StarCraft, Warcraft, and Command and Conquer are the most famous historical examples of the subgenre, but they can all trace their lineage back to Westwood’s Dune II. If you’re curious about how it all started, here’s a look at the inventor of real-time “build-n-rush” strategy as it is known today.
Though billed as a sequel, this is really more of an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune novel, with artistic inspiration from David Lynch’s 1984 film. In the game, the galactic Emperor has fallen into serious debt and opens up mining rights for the planet Arrakis to three rival Houses. Anything goes as long as the Emperor gets his money, with the House that drives the other two off the rock earning sanctioned control of the entire planet. A territorial war across nine missions follows.
You pick which of the three Houses you wish to act as the commander for and start each mission by harvesting spice. Refined spice is the most valuable commodity in Dune‘s entire universe, allowing for interstellar travel, clairvoyance, prolonged life, sexual prowess, and it tastes great on toast. Spice is only found in the sands of Arrakis, requiring you to sift through the sand with giant harvesters, bring the spice back to a refinery, and convert it to instant cash. The conversion of spice is a self-contained enterprise, but the money generated from the process will fund every structure, upgrade, and unit you field.
If this already sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Just about every RTS standard you’ve gotten used to over the years is present here, which is a little surprising, because it indicates that Westwood had pretty much nailed the formula right out of the gate. You direct units entirely with the mouse. You have a fog-of-war that blacks out parts of the map you haven’t been to yet (and so masks enemy activity). You have logical tech trees you must progress through, with structures that can be upgraded/researched to produce new, deadlier units. These structures form your base and have a construction path you must follow – starting with your construction yard, adding power generators and refineries, which in turn open up weapons factories, which open up stronger weapon factories. You can even build a radar bunker that unlocks a minimap of the entire battlefield, exactly as in Command and Conquer, which lets you easily track the overall battle.
A lot of people declare a lot of fond memories of playing this game, and even decades later, its easy to see why. This is a surprisingly strong title, especially considering how little established precedent it had to draw upon. But those used to modern RTS games will find it easy to pick out flaws in such an early attempt. Most glaring is the inability to select units as a group, by type, or with a lasso. Every unit is an individual and must be independently directed with mouse clicks. Furthermore, you cannot automatically perform any of the moves with a single click – you must first click a “move” command to get a unique cursor before you can click on the battlefield to move that unit. You must select “attack” before you can pick a target. I groaned at this when I started playing, but actually adapted to it pretty quickly.
There’s a plot here that’s easy to follow, tracking your House’s progression across the impromptu territories of Arrakis. Events on and off the planet are shown through cutscenes, and you can expect some minor turns of events and some surprise units to show up. Faction-dependent superweapons gained toward the final missions – and the fact that the other two factions will team up against you when you’re really stomping ass – make playing to the end worth your time.
Unfortunately, none of this intrigue changes your activities in the game. Missions always consist of two types – harvest to meet a specific quota, or harvest and destroy your opponents’ bases. In fact, all three Houses share the same nine missions. It doesn’t make a difference which side you’re on in the base slugout missions, while only a few toward the end will put one House in a unique situation to the others. Sure, you’ll get some different introductory text, and a “mentat” advisor who spouts lines suited to the demeanor of that House (Atreides as the “good guys,” Harkonnen as the “bad guys”), but little about your selected allegiance actually impacts the gameplay.
Aside from sharing missions, all three Houses share almost all buildings and equipment. Some light units are of the same style with different attributes – the Ordos Trike is a faster, less-armored variant while the Harkonnen version is heavier and more expensive – but the only truly unique units are one or two per House that appear at the end of the game and at the peak of the tech tree. It does mean you can play through the game as any of the Houses and never be at a particular disadvantage, but it doesn’t encourage replay. Don’t pick the game up expecting three branching storylines and vastly inimitable factions.
The Dune license seems well-used, and there are a number of gameplay implications that help make Arrakis unique from other RTS battlegrounds. There’s no true weather to concern yourself with, but the inhospitable desert does slowly decay buildings and reduce their effectiveness until repaired. Most of the levels are made of sand and unit-slowing dunes, with a few islands of rock that mark the only areas you can build structures on. You are encouraged to first lay concrete slabs as foundations, which must be funded, constructed, and placed separate from the actual building. If you’re in a hurry, you can drop a building right on the rock with half its effectiveness, slower production times, and an increased rate of decay. Units are mostly new tech invented for the game, but Fremen do make appearances and can be controlled by House Atreides later in the game. And even the concept of harvesting something for cash and power makes more sense in the context of Dune‘s precious spice than in other RTSs like Command & Conquer or StarCraft.
