The Building of a Dynasty
You know that feeling, when you’re drawn in to a strategy game so much that you act like a maniacal despot. A madman who believes he is actually there. All of a sudden you’re babbling, spluttering at the screen and barking orders at essentially non-sentient entities made up of ones and zeroes. You start talking to yourself, the first sign of madness apparently, or maybe the only way to be sure of intelligent conversation. Ok, so maybe that's just me. But when it happens, that's when I know I’ve found a great game, one where I feel a sense of real presence and agency in the world. That moment of very personal madness when I first played Dune II in 1992 was when I knew it was great.
Why did it affect me so profoundly? It was genre defining, simply put. I was an armchair general for the first time, not just in control of one or a few different characters, but in command and control of the production, economy and battle tactics of an entire army. But this wasn’t genre defining just for me; it wasn’t just the first real-time strategy game I’d played. It was the first real-time strategy game for thousands of others too. I’m always hesitant to make bold statements like ‘Dune II was the first real-time strategy game EVER’, as I’ll inevitably incur the wrath of smug, self-appointed walking-encyclopaedias who will retort with things like, ‘This is bullshit, real time strategy games were made well before Dune II!’
Yes, I’m aware that some real-time strategy games (that could be defined as such) were made before Dune II. Herzog Zwei, for example, was a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis strategy game with similar mechanics to Dune II and largely responsible for its inspiration. And there are plenty of other games released prior to 1992 that can be defined as ‘strategy’. But let’s be frank (because Frank knows shit loads about real-time strategy), the main trappings and features of RTS games that have popularised the genre, and continue to this day, really started with Dune II. I’m talking about mouse control (yes mouse control was a novelty back in 1992), resource gathering, base building, unit production and tech trees.
But hang on, this is Dune II, surely Dune I defined the RTS genre right? Oddly, the original Dune game was a graphic adventure, and aside from the obvious licence and some loose strategy, it shared very little in terms of gameplay mechanics with its sequel. While they shared the same publisher - Virgin Interactive - the two games had separate developers. Westwood Studios created Dune II, and Cryo Interactive developed the original.
Is Dune II still special today? Absolutely. It has, like many early genre adopters, a feeling of ‘back to basics’ and a refreshing simplicity to it. If you’re too tired of all the extra features and crap put in to some modern RTS games, or any games for that matter, then it might be just what you need. It’s like popping in to Quake III instead of Battlefield 4. I want to clear my mind. Sometimes I don’t want weapon unlocks, or Rush Mode, or constant explosions and rubble that clouds my vision. Sometimes I don’t want layers of stats, figures and options for diplomacy and economy that make me feel like I’ve just completed a PhD in Excel. Sometimes I don’t want any of this because I can’t see the woods for the trees. I want that raw, stripped down gameplay for a change, and I want it presented in a stark and clear manner.
Anyone familiar with the RTS genre should also be able to pick it up and play without consulting a single word of the manual; those basic mechanics that have lasted for years are still there. Build up your base with a power plant and a resource collector, build unit production facilities, build an army, upgrade your army, attack. One feature it adopts though, which I haven’t seen too often in many RTS games since, is the presence of aggressive, yet neutral, AI. In the case of Dune II these take the form of the Sandworms. They’re an extra hazard and threat - not associated with the opposing force - and can swallow your units whole. Keeping units on rock will make them safe, but harvesters always need to harvest on sand (the only way you make money) and so have to be protected (or bug out back to base when a worm is nearby). They fit nicely in to the canon of the book (and David Lynch’s adaptation) and operate as an interesting mechanic that provides an emotional element of danger. It forces you to consider them in addition to your grand strategic plans for defeating your enemy.
Dune II has its flaws of course, the most noticeable being the lack of a drag-select feature for units, which to be fair to Westwood may have been a technological limitation. You have to click on each unit individually before you assign orders. There’s also no auto move/attack function once you’ve selected the units either. So you have to click on a unit, then click the appropriate attack/move/whatever function in the interface, then select the target or map area you want them to perform the action on. If you’re sending them long distances, then the result is that the army moves as one thin train, lining themselves up to be shot like a bunch of confused death row victims who didn’t realise that today was the day... If you don’t know the shortcut keys then you may as well be organising a bunch of schoolchildren to fight the Mongol Horde. So when I said you don’t need to consult the manual, you actually might want to consider it, if only for the shortcut keys…
The units are sometimes not the smartest at pathfinding either. When clustered together to attack, some of them will simply... not attack. They’ll get stuck behind someone else attacking and not realise they can just, you know, drive around the other side… It’s almost as if they can’t be bothered, the lazy little shits. The solution again is to manually place them neatly around the target in some kind of weird crochet pattern, made up of tanks.
That aside, Dune II has much more to appreciate than complain about and one of them is definitely its music. It must have been one of the first games I experienced that used dynamic music. While you’re base building, and quietly building up your money and army, the music is slow, mellow yet ominous; it gives a sense of quiet, yet caution. But when attacks happen or Sandworms turn up on the scene, the music shifts up a gear in to a frenetic score that implies danger, a call to arms, and (maybe even) panic before slipping back in to that calm mellow again once the fighting has died down. We’ve seen this technique used plenty of times since then of course but it’s important to remember that at the time of Dune II’s release, we hadn’t much, and it has quite an impact on the game. It also makes me think of the oft-quoted aphorism - in its various guises - that war is “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.”
Dune II’s music also adds to its atmosphere, which is again one of its strong points. Like the universe it was built on, you get the sense that the planet Arrakis is harsh and unforgiving. Fans of the licence will also appreciate the familiar in Dune II from the book. Carryalls, Ornithopters and Mentats all make an appearance. It doesn’t follow the story explicitly, but there are events that are alluded to, such as the Fremen alliance with the Atreides, the Sardaukar invasion and Imperial treachery.
Those ‘months of boredom’, the downtimes in between the fighting in Dune II aren’t boring though; there’s work to be done. There’s something satisfying about base building in real-time strategy games, and Dune II kicked off my love of it. Building a good economy, guarding the harvesters, preparing defences, choosing what to buy or upgrade next to get the right balance of income and military might and, finally, building that offensive army. It’s like building a doll’s house that’s replaced Barbie and Ken with the bastard child of Action Man and Paul Atreides.
Then the thrill of the attack, throwing unit after unit, balls to the wall (I imagine literally too if you fail) at the enemy’s base. Take down their power plants to blind them and slow their production, or take out their unit production facilities so they can’t throw more troops at you, or take out their construction site so that they can’t rebuild structures that you destroy. It’s all pretty standard RTS stuff but, as mentioned before, it was the first time we were really seeing these mechanics back in 1992 and, more importantly, they’re still just as relevant and just as fun.
Dune II feels like an old friend to me. Sure, it doesn’t have the feature set or functionality of a modern RTS, but that’s ok because it’s still a solid, atmospheric and engrossing strategy game. We have history, Dune II and I. Sometimes I just like to sit down with Dune II, a cup of tea in hand, and revel in times past, a simpler time. A time when all we had to worry about was a roaming Sandworm and whether you could buy Sonic Tanks at the Starport. Ah, those days. And, as it paved the way for the mighty Command & Conquer in 1995, (and hundreds of other RTS games since) it created its own history and legacy. Dune II is just as much the building of a dynasty as it is the building of a genre.