before me sent my jet lag-addled imagination into a frenzy. As if I’d consumed the water of life itself, I could foresee great battles taking place over these expansive pools of spice, as characters representing the great houses jostled over control of Arrakis’ most sacred commodity. Throw in one pissed-off sandworm and some turbulent weather, and Dune Awakening had finally gotten a chokehold on me.

Speaking of characters, being able to ally yourself with the Atreides or Harkonnens is cool enough as it is, but Dune Awakening’s character creation tool is what will really sell the fantasy. From what I’ve seen it’s pretty darn expansive, sporting a full suite of sliders for different attributes, including niche details such as vitiligo and sclera tint.

Bearing in mind what players have been able to do with Dragon Dogma 2’s character creator, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ll see scores of surrealist Timothée Chalamets running around – I guess we’ll be able to play as the Lisan al Gaib, after all… Stilgar likes this. Seeing as we’ll be commanding our characters for “1,000s of hours” – at least Junior hopes that’s the case – comprehensive customization is a must.

Dune Awakening preview GDC: a hooded man wearing a mask, clad in black, next to another character with a long ponytail, also clad in black

The final element from the Dune Awakening preview I was particularly enamored with is Funcom’s effort to make onboarding more approachable. Having also developed Conan Exiles, the studio knows just how unforgiving survival games can be. As Awakening is also an MMO, there’s perhaps a little more leniency when it comes to giving players a helping hand when sandwalking in for the first time – something I’m personally grateful to see implemented.

Though we’re no closer to finding out when our Dune Awakening adventure will begin, I am filled with optimism that Funcom will be able to channel the series’ renaissance into what could be one of the best games of whichever year it finally arrives on our consoles. It’s actively being tested with players, Junior reports, so with a bit of luck we won’t have to wait long until we hearken more about the Harkonnens.

For more GDC 2024 coverage, check out how Exoborne is planning to stand out in a sea of extraction shooters. Additionally, here’s why you shouldn’t expect the Wuthering Waves PS5 port anytime soon.