Replay: Dune 2 Retro-Review

After playing the original Dune game recently (and realizing that it was more difficult than I remembered or, better said, expected it to be), I decided to remain on the planet of Arrakis and play Dune 2 to see if I still have what it takes to win it, some three decades (and some change) after its initial release.

The sequel was the first RTS game I played (not difficult, since it’s considered the father of modern real-time strategy games), but also the first I completed.

I still remember, after all these years, the final mission. I was playing the Atreides and all that was left were the Harkonnen. Spice was gone from the map, no new units were being produced… technically, but I still didn’t have enough for the final push – they still had a few buildings left, as well as some military units.

So I kept spamming the Palace’s Fremen, sending them over in waves, in what was a painfully slow process… but which, in the end, resulted me in me winning. I can’t remember all the details, but even this much is A LOT and proves just how great Dune 2 was at the time. After all, I have played thousands of games so far, and there is just a handful I still have such memories about.

Now, back to the game! Its full title was Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, and it was released in 1992 by Westwood Studios. It chose a different route compared to the original Dune – and the rest is history. Literary, as it’s considered the game that brought RTS games mainstream (with many considering it the first real-time strategy game ever).

The Spice Must Flow

Dune 2 Atreides presentation
House Atreides, the faction I chose to replay first

Dune II drops you into the harsh, desert world of Arrakis, where three houses — Atreides, Harkonnen, and Ordos — fight for control of the precious resource known as Spice – and the planet itself.

As it is common knowledge in modern RTS games now, you start with a base and a handful of units, which you build up with various structures, unlocking new troop types and game mechanics. Your goal in almost all missions (excluding the first two with each house) is to destroy your opponents.

The missions ramp up in difficulty as you progress, introducing you to the game’s mechanics step by step.

While it might seem normal nowadays, it was all innovation back then: the game offered various unique abilities and troops with each house but also had unit types that you could only unlock by upgrading your base buildings. Pretty awesome for the granddaddy of real-time strategies!

Note: If you enjoy this game series, make sure to check out my previous article listing all the Dune games in order.

Gameplay Mechanics: Then and Now

dune 2 battle
Early battle in the game: Atreides vs Harkonnen (mission 3)

I have to be honest with you: there’s one main feature that Dune 2 lacks that makes it REALLY difficult to play nowadays: multiple-unit selection. Back then, it was no problem, because no other game offered this. But now… it’s a real nightmare having to select each unit individually and give it your orders.

But without that, the game still plays really nicely even today. I had plenty of fun so far (yes, it’s proving to be a bit more challenging – and especially time consuming – than I would’ve liked). But it’s this nostalgia-infusion and quality gameplay that allow me to truly enjoy the game.

One aspect where Dune II feels (and actually IS) remarkably ahead of its time is in its emphasis on unit variety and counter-play. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses, and part of the game’s depth comes from mastering these matchups.

You’ve never played Dune 2 if you don’t remember using your Harvester as an infantry-killing machine (as all infantry units could be ran over and destroyed by large vehicles). Ah, so fun!

dune 2 unit production
Early military units in the game

The game also introduces unit types that are now the archetypes in any RTS title. We had quick and light-armored Quad bikes (ideal for scouting and harassment), to Siege Tanks, capable of leveling enemy fortifications from a distance, Specialized units for each faction and even the Palace – a special structure with a unique ability.

And, even though it was developed so many decades ago, we had air units that could strike anywhere on the map (and were immune to attacks from specific types of units), Rocket Turrets and various other buildings for defense and the Harvester itself: the unit that produced your Spice (aka the game’s currency) was always under threat of colossal Sandworms, which were attracted to sound and movement, just like the ones in Frank Herbert’s novel.

Graphically, “Dune II” is understandably dated, with its 16-bit visuals and simple animations. Yet, there’s an undeniable charm to its pixel art, especially when you consider the limitations of the era.

The soundtrack, as well as the sound effects, are really well done too. Yes, we can consider this basic and limited too… but if we look at the equally limited resources the game’s developers had to work with back then, we’ll appreciate everything related to in-game sounds even more.

I won’t be a hypocrite and say that playing Dune 2 today beats playing a modern RTS title. No, it’s extremely slow paced, the single unit selection will drive you crazy, the AI of the opponent is pretty basic and rudimentary, and you have various limitations – from the amount of harvestable spice on the map to the actual number of units you can deploy.

dune 2 missile
I have to admit – I REALLY love these visuals!

But, despite all these, Dune 2 remains a surprisingly fun game to play. And if you’re replaying it – just like I did over the weekend – I am sure it will bring back some sweet memories and it will make the entire experience a lot more pleasant. I can conclude that it is a game that aged really well!

And I plan to complete the game with each house – I’m already at Mission #4 with the Atreides, which was the first house I have completed the game with. I don’t remember being able to beat the game with the Ordos – so that’s something I plan to fix.

What I mean is that Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty remains a titan of the strategy genre, and an amazing game to play today. As I said, it has aged really well and is still rewarding, after all these years. I love it and I am happy that the newly released Dune movies made me nostalgic and brought me back to Arrakis. So if you have the chance – do replay this game. It’s awesome!

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