Control the Spice in Dune 2 Online

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty birthed an entire genre of video games. It wasn’t the first real-time-strategy game, but it standardized the formula and set the foundations that future titles such as Command and Conquer, Starcraft, and even RTS/role-playing hybrid Defense of the Ancients were built upon. Why the history lesson, and what does this have to do with Web.AppStorm? You can now play the RTS progenitor online, in your web browser.

Dune 2 Online faithfully reproduces the groundbreaking classic, which remains just as addictive as it always was. Some aspects of the game have aged terribly, but judging from my time with the port it’s far more accessible than the typical RTS on the market today. Now let’s go over what made it great in 1992, and how well it transitions to the browser in 2012.

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He Who Control the Spice Controls the Universe

You’ll have to wait a short time while your computer downloads the data files — mere seconds if your connection is super fast, but otherwise expect a minute or two of loading. Then it’s into the strategy-game adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famous science-fiction novel, Dune (this game is actually closer to the 1984 film version), about a scramble for a valuable substance called melange (aka spice) on a barren planet in the far-flung future.

There are three rival Houses to choose from — the noble House Atreides, skilled in war but virtuous in spirit; the cruel-but-powerful House Harkonnen, capable of great feats of malevolent brutality; or the mercantile spice-obsessed House Ordos. Each has two unique units that suit a specific play-style. The story also differs depending on your choice, and you’ll get wildly different endings from one to the next. At their core, the missions themselves are basically the same no matter what, though — gather resources, build your base, destroy the enemy’s buildings and units.

Choose your allegiance wisely.

Choose your allegiance wisely… or just pick one at random. The game is presented in the original resolution with a black background and a rendition of the planet Arrakis in the bottom corner.

Story elements are mostly restricted to the mission briefings, which occur in simple cut-scenes that seem rather quaint by today’s standards. Your hand-drawn advisor (called a Mentat in the game) stands before a screen (presumably some kind of futuristic projector) and “talks” about the mission ahead. Lines of text describe to you how the rival House is evil and must be destroyed, and what you must do to ensure you win the arms race that will lead to control over the spice.

The people of House Atreides are a bit high and mighty.

Accept your mission, battle your way through, and then pick the next territory on the map to conquer. Do this nine times and you’ll unlock a big end-game scenario against your suddenly-allied rivals. Depending on your play-style, this could take several hours or a few dozen.

Harvest the Spice

If you’ve played an RTS game, Dune 2 Online’s mechanics should be easy to learn — they’re basically simpler versions of everything that’s come since. If you haven’t, well, it’s both a perfect and a terrible introduction to the genre. Dune 2 is simultaneously tedious and accessible, addictive and boring.

Each mission starts with several units and a single building, surrounded by blackness. This blackness is the fog of war. It disappears as you expand and explore, uncovering previously unknown terrain. There is sand, and there’s rock. You build on rock — first laying down concrete slabs for foundation, then putting your building on top. All buildings must be connected to another existing building, although you can factor in empty space by leaving some concrete slabs unused (units can pass over them freely). You cannot build on sand.

Welcome to Arrakis. To prove you’re not incompetent, find the spice and harvest 1000 credits’ worth.

Some areas of the sand contain spice, which is indicated by orange shading. You need to harvest spice (melange, technically, which comes from spice) to gain credits, which may be used to purchase buildings and units. Certain buildings are only available after a specific construction is complete (just about everything is locked until you build your first Windtrap — a power station — for instance). There are support buildings, such as a Refinery, Construction Yard, or Radar Outpost, and production and training buildings, such as a Barracks or High-tech facility (for non-controllable flying units). You can also build walls and turrets for defense.

These are all introduced gradually, laying on slightly more complexity with each new mission. Aside from damage repairs, unit construction, and power needs, you have very little that needs monitoring on the base-building front. And even then, you can go at your own pace once adequate defenses have been set up.

Base building. It gets pretty involved in the later missions.

Fear and Loathing in Arrakis

Watch out for the sandworm, a gigantic beast that lives beneath the sand and periodically pops out to swallow vehicles and infantry whole. Every crossing of the sand — necessary to reach the enemy base, or to explore — is fraught with peril. The sandworm is fast, its theme music is frightening, and its impact is sudden.

Enemy units sometimes attack your base, ensuring you can’t get too preoccupied looking inward. The game constantly reminds you that this is a war, and you need to fight. Peace is not an option; it’s kill or be killed. The three factions hate each other, so pick your side and roll with it.

I hope you realize this means war.

Dune 2 is not like the free-to-play games that seem to be all the rage today; you don’t click something and watch a timer tick down. Instead you watch a percentage counter tick up. RTS games are famous for their micro-management, with your average number of actions per minute being vital at the competitive multiplayer level. This game has plenty of micro-management, but the pace is more sedate.

You can have a maximum of 20 units at any time. Each of these must be instructed independently — there’s no grouping whatsoever, unlike in just about every RTS that followed Dune 2. This is tedious to manage, but it’s a refreshing change from the hectic click frenzy of the modern RTS. The lower unit count helps keep things moving along, too — you can’t have enormous hordes of units trading blows; at any moment the tables could turn for or against you.

Managing many units at the same time can be unwieldy, but at least the numbers are small.

Play It for the History

Dune 2 Online is a sound port of the DOS classic, but it can’t hide the fact that beneath the neat technology making it playable in a browser (OpenDUNE, Emscripten, and some know-how) the game shows its age from start to finish. It displays in a 640 x 400 box, with simple, slightly-muddy graphics. It has contextual menus, but no unit groupings, and a basic notification system. Base building is oftentimes clunky, as is giving orders. Every element feels like a prototype in retrospect. And I suppose that’s what Dune 2 is — a prototype for the real-time-strategy genre.

The melodramatic story owes a lot to its source material, and isn’t all that bad, but it can’t hold a candle to the ridiculousness of the Command and Conquer saga.

At the same time, however, it’s remarkable to look at how little such games have progressed in 20 years. The “pure” RTS formula today is a prettier, more complex, 3D-ified version of a game from 1992. The genre has moved sideways as much as it’s moved forward, with the emphasis on skill over strategy alienating casual fans as the number of units, buildings, and variables ballooned into the hundreds.

There’s no overstating the significance of Dune II to the history of video games. Its legacy is all around the industry, in the games that simply offer more sophisticated versions of its design as well as in genres as diverse as first-person shooters, role-playing games, and simulation games.

Go try it out, and see for yourself what was once considered a revolution but today would be written off as a stale, staid clone. If you really want a good and accessible introduction to the genre, however, track down an early Command and Conquer or Warcraft game instead.


Dune 2 Online is a fine browser-based implementation of the groundbreaking 1992 real-time-strategy game Dune II, and a cool gaming history lesson, but it deals with a title that looks and feels dated. It has nearly everything you'll find in a modern RTS, but the usability progressions since then make this experience a tough one to swallow. Even so, it's addictive to the end.