Game Name: Dune II : The Building of a Dynasty (1992)
Developer: Westwood Studios (Command & Conquer, Emperor: Battle for Dune)
Platform: Amiga, MS-DOS, Sega Genesis (reviewed on Sega Genesis emulation)
Categories: Old School, Real Time Strategy, Back to Basics, Challenging, Base Building, Research, Fog of War, Resource Harvesting, Turrets/Walls, Protracted Blob Warfare, Superweapons, Poor UI, Tedious Unit Selection, Infantry, Tanks/Vehicles, Iconic Audio and Visual Design, Level Codes, Multiple Factions, Multiple Campaigns,
Worm Sign the likes of which even God Has Never Seen
May Appeal To: cavemen who haven’t upgraded their computers in a looong time or had their head stuck in the sand about how cool the franchise is.
May Repulse: gamers with strategy game options and experience. Anyone that cringes at the idea of selecting units without a bounding box or is decidedly opposed to the deliberate, sluggish pacing of the original movie are forewarned to steer clear of Dune II.
Comparable To: other Westwood products, which was par-for-the-course in the ’90s. Command & Conquer/Red Alert followers will slip into the familiar routine immediately though this game throws curveballs in the form of hostile environmental factors like sandworms, spiceblows, and degraded building health (similar to the harmful Tiberium fields and visceroids in Tiberian Sun). Warcraft, similarly, had unwieldy unit selection and an unmanageable scale of battle during its worst moments. Despite all the cool stuff in Dune II, Dune 2000 ultimately bested it across the board with a modernization of identical concepts into a slick, memorable (and controllable) experience. Fast forward a few hardware generations of improvements and you might have Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance, which is essentially this classic game mainlining horse steroids.
Learning Curve: Easier for genre veterans, 30 minutes to slip into the groove
Game Length: 15 hours per faction
Difficulty: Medium, if you can orchestrate a tank spam while repairing turrets
Mastery: I’d define it as completing all 3 house campaigns but diligent players might wish to earn the top ranking for every mission, which ranges from “Sand Flea” all the way up to “Emperor”.
Story: In lieu of heady philosophy and pontification about the fallibility of leadership, the game chose to act more as a setting than a mouthpiece for any of Frank Herbert’s talking points. Focused almost entirely on the military aspect of dominating Arrakis, the player receives their commands from a faction-specific mentat and sets about conquering individual regions before the planet falls completely under your [color’s] control. Slight differences in the storyline (a la the ending of Mass Effect’s different hues of explosions) occur though you don’t particularly gain insight about named characters or supplement the literary saga’s timeline with anything worth mentioning. Still, in a time period where video game adaptations were frequently marring their subject material, Dune II has enough recognizable material that will delight fans. Merely “doing no harm” against one of my favorite series of all time earns this title merit.
Presentation: The effects are crisp, the sprites are attractive, and even the voice acting (which is typically cringey and fraught with auditory buzzes) are a welcomed addition. Certain unit attacks could have used a bit more distinction so that the rhythmic explosion being heard clear across the map didn’t necessitate crucial amounts of my attention but this is a well-crafted game of its time and an attractive throwback, to boot. Smart palette choice deftly balances the displaying of distinct forces embattled on a homogenized earth-toned world and it’s never in doubt what various icons and sprites represent – and there’s just enough animations to keep it all from feeling stale – despite units needing to park before launching a projectile, which results in colonial era firing lines trading pixels back and forth across a landscape that beautifully depicts destructible base tiles and stray shots that leave charred craters in their wake.
Unique Features: Westwood spent some quality effort in marrying the concepts of the Dune universe with mechanics that translate incredibly well to a game world. Sandworms roam the desert, gobbling units without discretion – a fun and flavorful threat to keep an eye on or spin into a potential advantage. Buildings built without concrete foundations slowly degrade to half-health. Spice blows are another environmental hazard that erupt and deal AOE damage to those that venture too close. Carryalls transport vehicles and you can purchase troops at an inflated cost in case your production facilities go down. Power plants keep buildings functional and walls block most obstacles. Unique weapons exist like sonic tanks with a column of AOE damage and a nerve-gas-launcher that temporarily converts enemy units to your side! Devastating WMDs are also rumored to exist….
