Despite popular beliefs, there is nothing original about Dune II. Except of one thing, which enabled Westwood to become a powerhouse among games developers. As for gameplay, however, the game did not “revolutionarize”, “create a new style of gaming” or “became the first of its kind.” All it did was to combine several games already out in the market. The developer did this very skillfully, however, creating an unique experience and one of the most entertaining games ever.
Real-time strategies existed well before Dune II. The first one was The Ancient Art of War, hitting the PC in 1984, eight years before Dune. This game, however, followed a very abstract model of “capture the flag” tactical scenarios. Units moved and fought in real time, but there was no base management or resource harvesting. Next was Nether Earth. This highly underrated game was never ported to a PC, yet it was the first true RTS. I played the game on a ZX Spectrum, but I've seen Atari 800 and Commodore versions as well. In this game, you controlled robots, which took over factories where they could produce more robots. You had to harvest an incredible six different resources, more than any other RTS I know of. Yet, the combat was still a little cumbersome. This game was later resurrected (with enormous changes) in the critically acclaimed Z. Two years later, in 1989, Sega Genesis came with its own real-time strategy game: Herzog Zwei. This game looked a lot like today's RTS games. It featured a high-paced combat with lots of units, bases and the possibility to destroy them (well, that was the goal).
Dune II was released in 1992. It was developed by Westwood and published by Virgin Interactive. The development team had no previous experience in RTS development; the core of the team formed while developing Eye of the Beholder, and the broader team was defined when developing The Legend of Kyrandia. Yet, a team with experience in adventure and RPG gaming managed to create a true gem.
The game is based more on David Lynch's movie adaptation of Dune than by the book itself. Dune is a unique planet: it contains the Spice, a special substance that powers the pilots of the Spacing Guild, which owns the only means of interstellar transportation. The Spice is thus incredibly valuable, as is the desert planet (hence the name). However, only one of the three great galactic houses, Atreides, Orodos and Harkonnen, can mine this Spice. To determine the winner, the Galactic Emperor has sent all three houses to their planet and allowed them to use any means (and I mean any, including nuclear missiles) to get rid of the competition.
The game and the missions are quite similar. You start with a construction yard, which is capable to build other buildings, which, in turn are capable of building different units. You have to build a refinery, which will process the spice you harvest. This creates the money to build buildings and units. Nearly each mission, you will be required to eliminate all opposition on the map, and nearly each mission, new buildings and units will be introduced. In the later stage of the game you'll have planes flying overhead, mobile rocket launchers attacking the enemy base while your base is defended by gun and rocket turrets. The action is very fast-paced, and the strategy surprisingly deep, especially due to the fact that you'll be limited to 25 units in each game.
This game basically combined Nether Earth and Herzog Zwei. Unlike Herzog Zwei, you will have the freedom to decide where to build your base (easily accessible bases in Herzog Zwei were one of the challenges). In addition, each house had some specific weapons, which was not the case in Herzog Zwei. Lastly, you did not have full control over your units - the flying units were always controlled by the computer.
On the other hand, there were a few problems with the game. Maybe the biggest problem was the interface: you were unable to select more than one unit. This meant some frantic clicking around when launching an offensive or when trying to stop the computer's rush. Speaking of rushes, the computer was, frankly, really stupid. It attacked always along the same lines, rushing you in regular intervals. You could time it and strike from the rear with a relatively small group of units, disabling some of its buildings. And speaking of the A.I., this was the first game that had problems with the harvesters (which, sadly, remain until today). The harvesters ignored enemy vehicles, which meant that you could set five tanks onto the enemy's Spice field, the harvester would still come there and try to harvest.
What made this game really unique, however, was its development. I believe that this was the first truly corporate game ever created. Until that time, games were created by groups of enthusiasts, who developed, programmed and tested the game together. This game, however, was developed by a highly structured team, which crystallized over the course of its two previous games (Eye of the Beholder and Legend of Kyrandia), and remained like that until today. Just consider: the designer, Joe Bostic, remained in design functions (or similar ones) with Command and Conquer until today. (The other designer, Aaron E. Powell did not work on any games ever since.) The same goes for the graphics experts Elie Arabian and Ren Olsen. Frank Klepacki, responsible for sound and music does exactly the same until today, in all Command and Conquer and Dune games (plus a few more). Brett Sperry, the producer, has been producing every Command and Conquer game since. Even some people in the quality assurance department, such as Mike Lightner and Glenn Sperry do the same work till today, with the Command and Conquer series.
What does this lead to? This game was not a designer's gem anymore. While the designer still played a major role in the development, you cannot credit the designer with inventing the game. Dune II is not a brainchild of a gifted individual anymore, but a product of a well-functioning corporate team. This was the first game of its kind, and despite its high fun factor, I value it mainly as the bad omen of things to come it really is. The game has proved the superiority of design teams against single developers - they work faster and produce much more complex results. Westwood has never deviated from this route, which made it one of the powerhouses in the gaming industry. Single developers are a dying breed by now. And this game started it all?