I previewed an upcoming Xbox survival-MMO, and it may actually make me a fan of the genre AND the Dune franchise

Screenshot of Dune: Awakening.
(Image credit: Funcom)

My first experience with the legendary sci-fi Dune universe was watching the 2021 live action movie two days before I flew out to San Francisco for GDC 2024... And I only had time to watch the first two-thirds of it. On top of my blatant lack of knowledge on the franchise, I'm also historically not a huge fan of either survival or MMORPG video games. There have been some exceptions, such as Minecraft or Grounded, but for the most part both genres have usually failed to capture my long-term attention.

That's why it was odd for me to go preview Dune: Awakening with the developers at Funcom, a blend of both genres set in the Dune universe. I was the only member of the Windows Central team in San Francisco for the convention, though, so I did what research I could on Funcom and Dune and settled in for the unfamiliar. An hour later, I walked away with two thoughts: I really need to finish the Dune movie, and I really want to play this game.

Disclaimer

Travel to and from and accommodation at GDC 2024 in San Francisco, California was paid for by Windows Central. Funcom did not see the contents of this article before publishing.

What is Dune: Awakening?

What you need to know

  • Dune: Awakening is an open-world, survival and massive-multiplayer online role-playing game set in the Dune sci-fi universe.
  • It's developed and published by Funcom, most known for the Conan Exiles online survival game.
  • In Dune: Awakening, players are stranded on the hostile planet of Arrakis, and must learn to survive the dangers of the desert.
  • Dune: Awakening doesn't have a release window yet, but will come to Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, and PlayStation 5 at the same time.

Dune: Awakening

• Links: Wishlist at Steam | Official website
• Developer:
Funcom
• Publisher:
Funcom
• Genre: Survival-MMORPG
• Platforms:
Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, & PlayStation 5
• Xbox Game Pass:
Unconfirmed
• Release date:
Unannounced

It probably won't surprise you to hear this, but Dune: Awakening is set in the Dune universe created by sci-fi fantasy author Frank Herbert in 1965. The franchise is currently enjoying a major modern revival thanks to two critically acclaimed live action movies, and this video game is part of that interpretation of the universe. Well, visually, at least; the writers behind Dune: Awakening are pulling inspiration from all Dune media, including the original books.

This is an open-world, survival massive-multiplayer online role-playing game. That's a lot of words to basically mean "big world, many players, custom characters, crafting and surviving gameplay." Dune: Awakening features its own original storyline set on the infamous planet of Arrakis, where the spice trade at the center of Dune originates. Gameplay-wise, it's similar in spirit but massively evolved compared to Conan Exiles, the most well-known flagship title developed and published by Norwegian company Funcom.

Dune: Awakening has been in the work for years, but it's still a solid way away from its full release. It's not to be confused with Dune: Spice Wars, the 4X real-time strategy game available now on Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, and Xbox Game Pass. That's also published by Funcom, but it's developed by Shiro Games — It's reasonable to assume that Funcom has a partnership with the Dune IP, and Dune: Awakening is by far the most ambitious project to come out of that collaboration so far.

Dune: Awakening at GDC — An expanding RPG story

I don't know who these people are, but they definitely look menacing. (Image credit: Funcom)

When you start Dune: Awakening, you're first greeted by the in-depth character creator — and when I say "in-depth," I mean it. You start with a basic template based on Dune archetypes, but you're then able to tweak and edit dozens of sliders and options to obtain the exact look you want, complete with plenty of variety for skin tones, hairstyles and more. Funcom also told me it's actively working on adding more diversity to this character creator ahead of launch, which is always great to hear.

Once your character is created, you'll meet the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, the leader of a powerful political and religious group. Through your conversation with the Reverend Mother, you'll decide on your character's history and starting traits and abilities — but you won't be locking yourself to any one playstyle. Through gameplay, you'll be able to unlock and mix any of the skills from the four main classes (Mentat, Acolyte, Trooper, or Swordmaster), so every character will be unique.

After, some cinematics and helpful exposition will eventually find your original character stranded on the desert planet of Arrakis, trapped in a cave with deep spiritual significance to the Fremen (the native population living on the planet). Dune: Awakening begins slowly introducing you to its survival and combat mechanics, teaching you how to endure such a hostile environment by staying hydrated and avoiding the midday sun. I'll go into more detail in the next section, though.

Alone or with friends, you'll have to explore Arrakis and learn its secrets in order to survive. (Image credit: Funcom)

What's important is that Dune: Awakening does boast a full-fledged narrative, in which you'll slowly dive into various mysteries while learning to thrive on Arrakis. You'll meet new and familiar characters from the Dune universe and live through an original storyline. Funcom told me that the story at launch will be complete for players, but that it'll also get new chapters through post-launch expansions for those who love narrative-driven gameplay. I know I fit in that boat.

