Duke Leto in 'Dune: Spice Wars', a 4X real-time strategy video game, available in Early Access on Steam.

First Impressions: ‘Dune: Spice Wars’ Early Access

Computer games were part of my first introduction to the Dune universe. While the first game from Cryo was great, it was the RTS (real-time strategy) games from Westwood that started a revolution. I’ve spent countless hours conquering Arrakis with Dune II, Dune 2000, and Emperor: Battle for Dune. So, when Funcom announced in 2019 that they’d be publishing new Dune video games, I was a little disappointed that it was a MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game). Fast forward to today, and while that MMOG is still in development, it is Dune: Spice Wars—a 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) RTS game—that is first to be released, from developer Shiro games.

Funcom generously granted me early access last week, for a preview of what is in store when the video game launches in Early Access on Steam tomorrow (April 26th). At first glance Dune: Spice Wars looks like those old RTS games; you pick a faction—Atreides, Harkonnen, Smugglers or Fremen—and then build bases, harvest Spice, train armies to defend your territory, and expand into enemy areas.

Faction selection screen in the 'Dune: Spice Wars' real-time strategy game. Players can choose to play as House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Smugglers, or the Fremen,
No House Corrino or Ordos so far, but further factions are planned. Funcom and Shiro Games

But there is much more to the game than that… Each faction has their unique strengths and weaknesses, Fremen for example can call a worm to travel across the desert. You must also exert political influence in the Landsraad, deploy agents on missions, and develop your network and skills. Managing your standing in the Empire and dealing with other factions is essential to mastering the game.

Screenshot of Landsraad Council voting results in 'Dune: Spice Wars', a 4X real-time strategy video game from Funcom and Shiro Games.
Dune is political? It always has been.

Having not played a 4X game before, Dune: Spice Wars was a little overwhelming at first, with enough numbers and percentages to keep a Mentat busy, but after a few false starts everything began to feel more intuitive. My progress was often stalled by the need to wait for a certain resource to reach the level required; however, you can increase the speed of the game if you have found you have mismanaged your resources like I did!

Espionage screen in the 'Dune: Spice Wars' video game. Agents can be assigned to infiltrate other factions or gather intelligence from other regions of Arrakis.
Resources, gains, time, percentages—there are a lot of numbers to juggle.

Expanding into new territories normally involves combat with the locals, or if you are playing as the Atreides you can opt instead for a peaceful conquest, which takes longer but seems the proper way for the noble House. While moving across the desert, either mining for Spice or to invade a local village, beware of Shai-Hulud who can spoil an otherwise well-laid plan.

A sandworm swallows a spice harvester in 'Dune: Spice Wars', the 4X RTS game from Funcom and Shiro Games.
A sandworm enjoys a meal of my harvester.

The graphics look lovely, influenced by previous Dune imagery, but it has its own unique Art Deco style. Desert colors shift into lovely red and purple hues over time, and giant sandstorms are as deadly as they are pretty, dealing damage to troops and ‘thopters.

Screenshot of Sietch Tuek, the main base of the Smugglers faction, in the 'Dune: Spice Wars' real-time strategy video game.
My Sietch looks so beautiful when the sun is low.

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of game mechanics, with all the different aspects there are to manage. The more I played Dune: Spice Wars the better I became, but this is not a casual game that you can quickly pick up and master. For some that will be negative point, but for many this is exactly the sort of gameplay they enjoy.

Based on my experience playing so far, I think fans of the old Dune RTS games will find a lot to appreciate here. There are more resources and items to manageso the learning curve is steeperhowever this feels like a worthy successor to the Westwood games. It seems certain that my road leads back to the desert of Arrakis.

Dune: Spice Wars will be available as Early Access on Steam from April 26th, 2022, with an initial price of $/€29.99.

Notes: I played this game on an Intel Core i7 1.3Ghz, Intel Iris Plus Graphics, and 16 Gb RAM. The minimum system requirements are Intel Core i5 2.5 GHz, NVidia GTX 1050, and 4 Gb RAM.

If you don’t have an up-to-date gaming PC, you’re not out of luck. The developers are working to make the game compatible with GeForce Now “by the time of the Early Access launch, but if not, very shortly after.” This cloud gaming service allows players to purchase the game on Steam and then stream it on their Windows, Mac, Android, or Chromebook device.

Dune: Spice Wars will continue to change during Early Access, as developers work with feedback from players, updates, and adding additional features.