And of course, there are sandworms. Worms are attracted to the vibrations of battle, so any unit traveling on sand stands a chance of being eaten. You’ll actually see the worm snake around as a shadow of moving sand, then break out of the surface to swallow any loose unit in one massive gulp. Staying on rock is your only sure defense. The worms are never so aggressive as to make the game unfair, while they can offer a welcome distraction for your enemy and change the balance of a battle.
As it takes place in a sprawling desert, there’s not much here to look at. But the important details are easily distinct – deserts, spice fields, rock and dunes all are clearly seen and hazards avoided. Structures aren’t terribly detailed, and units even less so, but again, you won’t mistake one for another once you’re familiar with them. If you do get confused, a picture of the unit you’ve selected and a text name appears in the sidebar, showing you their current health and orders as well. Since units are mostly identical across all the Houses, bright, primary colors instantly show which unit belongs to which faction. Explosions and animations are fairly simple and certainly not too “shiny,” but if you think of this as an animated board game, then the whole look is pretty neat.
Digital voices and effects are present, with some death screams and frequently-reused “Moving out!” kinds of acknowledgments from units. While units all share these same phrases, each House does get a unique “narrator” updating you on the status of building and constructions. Music is excellent and fits the game perfectly with dark, sci-fi themes. About the only annoying tune is the frenetic action MIDI that plays whenever enemies or sandworms start to encroach on your territory. Perhaps its because it’s the most overplayed of the bunch, but it’s also a little too fast for the game. And on a side note, the fact that you can run over infantry with vehicles is hilarious, but the squish they make is priceless.
The A.I. is surprisingly good considering its age and what it must constantly keep track of. It’s capable at attacking and self-preservation, quite good at pathfinding, and offers a fairly tenacious challenge as your opponent. It also appears to actually build its base in most of the levels, instead of having a pre-built, pre-placed one you’re meant to overcome (as in later RTS games). I read complaints that the A.I. was pretty inept, but these appear to be in regards to the way it’s able to be cheated. I think it does just fine in standard play.
Your own groups aren’t flawless though, and you’d be wise to keep an eye on any key attackers or defenders. Units can’t fire over each other, so they must often be repositioned to get them all to fire on approaching enemies. Some in “guard” mode just outright ignore enemies right next to them for no apparent reason and must be manually targeted.
Your enemy also charges directly from their base to yours – head in the direction they came from and you’ll find their base. They occasionally drop units behind you by air, but they never flank. They also elect to send a steady stream of units out after you, rather than massing an unstoppable armada, and are pretty weak at defense (they’ll just keep rebuilding whatever structure you destroyed instead of attacking from a second base or rebuilding in a different area). RTS vets might get bored with its simplicity, but overall, the A.I. puts up a competent fight.
Strategy is required, but in an admittedly limited sense compared to later games, or heavier simulations like Panzer General. I love the little touches, like how fighting over a spice field destroys the spice – which you can do intentionally if you want to try and deny your opponent some money. But the full considerations of a strategy title aren’t made yet. Lifting the fog of war over an area keeps it lifted, whether you have troops there or not. There’s no air game to speak of, and only two aerial units (one an unarmed transport) that cannot be directly controlled. Units further don’t have a specialty as in later games; infantry don’t get a boost to attacking other infantry, tanks don’t have a significant disadvantage against rocket troops, etc.
There’s a tech tree, but equipment just gets generically “better” as you progress. I abandoned infantry at all, to the point of not even building a barracks, once I learned that heavy quad bikes and tanks don’t need their support. This can also result in somewhat prolonged battles. Infantry still take obscene amounts of tank shells and stay alive (a problem I have with almost all RTS games), but without a specialized anti-unit to cut through them, it’s mostly a case of building a fleet of your best units and ordering them all to pound one target after the other until you win.
Dune II is a masterpiece for its time. It didn’t popularize the modern RTS genre simply for being first, it did so because it did the concept surprisingly well. Unfortunately, while the gameplay is timeless, the interface and the A.I. are not. These issues alone, coupled with the fact that RTSs really haven’t changed all that much since this game’s release, limit this recommendation to RTS fanatics and the curious. Later games are far more streamlined, but even with its faults, its still an excellent way to put the themes of Dune to a game, and a fitting start to a new Armchair General genre.
Surprisingly complete defining RTS title. Excellent adaptations of the themes from Dune.
Functional interface and AI, but not as refined as later titles in the genre. Few missions with extremely limited differences between the three factions.