In the wake of the transferring fief of Arrakis from House Harkonnen to House Atreides as per Emperor Shaddam IV, chaos boils. Players will dictate one of four mighty factions in a struggle for control over the planet legendarily known as Dune. It’s been over 20 years since we’ve had a Dune game and we even asked politely before we knew it was a reality. From developers Shiro Games in association with Funcom delve deep into a brand new RTS/4X hybrid with Dune: Spice Wars, entering early access release on April 26th, 2022.
Dune has a bit of a legacy, if I may. With Dune II being one of (if not considered by some) the first Real-Time Strategy game ever, and with the cancellation of Dune Generations, we weren’t sure if we’d ever see a return to the virtual realms. I personally loved Dune 2000 alongside the Starcrafts, and C&Cs of the day. What a time to be alive, and now – I feel like a kid again.
How one derives fun from a product tends to be highly subjective. Therefore ALL forms of review are opinionated and should be taken with a grain of salt (this included). So let’s analyze Dune: Spice Wars through the lens of more objective metrics such as; graphical fidelity, characters/story, content/length, controls & gameplay, then finally, sound design & cinematics. This product was played on a 3080 10GB, 32GB Ram, with an i9-11900KF 3.5GHz. For full transparency: this content was tested using a copy of the game graciously provided by the developer.
First off, Spice Wars looks damn fine and performs exceptionally. Whilst I wasn’t necessarily blown away by the visuals up close, things are aesthetically passable. Pleasing to some, even. Units have an almost cartoonish look to them, no doubt to conceptualize the ridiculous scale presented. Granted, some of the models or textures could use a crisp-up, but there’s nothing wrong here.
But the real star of the show here is Arrakis itself. In both form and function, Dune feels relatively varied and unique. With high grounds, low grounds, ridges, and deep deserts carving up the face of Arrakis, it’s almost breathtaking at times. It’s subtle, but certain moments just hit right yet are easy to pass by. When the wind hints and the sand glistens – you know the beauty is in the details.
Options are as one would expect, if a little slim, but no harm. Everything worked as expected, so no complaints whatsoever. Framerates were smooth with no tearing or artifacts.
Characters & Story
While this isn’t exactly the primary focus of Spice Wars, there are some tidbits for fans of the franchise, both longtime and newcomers. There is no “story” mode, however, a point in time can be discerned from both provided dates (beginning 01.01.10192 AG) & characters available. To avoid movie/book spoilers, this takes place during the Atreides transitional rule of Arrakis, before the fall of Duke Leto.
This does spill over into the next section with regards to content available, but players have four factions to choose from. Options are as follows: The Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides, the Harkonnen of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the Smugglers headed by Esmar Tuek, and finally, the native Fremen rallied by Liet Kynes (minor spoilers I suppose?).
A detail I noticed, yet didn’t object to, was the adoption of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the novels. For example, the interpretation of Liet Kynes is here to stay, and I honestly love it. Joining her (factionally restricted of course) are other familiar faces to aid as your lieutenants, such as Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho, Piter De Vries, Lingar Bewt, Stilgar, and many more.
Although there isn’t much here to get into with regards to lore and characterization, the inclusion is fun and a welcome nod. Maybe we’ll see more on this in the future?
A small pointless note, I always thought spice in Dune was orange/gold and only blue/purple when refined. Yet it appears that way in the open world. Maybe that was just to “spice” up the colour palette, and it’s not really a nitpick. Just sayin’.
Content & Length
As previously mentioned, there are four playable factions with unit and playstyle varieties. The Atreides can be peaceful, yet strong – the Fremen overpowering. The Harkonnen overwhelming, and the Smugglers sly.
Matches may vary in length from a few to a dozen or so hours depending on a few factors. First – Difficulty. Second – Map Size. Difficulties are Easy, Medium, Hard, and Insane. With map sizes being (you can probably guess) small, medium, and large.
There is a definite aspect of replayability as my first instinct after a match was to try a new faction, tactic or playstyle altogether. We’ll talk about that in more detail now in the next segment.
Currently, there is no multiplayer, however, there is a button that is greyed out… so you’re saying there’s a chance. A very, very strong one.
Controls & Gameplay
Getting this out of the way, I generally love how Spice Wars handles. WASD and arrows to move the camera, space to pause, point and click are the main things. Oh and scroll for zooming in and out (including a tactical map). You’ll pick it up pretty quick. For the briefest moment when I first started playing I had Frostpunk vibes, but naw. This game is far more… like a blend between the forgotten Rise of Nations/Legends & a Sid Meier’s game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri).
