A beginning is a very delicate time. So, how to start? With some dunes, which shall be stabilised by planting grass on them? With megalomaniacal visions for a cinematic realisation of a highly sophisticated science fiction novel? At the source of a flood of real time strategy games, or one step further at the archetype, which got copied ad nauseam? All of this led, on more or less direct ways, to, a remake of its predecessor Dune II: Battle for Arrakis, with an updated interface, strongly inspired by Command & Conquer, and aesthetics that look like taken right out of Lynch‘s take on the space opera. A melange of many great examples, but does it live up to them? Does it dare to step out of its source’s shadows? Does it offer anything new? Or is it just an unoriginal rehash, simple cash cow cosmetics for a classic game? Let’s take a look!
To answer the opening question: Since this game is somewhat based on one of the most famous science fiction stories, let’s start with the plot. Compared to the cunning intrigue of the eponymous original, it’s rather a disappointment. Especially since it’s almost an one-to-one copy of the predecessor’s. The main theme is an ever so slight variation of the same old song of an urgently needed resource everybody is fighting for: Three noble houses (brutal evil Harkonnen, sneaky evil Ordos and almost good Atreides) fighting over the source of a miracle drug called Spice, which can only be found on one of the most inhospitable planets ever: The desert planet Arrakis. There is a scheming emperor, too, and I guess you know where this is headed, even if you never heard of anything Dune before…
However, its presentation in form of several cut scenes, which feature actual actors, was something new to the series. The relatively good acting performance (on higher B-movie level) combined with the clever integration of elements from the duniverse (some of them in the very tangible form of props which might strongly remind you of the cinematic source of inspiration) create a certain atmosphere. Plus, whereas the story with all its clichés might be a bit weak, the characters in it (especially the twisted Harkonnen mentat – a nice tribute to Brad Dourif’s Pieter de Vries in the movie – and the Ordos‘ enigmatic machine man) are certainly worth noting.
It might not be quite Frank Hebert’s Dune, but there are similarities that go beyond just the name. Amusingly, the Ordos in this game, which don’t appear in the books at all, would fit perfectly to the 'original' Dune, for they have an even more scheming and calculating style than in the previous game. At the very least, the game has so much in common with the 80s version of the film, that you could imagine it to be a pre/sequel.
As for the game behind it: For the most part, the developers used elements of the Command & Conquer series, so much that it’s almost like an addon to one of those games. If you never played or even heard of any of them or its myriad of clones, I recommend looking up one of the many reviews. In short: The endless wastes of Arrakis appear in slightly higher resolutions than in Dune II. Instead of a top view you get an isometric high-angle shot. On the right side of the screen you have the usual sidebar with the build options and the radar. Building units (one type at a time) and resource management (vulnerable harvesters) works almost the same way. The battles follow the good old rock-paper-scissors pattern (every kind of unit is stronger than another, but none is stronger than all the others). And the controls are a bit more convenient (like selecting multiple units at once).
Strategy games from Westwood are known for their weak game balance. In's case it gets especially bad. For instance: Whereas compared to the previous game the infantry is somewhat improved, they also changed a tank, so that two or three of them are more than enough to fend of almost any number of soldiers (even so called 'elite units'). And running them over is still far to efficient, too. On the other hand, rocket towers are still as good as the all-round solution for base defence, because they easily eliminate almost any unit.
But things get worse for the three houses’ special units, which work slightly differently than in the original, so they are actually a bit more balanced, but still show almost the same problems. Those of the Harkonnen (the Devastator-Überpanzer and the missile attack) have great destructive power and ease of use. The Atreides are the only ones to have airstrikes and a very effective sonic tank, but the use of the latter does need some skill, since it damages everything in its field of fire. Their Fremen are a very pale shadow of what they should have been (particularly for reasons stated above), but then they are still a lot better than in the previous game. As for the Ordos: In theory the Deviator (turn over enemy units) sounds like a good idea, but it’s far too unreliable to be of any actual use, plus there are no handy exploits anymore. And the saboteur’s function, destroying any building when entering it, is overshadowed by the new engineer unit, which works almost the same way, except it conquers the structures, is a lot more useful and available to all three sides. Well, at least he gets a mediocre stealth ability now.
In and of itself this imbalance wouldn’t be that much of a problem, if the missions were designed to cater to these differences. Sadly, for the most part the main campaign follows the same pattern as before: Build a base, defend it until you gather enough units and set out to roll over your enemies. And on top of that on always the same terrain too. Real time strategy games certainly may not be that well known for their innovative ideas, and executing this routine can still be a lot of fun, but there would have been no harm in being a little bit more creative or in using the house’s strength and weaknesses. This wasn’t 1992 anymore, this wasn’t the first game of its kind and pulling off always the same old trick certainly got old. There are some attempts in the form of alternative goals or unusual starting situations, but in the end it all amounts to the same thing.
If you still can’t get enough of it, or want to compete against some human opponents, you can give the new multiplayer part of the game a try, the only real new thing compared to Dune II. It comes with a lot of options, like available units, starting credits, AI opponents etc. In my experience, those skirmishes are either a matter of minutes (classic rushing) or endless hours (turtling (i.e. hide behind your defences) until resources run out). The most interesting option to forge and break alliances over the course of the game has great potential for some backstabbing and accompanying emotions.
This game,, had great potential, too. While it did turn out to be a solid game, it didn’t really make use of it, because the developers relied too much on the tried and trusted and didn’t dare to come up with some bigger innovations. Yet it’s a little bit more than just a repolished Dune 2, but a little bit less than a real progress. Dune fans had to wait three more years for the latter…