Everything I saw suggested that Dune: Awakening is a relatively strong RPG in and of itself, even if its narrative may not offer quite the choice or branching paths of other entries in the genre (I'm not sure on this front, but I did get that impression). Character progression is multi-tiered with a huge number of different play style options, for one, including stealth-based reconnaissance experts, support-types with powerful psychic abilities, fast and nimble melee masters, or a combination of all or none of these.

As your level and your knowledge increase, your character in Dune: Awakening will become more able to withstand all the challenges of Arrakis. Well, except for the sand worms.

Dune: Awakening at GDC — Survival at its finest

You don't want to get caught in these sandstorms. (Image credit: Funcom)

Much of the gameplay in Dune: Awakening firmly fits in the "survival" genre, including the collection and management of resources (including analyzing the weaknesses of mineral deposits to more efficiently harvest them), crafting of gear, bases, and vehicles, and the constant fight against the elements to survive another day. Much of it very specifically fits within the context of Arrakis, too, highlighting how this universe is perfect for the survival genre.

Early on you'll obtain a Stillsuit of your own, which cycles and purifies your bodily fluids like sweat and urine to retain every last drop of moisture possible, which can very well save your life in the harsh deserts if you're unable to find hydration from plant life or other sources (including the blood of your enemies). You'll also have to be aware of the dangers of the sun when you travel, in addition to keeping an eye on your physical condition and stamina.

Even when you're in perfect condition in every way, Arrakis never lets up the danger. Daytime poses constant hazards due to heat, while nighttime brings its own challenges. Sandstorms are frequent occurrences that can wipe you out in moments, too. The biggest persistent threat, however, are sand worms. You have to be wary as you travel across the sandy dunes, as any amount of vibration (from walking to driving giant spice harvesters) will inevitably attract sand worms. These massive behemoths swallow everything in their path, and there's no way to fight them — all you can do is pray you reach the safety of rocky land in time.

Scavenge and use every ability at your disposal to endure Arrakis. (Image credit: Funcom)

You'll have to protect yourself from other living creatures, too. Humans, in particular, maintain their tendency to inflict violence on one another on Arrakis, and you'll have to employ all your skills to survive. Dart guns and melee weapons bypass personal shields, and your unique abilities can give you an edge with stealth, scouting, and damage output. You can even obtain various traversal abilities, such as the ability to float from any height and negate fall damage, or a grappling hook to quickly scale vertical obstacles.

In motion, the cycle of survival looks highly polished. Combat at times felt rough, but Funcom assured me it's still working to refine and optimize combat mechanics, particularly melee, to ensure it's at the pinnacle of third-person games. Still, something about learning to persist on Arrakis just draws me in; out of most survival games, Dune: Awakening seems particularly well-suited to the core tenets of the genre.

Eventually, you'll have a veritable arsenal at your disposal, including ornithopters. (Image credit: Funcom)

Of course, there are also plenty of crafting options. The basics such as gear crafting and upgrades for your weapons, Stillsuit, and more are here, as well as advanced crafting through special workbenches for components and higher-end upgrades. That's all great, I guess, but what captured my interest the most was base and vehicle crafting.

The base crafting seems very typical of other great survival games, complete with plenty of options and variants, so I won't go too far into that. The only thing I'll note is that you can plan your base building with holograms before committing and actually building the pieces, similar to how Grounded works. I like that.

Vehicle crafting, though, looks fascinating. There are quite a few vehicles in Dune: Awakening, including hoverbikes, spice harvesters, and multiple versions of Dune's iconic ornithopter. It's all modular, though; that means you start with a vehicle base, and then you build the vehicle how you choose by adding modules. It seems there are certain modules you need to make a vehicle operational (that go in specific places), but there's also a fair amount of customization available here, so you can even make your vehicles your own. I love that.

Dune: Awakening at GDC — MMO fun with friends

This certainly seems to suggest at least four players can tear across the deserts of Arrakis together. (Image credit: Funcom)

The final piece of Dune: Awakening is its online experience, and this is oddly the part that attracted me the most during my preview. The world of Dune: Awakening is vast, ever-shifting, and is carefully balanced for solo, co-op, PvP, and any combination that guarantees you, personally, will enjoy your time in the game. The beginning of Dune: Awakening focuses on onboarding players, even those brand-new to the genre, to make the experience as seamless as possible.

Once you're free to explore all of Arrakis, you learn that everything behind the shield wall is constant and unchanging — in this massive area, you're free to play Dune: Awakening however you desire and access all of its gameplay mechanics without ever fearing interference from other players. Outside the shield wall, however, the desert constantly shifts and changes every week, wiping away player progress. Here, players compete with each other for valuable resources and treasure, making this wild, transforming area a high-risk, high-reward endeavor for those not afraid of a challenge — even if that challenge is other players.