A shift select would be a great addition, and queuing up actions seem to be missing (or intentionally not) but otherwise everything is great.
While it may not be as complex as a Civ game, it does have layers to it such as politics, espionage, research and infrastructure, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Starting from the beginning, this is an RTS/4X crossover. Players may control units in real-time, including both micro and macro management gameplay elements with fog of war and base building. Additionally, players may pause or play up to 2x speed. Your primary objective is the complete rule of Arrakis through the dominance of your enemies or reaching 25K of a stat called ‘Hegemony’. Primarily this is a game of balancing expansion with preservation. Not biting off more than you can chew.
The map is broken up into a multitude of separate regions. some have spice fields, some have minerals, some wrecks and most villages. These will become the foundations for your future footholds and bases to build your infrastructure. This means building your economy and self-sustaining resources such as Solari, plascrete, manpower, water, authority, and in some cases batteries and landsraad standing. All together it’s pretty complex. An interweaving of dependent systems held in balance to function, much like Dune itself. See, each building and unit adds to the cost extracted from your income in specific resources daily. You must make more than you use lest you run out and be in trouble of riots. Sustainability is the key here to maximising your efficiency and reigning supreme.
There are the usual ways of supremacy through combat and they work all the same here. A balancing act of offense and defence where knowledge is power and mobility is indispensable. Thus one of my favorite aspects of the game, is shuttle networks and in the Fremen’s case, Thumpers. After the first hour or so, your territory will be quite vast. Too large, in fact for your military to be able to respond in an appropriate amount of time to aggressors. This is where these mobility aces do the trick. A quick shuttle/Shai-hulud ride over and you’re in action.
Then there are research trees with slight variances for each race. Each comprising of military, economic, espionage, and uh.. local..y..ness. These will unlock new units, buildings, passives and abilities. Your choices here will tailor your playthrough due to time restrictions. Because you (likely) cannot unlock everything (though through increasing your knowledge stat decrease research time), you will lean into a few research paths to enhance your playstyle.
From here we also have the espionage and agents systems that further allow players to allocate units with unique bonuses to assignments from the spacing guild to CHOAM for Solari, manpower intel or much more. Furthermore, players may spend intel for boosts in specific regions, from reducing enemy power to blocking regeneration or even causing riots in villages. Nasty stuff. And wait, there’s more!
Besides that, are also Landsraad council resolutions that shake things up either for everyone, or targeted players. Even more, interestingly is that players’ influence stat can translate into votes that they can use to orchestrate these meetings. For example, at each meeting, three resolutions will come to pass that all players vote on. They may range from across the board ‘30% raises in water upkeep’, which players vote for or against – to being able to train Landsraad guards for a limited time for a specific faction based on a vote. After a specific point with some prerequisites, players will unlock ‘charters’. Titles with powerful abilities, such as permanent Landsraad guards, or free extra agents.
Generally speaking, it’s a functional and fun combination of mechanics and systems that allow for some deep 5D chess plays for the wild-minded. I personally think the balancing needs some work as the Fremen seem vastly overpowered, but these little tweaks always come with time. I can’t wait to see what changes come in time, and how it adapts to player feedback. moving on.
Sound Design & Cinematics
Cinematically, well, there’s not much to speak of at the moment. I would love a short one-minute intro when the game loads, but alas. Hopefully soon? But it really doesn’t affect the game itself.
Next, the music is actually kind of funky at times. It varies in range and I had to turn it down at some points, but the tracks do fit the dessert warscape appropriately. Most units respond with classic RTS one-liners, but most of the soundscape is reserved for audio cues. For example, players will get accustomed to certain rigid sounds that signal an alert such as a sand-worm, or combat engagement. A good time to pause.
The Fremen seem intentionally silent, which was interesting. Though I hope not a “feature” of early access. Overall it all sounds great, though more importantly practical.
Was this the Dune game I’ve waited 20 or so years for? Well, not exactly but taking into consideration the grand scope of Dune in its grand politically military-espionage fueled glory – it’s what it deserves. Hell, maybe even bigger, and more complex. From what I understand this game will not be a full-price release, which is a bonus in my book because that further raises the value ratio. In its current state to both the Dune fans and the itching RTS/4X bystanders, keep an eye on this one. I would solidly recommend Dune: Spice Wars it was stable, and pretty and I had fun. Jolly good, son.
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