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Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (PC) artwork

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (PC) review

"The original RTS."

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (PC) image

I bring you yet another game from 1992, and this time an important and curiously overlooked piece of gaming history. Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty is, for all intents and purposes, the first real-time strategy game ever made. There were, of course, strategy games prior to this that were resolved in real time - Populous comes to mind - But Dune II was the first to introduce mainstay mechanics like resource harvesting, base-building, unit production, and fog of war. It was also the first game that allowed you to click on a unit, order it to move, and it would go to that location immediately. It sounds silly to say, but that was a big deal in 1992, and the combination of these elements defined all of the future conventions we know and appreciate within the RTS genre today. It is also no coincidence that this was the first game by Westwood Studios, the same developers who went on to publish the Command & Conquer series.

Before I go on, I should clarify that Dune II is stand-alone game. It has absolutely nothing to do with Dune, an adventure title that was released in the same year. Both games simply happened to be published by Virgin Interactive, and I think they wanted to ensure that there was a clear distinction between the two titles. However, this ended up causing more confusion, because aside from the fact that both games utilize the same source material, they have no similarities whatsoever.

Anyway, Dune II is loosely based on Frank Herbert's novels, but the plot is so thin that it hardly matters. There is no Paul Atreides, no Baron Von Harkonnen, no Chani or Stilgar. Indeed, the only characters of note are your advisors ("mentats"), who are all original characters and are not even present in the books. Dune II is very light on story, electing to use Herbert's Arakkis as a compelling sci-fi setting only, stripping it down to its bare bones so that the player can wage bloody war on the surface of Arrakis with cool dune buggies and tanks.

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (PC) image

And bloody is right. This is the first game I can remember where you could actually order your tanks to run over enemy soldiers, grinding them to a pulp beneath their treads, complete with screams and gruesome sound effects. Soldiers who were lucky enough to avoid such a fate and die by the bullet were slowly and creepily be consumed by Arrakis' shifting sands. Tanks that were destroyed by rocket fire would vaporize in fiery explosions and leave behind a crater that persisted on the terrain. Then there's the fact that even the most hardy and well-prepared armies were always at risk of being devoured by gigantic, roving sandworms.

But that's life on Arrakis for you, baby. Harsh and alien, this is not a place humans are supposed to go, but several noble houses have decided to come here anyway. Arrakis happens to be home to the most valuable resource in the galaxy, the "spice", which allows for quick and easy interstellar travel. The spice is crucial to the operations of the Empire, but since the Empire has fallen on hard times and can't afford to produce enough it on its own, the emperor has decided to outsource production to one of the other great houses. This means you. The catch is that you must compete against your rivals for the privilege. Whoever wins will be granted complete control of Arrakis and spice production henceforth.

There are a few plot points beyond this, but they are rather trivial overall. Instead of bogging the player down with story, this game focuses almost entirely on strategy and action, and does this exceedingly well. After choosing which conquest you wish to embark upon (usually from a choice of three), each mission is completed the same way: Annihilate all enemy bases and units before moving on to the next one. That might sound a little repetitive, but the progression of the game keeps things fresh by constantly introducing new buildings and units to ensure that there's always something new to play with going forward.

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (PC) image

There are also three selectable houses to choose from. Yes, that's right - The very first RTS had three teams, something that neither Warcraft nor Command & Conquer had. You can choose between House Atreides, the venerable "good guys" who are wimpy but well-intentioned; the shrewd House Ordos, who are ruthless and profit-driven; or the evil House Harkonnen, who delight in violence and brutality. Each house has its own unique variations in units, buildings, and special abilities. This makes for some excellent variety and dynamic mission designs, particularly in the later stages of the game, where more than one house will gang up against you. There is even a fourth team who is AI-controlled and provides a late-game twist to the narrative.

The combat is pretty enjoyable and well-balanced overall. One thing that I particularly like about Dune II is the fact that there is almost no rock-paper-scissors bullshit. Almost every unit is ground-based, and thus any unit can potentially deal damage to any another. This allows for a multitude of strategies. If you want to focus on building the largest and most expensive tanks to crush your enemies, you can do that. If you want to overwhelm your enemies with scads of cheap infantry, you can do that. If you want to devise a more complex strategy, such as advancing a line of long-range rocket tanks behind a line of cheaper front-line units, you can do that. When it comes to defense, as long as you have some units and some money at your disposal, you are never in a position where you are helpless.

While this game has aged surprisingly well, it is admittedly dated in a few ways that might get under people's skins. For example, it is not possible to draw a box to select multiple units. In fact, it is not possible to select multiple units at all. Every unit must be ordered individually by clicking directly on it, then clicking on the appropriate order on the sidebar, then clicking on the map. The only way to speed up this process is to use keyboard shortcuts, and an experienced player will want to move large groups of units around with a combination of rapid clicks and an equally rapid tapping of hotkeys. Manageable as this might be, it can be a little cumbersome. Such were the times, though. Westwood simply hadn't figured out a better way to do this yet.

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (PC) image

There are also some technical limitations. Due to the game's low system requirements, there is a cap on the number of units that can be present on the map at any given time. At some point during your campaign you will receive a vague message stating that you are "unable to create more" units, with no explanation given as to why. Scrapping some of your weaker units or culling the enemies will solve this problem, but this nevertheless becomes a huge pain in the ass in the later stages of the game. It can be overcome by some clever .INI hacking if you're so inclined, but nobody knew how to do that back in the day. In fact, doing so back in 1992 might've broken your game entirely unless you were fortunate enough to have a PC with more than 4 MB of RAM (yes, that's right, I said megabytes).

Its few faults aside, however, Dune II is still an amazing game for some very good reasons. Its innovative, addictive gameplay set the bar for all future RTS titles to come. With the addition of excellent graphics (for its time), a well-composed sci-fi soundtrack, and equally well-composed sound effects (including voice acting, another rarity for the era), Dune II is rightfully considered a classic.

There were two attempts to replicate the success of this game, but neither were received very well. They simply failed to capture the spirit and feel of the original, and no attempts have been made since. What Dune II really needs is an official remaster and re-release to GoG or Steam, but for some reason that hasn't happened yet. This is surprising to me, as many PC gamers have fond memories of this game, and I'm sure it would make some decent sales from the nostalgia crowd.

If you want to play Dune II today, there are several ways to do it, including a fan project called Dune Legacy that attempts to port and modernize the game. I've tried it, but it seems to have some issues. There is also a browser version, though it seems to some issues as well. Your best bet it to simply download it from an abandonware site and run it through DOSbox. I highly recommend you do. Any fan of the RTS genre should play this game at least once in their lifetime to see where it all began.


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Featured community review by Nightfire (September 22, 2016)

Nightfire is a reclusive dragon who lives in a cave with internet access. Steam ID here.

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