Watch Out for Sandworms

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty

There are a great many sci-fi franchises I'm deep into, but Dune is not one of them. Any time O try to get into the story I find them to be too dense, too full of names that hard to keep track of, stories I just can't get invested in. About the only time I've managed to get through one of the works of Dune was the 2021 film adaptation, and even then I still felt the same issues with the material cropping up.

Although that isn't entirely true as there was one other work of Dune I could get into: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. Originally released for MS-DOS before getting ported to other systems, including the Amiga and Sega Genesis (under names like Dune II: Battle for Arrakis and Dune: The Battle for Arrakis), this game marked developer Westwood Studios' first true steps into the Real-Time Strategy genre, a genre they would help come to define (alongside Blizzard EntertainmentOnce an independent gaming company called "Silicon & Synapse", Blizzard Entertainment released a number of beloved cult games form various systems (including The Lost Vikings and Rock 'n Roll Racing) before going on to become one of the biggest game companies in the world thanks to a little title called Warcraft.'s Warcraft series) for their Command & Conquer franchise. And you can feel the bones of what was to come in this very early title.

The basics of Dune II (which functions as a eight years late sequel to the 1984 film) should be familiar to anyone that has played an RTS game before. You take on the role of the leader of one of three factions in the world of Dune -- the Harkonnen, the Atreides, or the Ordos -- and set about conquering the world of Dune before your foes are able to. You'll get missions which will plunk you into a big, open stretch of desert terrain, and your job will be to build up a base and train units so you can then move out, attack, and destroy your foes. The meat of the game is this back and forth war for territory.

The three houses are functionally similar, aside from their colors. Harkonnen are red, Atreides are blue, and Ordos are green. In the late game the Emperor's own units will come to Dune to fight in the war (against you) and those units will be purple. Other than that (and one super weapon unlocked at the end game, if you can get that far), the houses all work the same. Build you base, collect spice, train trikes, then quad rovers, tanks, missile tanks, and on up. You'll need spice to turn into money and power to keep your base going. Oh, and you'll have to watch out for wear and tear from the desert itself.

For those familiar with other Westwood games (basically every RTS they've made since), the resource management of this game will be totally familiar. You'll have one resource you have to get -- spice, in this case, as you'd expect with the theme of the game -- and that resource directly converts into money. As you build buildings and train units, that will slowly drain down your money, and then more spice will come in from your harvesters, your money will boost up, and then the drain begins again. Swap in ore or crystals or whatever other item the Command & Conquer games are using, and you have the same basic resource grind of the later titles.

Power is the other major resource you have to worry about, and this comes from wind farms. For your base to function, turrets to work, and all that, you need power. Downside is, of course, if your power plants get attacks and destroyed, you'll lose that power and your base will stop working until you rebuild. Upside, though, is that power is easy to produce -- just build a power plant -- and you don't have to micro manage it the way you might with farms and food in the Warcraft series. It's simple and elegant.

The only other thing you have to worry about (outside of your foes) is the base itself. Building on the uneven (and constantly shifting) surface of Arrakis puts strain on your buildings. You're only able to build on the rockier outcrops, but even then the rocks can shift and move (at least, as per the story of the game). Thus you need to place down concrete slabs on the rocks to mitigate wear and tear. Otherwise you'll have to spend money to regularly repair your buildings. The wear and tear is something the later Westwood games didn't bother with and, frankly, it's really not that big a deal. Repair your buildings, or just ignore the wear and kill the enemy fast enough, and the concrete slabs can be ignored entirely.

Oh, and there are sandworms. This is just an amusing little thing thrown into the game, a way to add that extra little flourish from the franchise into this title. Sometimes you'll see movement in the sand and then a sandworm will come hunting. It'll rise from the sand and grab a unit, eating it. This doesn't happen often, and it affects the computers foes as much as your own guys, but it is amusing. The sand can be treacherous for everyone.

As far as the actual combat goes, though, this is probably the weakest part of the game. I credit Westwood for getting the ideas in place here that could be expanded on in their later titles, but this game is a little too archaic in structure to really work, especially once you've played anything that came after. Due to the limits of the hardware, and the programming of the time, combat is slow, jerky, and not that responsive. You can't select multiple units at once and, instead, have to click one by one and command each. Then you have to wait as the slow movement speed kicks in and the units slog their way along. Everything in the game is slow and it takes forever to get going with any moves. It just doesn't feel smooth. Not here in Dune II.

With that said, I played this game way back when, soon after it came out and before I'd gotten into other RTS titles, and at the time I thought it was great. I hadn't played anything "more modern" yet so the limitations I see now, when I go back, didn't bother me then. Sure it's slow, but most games of the era were slow. Sure the graphics are pixely and the sound fonts are pretty bad, but so was everything else back this. This is a game of its era that tried really hard and almost succeeded at truly ushering in the next era of RTS game play. Certainly Westwood learned from this game and was inspired by it to make their own franchise, and that series helped to define a genre. That all comes from here, in Dune II.

Yes, Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty is a slower game, and if you haven't every played it before and are used to modern RTS titles it will be hard to go back to this title. Still, if you can invest yourself in the style of the time, there's a solid little RTS here in this older game. Plus, you get to see the very start of Westwood's journey, and that's an adventure worth taking. And then you can go play the remake/sequel, Dune 2000, and appreciate all the ways this game was improved for that release.