If I ever played a gaming milestone, Dune II is it. It almost single-handedly started the real-time strategy genre, taking advantage of the best setting science fiction literature ever created.
I'm talking about Frank Herbert's Dune saga, of course. Let me briefly introduce the setting, in case you lived under a rock for the last 50 years.
Tens of thousands years in the future, mankind has conquered space. An interstellar empire rules the galaxy in a feudal social system. Power is divided in a three-polar, precariously-balanced system. There are the powerful houses of the Landsraad, depositaries of immense wealth. There's the imperial household, whose military power has no equal in the known universe. And there's the Guild who detains the monopoly on interstellar travel. No power can prevail on the others, since all three are necessary evils.
At the center of everything lies the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.
Arrakis is a deserted planet, inhospitable. Its sands are ravaged by the gigantic sandworms, kilometers-long creatures worshipped as gods by the local fremen populations.
Arrakis is also the only place in the universe where melange, the spice, can be found. The spice is a drug, it gives longevity and amplifies perception. And it provides Guild navigators with heightened awareness and the prescient ability to see safe paths through space-time. Without spice, interstellar travel is impossible.
The Emperor usually grants one of the houses control over Arrakis, as long as the spice production remains at peak values.
The great houses of the Landsraad are therefore constantly fighting for the control of Arrakis.
This is where the retrogame begins. The emperor decides to allow three houses to simultaneously harvest the spice: the noble Atreides, the devious Ordos (especially made up for the game, since there's no trace of them in the novels, although they may somehow resemble the Tleilaxu), the evil Harkonnen. It's basically a free-for-all situation, with no rules of engagement. The survivor will control Arrakis.
I honestly cannot think of a better way to take advantage of this wonderful setting than an RTS. Westwood had a real stroke of genius here.
The Harkonnen Mentat
All the composing elements of modern RTS are already present in this masterpiece of a game. Resource collection, base management, army building and battle tactics. Westwood hit all the right buttons, right from the start. Kudos for that.
When I first played this game, everything felt right, exactly as it was supposed to be. That sense of revelation of something that should already have been there. The feeling of "how come nobody thought of this before?" that only true masterpieces can give.
I completed the game many times over, with all three houses. Differences between the houses are minimal, but are enough to keep you interested.
I remember perfectly the craziest mission I completed in Dune II. I was playing Atreides, and in the last mission you have to face both opposing houses, plus the imperial Sardaukars (the emperor is playing dirty, since he now fears your growing power).
After many hours of play, I found myself in some kind of impasse: every single patch of spice was harvested. I had no more credits left, so I had to make do with the military units I already built. But so were my opponents.
It was a long war of attrition, where loosing even a single unit was a big deal.
My first target was the Harkonnen palace. I had to destroy it fast, since the palace's ability recharged for free and it shot a long-range nuclear missile who could easily level my base.
On my side, I had free fremen infantry units from my palace, some deceptively strong warriors if you ask me. But you couldn't control them directly, so they were kind of a loose cannon. I needed not fear the Ordos' saboteurs, since a few well placed turrets was all it took to dispatch them.
It cost me most of my sonic tanks (whose long range was a true blessing), but the Harkonnen palace finally went down.
Then I had to single out every enemy unit, lure it out of the enemy base and destroy it with superior numbers, until none were left.
It was long and tedious work, but in the end it granted me total control over the territory. Enemy bases were still standing almost intact, but no military unit was left. I could go anywhere I wanted without fear (except for the almost indestructible sandworms).
Well, that felt really good. That felt like victory, more than any ending sequence. The planet was mine to do as I pleased.
Let's talk about the retrogame box. I got the european edition, mysteriously renamed Dune II: battle for Arrakis. It has a different cover art than the U.S. edition, and it isn't particularly good. I like the U.S. edition better, but I couldn't find it anywhere.
Unfortunately, there's not much to tell about box contents. There's a quite good game manual, the game disks and nothing else. I would have loved some feelies. A map, a postcard, a sandworm tooth, anything. With that kind of setting, there was no lack of material to choose from. Unfortunately, nothing of the above was provided. That's the only criticism I can make to this masterpiece of a game (and I'm splitting hairs here).