You can think of that area as being like Rust, except you're always free to take your spoils and return to your permanent base inside the shield wall, safe from real-life threats. Both of these vastly different gameplay experiences can be done entirely solo, but Dune has a lot of features that makes co-op even more exciting. Building both bases and vehicles can be collaborative, for one, with one player designing and planning and the other collecting resources and crafting.

Of course,  you can also compete with players when responding to one of many dynamic in-world events. (Image credit: Funcom)

Harvest spice in the desert together, with one player driving the spice harvester and the other manning the carry-all ornithopter and watching for incoming threats like sand worms, sandstorms, or players if you're outside the shield wall. Take on larger combative threats together, too! I'm not certain how many players can work cooperatively together (are there parties, guilds, is it just a free-for-all in the servers), but there are a lot of reasons to play together. Careful, though, because there is friendly fire.

Even if you're not playing with friends, there are player hubs in the form of towns that let you safely socialize with other players and role-play, or interact with merchants and other game characters. This is also where you'll be able to participate in the in-game economy (which is entirely in-game, with no real-life money involved), with players able to buy and sell blueprints for base designs, mapping data from the newest areas outside the shield wall, and more.

What I saw from this early build of Dune: Awakening and what I learned from talking with the people at Funcom was very encouraging for the game. The studio has clearly put a lot of thought into how to make a balanced MMO for players of all skill levels, and it shows. There are also plenty of quality-of-life improvements, such as being able to pull resources from all chests in your base area when crafting, or being able to pick up chests and all their content when you want to move them around. There's seriously a lot of good stuff here.

Dune: Awakening at GDC — A game worth waiting for

The Dune universe is fascinating, and Awakening looks to be a very special foray into it. (Image credit: Funcom)

Dune. Survival gameplay. Massive online multiplayer. RPG mechanics — For most of my gaming career, I've only really been a fan of one of those things. I've played many RPGs, and some of my favorite gaming experiences have been in that genre. Dune: Awakening looks to combine the best parts of RPGs with the best parts of everything else to make something that could be spectacularly special. Assuming, of course, that Funcom takes the time to get it right.

MMOs especially are famously challenging to pull off, and players are understandably impatient for what may be the quintessential Dune video game. However, Funcom doesn't seem to be any rush to release Dune: Awakening. The team members I spoke to were very upfront about how much work remains to be done on visuals and cinematics, various gameplay mechanics like combat, polishing and optimizing, and networking.

At this point, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Dune: Awakening will launch simultaneously on Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, and PlayStation 5, but will it have cross-save or cross-play across platforms? Funcom couldn't tell me, because the studio hasn't quite figured that out yet. How many players can be in a server at once? Funcom also hasn't figured that out yet. Honestly, though, I hope Funcom takes every minute that it needs to make Dune: Awakening the best possible game that it can be.

I'm still beside myself in disbelief that a short one-hour preview has made me so excited about a game I'd normally gloss right over. I'm also glad I did preview it, because there's every chance I would've glossed it over in its normal marketing run. Dune: Awakening could be one of the best Xbox games of the year in, well, whatever year it releases, and I'll be patiently waiting for the day that happens. Um, insert clever Dune quote here (sorry, I told you I'm not a fan... yet).

Zachary Boddy
Staff Writer

Zachary Boddy (They / Them) is a Staff Writer for Windows Central, primarily focused on covering the latest news in tech and gaming, the best Xbox and PC games, and the most interesting Windows and Xbox hardware. They have been gaming and writing for most of their life starting with the original Xbox, and started out as a freelancer for Windows Central and its sister sites in 2019. Now a full-fledged Staff Writer, Zachary has expanded from only writing about all things Minecraft to covering practically everything on which Windows Central is an expert, especially when it comes to Microsoft. You can find Zachary on Twitter @BoddyZachary.

  • Zachary Boddy
    Am I a Dune fan? No, I've not even finished the first movie. Am I a survival game fan? No, I've only ever really enjoyed Grounded and Minecraft. Am I an MMO fan? I honestly can't think of any MMO I've invested meaningful time in.

    And yet... I'm really looking forward to Dune: Awakening. Not sure how that math maths.
    Reply
  • NoLifeDGenerate
    Another miss, as far as I'm concerned. Will there ever be an MMO or GAAS that's really fun for no-lifers like me? I need really fun combat with something to grind, preferably something like Diablo 3's Paragon that let's me get a little OP to help others. There's a reason the only games I've spent over 1000 hours on are EDF and Halo Reach. With Reach, it was mostly about Firefight. Both the EDF series and Reach offered something rare in terms of co-op gameplay. INFINITE AMMO. Why are so many games obsessed with balance and starving you for ammo instead of offering fun? Gears has the same problem now. Gears 3 offered Infinite Ammo, OP bullets, and Insta-gib melee. Then look what the clowns did to Gears 4 and 5. I have zero interest in 6 now.
    Reply