Gameplay: Hot on the heels of the original game (which is akin to an obtuse RPG/adventure with less mass appeal), Dune II released that same year to great acclaim. Thirty years later and not only has the movie franchise been resurrected, but the video game fundamentals remain as bedrock to the archetypal strategy game: map selection, mission briefings, research, structural upgrades, troop barracks, vehicle depots, resource collectors, walls and turrets, repair pads, fog of war, power plants, blob warfare…. I’d even go a step further to say Dune II has a leg up on its descendants in that the very planet gets a personality. Mutually destructive sandworms roam the battlefield and swallow entire vehicles, pockets of valuable spice emerge like pimples and erupt outwards to damage all that get too close, and the very elements of harsh weather degrade buildings if a hasty commander neglects concrete foundations in favor of time and surplus credits.
Battles progress as you might expect – a tenseness pervades the initial build order as you plop down your favored construction assets and send your harvester out to vacuum up the orange Melange that dots patches towards the fringes of your vision. You wrangle a few infantry (individually since there is no box select) and conduct reconnoissance, generate a rapid defense as the waves of enemies beset you from all sides, and amass a force worthy enough to make a dent in the opposing economic chain or production capabilities. Quite often, battles appear to reach an equilibrium before a crucial event causes one of the behemoths to reel – and this could come in the form of a worm attack, a decimated construction yard, or a power outage which ends up killing productivity. And although a few objectives have you amassing spice vs being a harbinger of total destruction, nearly all battles will play out in the same fashion: engorge your coffers with an abundance of spice harvesters, maintain a defensive picket to slaughter the parade of enemy encroachers, and then destroy key facilities until the opposition is able to be steamrolled by a death squad of tank spam. (Micro-management pays dividends in this game.)
Unfortunately, the enemy isn’t too bright and the missions don’t take on a great variety, meaning the scale of the attrition changes and not necessarily the parameters. If only there was a better method of navigating the battlefield and issuing orders….
Additional Comments: Dune II preceded the much-acclaimed Command & Conquer game by three years though its descendant gets most of the recognition. This is one of the grand-daddies that helped sculpt the Strategy genre into its recognizable form today, and is actually still quite fun.
What I Liked: Most of everything actually: unit designs, music, mission briefings, the basic Command & Conquer formula, base building, difficulty level, and the chaos of battle. My heart leapt in panic when the enemy approached from a non-fortified side and I had to stave off their advances with lackluster troops in order to delay them. I made use of spice blows and the worm’s pattern to insta-kill some primo targets. The flow of conflict and the perils of balancing defensive posturing with offensive strikes are a joy. The Dune-specific elements like worms, harvesters, and carryalls coupled with faction-specific units and abilities make this a game worth referencing.
What I Disliked: The lack of a bounding box really is the deal breaker for me. If I didn’t have to use a controller’s D-pad to individually select and move every unit in the cloud of battle, this review would have been drastically different. Also, the camera is too close to the playing field and I had to rely on radar often (when it was available). Lag was a frequent problem. There is a unit cap of maybe 20 units per side. Pathfinding isn’t terrible but it needs work, especially for the harvesters whose sluggishness is bad enough on its own.
Glitches Experienced: This game is big on collateral damage and destroying structures can be hazardous. Occasionally, it wasn’t abundantly clear why a unit was injured/killed.
Hours I Played: ~10 as a kid, ~20 as an adult
My Personal Reaction: A visit to my cousin’s house back in the day exposed me to the splendors of kettle corn jalapeno chips but also his dad’s budding IBM gaming collection – another formative, childhood event that set me on the path of this hobby. A few of us played Doom, Myst, and Dune II, getting very little sleep while trying to squeeze the most hours we could with our faces glued to the tiny screen. All these years later, I can say with confidence that this isn’t a game worth playing, even for self-styled Fremen warriors. Should you want the experience Dune II was aiming for, do yourself a favor and pick up the immensely superior: Dune 2000. I heartily recommend it.
Noob Tips: Fog of war is removed permanently so get those quads scouting early and send a couple infantry to the map corners in order to see approaching troops. Set fire lines up on the rock ridges and create killboxes along the edges of your production facilities. Once the waves are easier to manage, stage a beachhead on a plateau near the enemy base and focus-fire on targets leading towards a depot or construction yard. Monitor the worm’s location and protect your own harvesters (you’ll always have a minimum of 1).
Depth and Replayability: Medium Depth, High Replayability. Although it lacks multiplayer, finding the most efficient way to defeat the computer, earn mission ranking, and fly through the few cutscenes is pretty rewarding.
Suggested Value: $1, $30 for the diskettes/cartridge
Where to Buy: eBay, local classic gaming store
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