Plunge your fingers into the spice, grab a handful of Arrakis, and breathe; Dune: Spice Wars will soothe your real-time strategy desires, and it will satisfy your thematic Dune expectations. I’m not going to lie, when I saw the smooth and polished desert floor of Arrakis at night in-game, I wanted to rest my head on my computer monitor as though it were the pristine, glimmering desert of the game world. Perhaps this brilliant aesthetic is the reason why I’m describing Funcom and Shiro Games’ recently released 4X/RTS video game with such a sensory heavy tone.
Make no mistake however, Dune: Spice Wars has far more than just its appealing art style going for it. There are layers to this game that left me wanting to—even after defeat multiple times, on easy—stride knee deep back into its glistening sands and find my way to victory on the mysterious desert planet of Arrakis. The mechanics, sound, and visuals of Dune: Spice Wars are at a point of greatness in the game’s current early access state, and there is massive potential for this product’s future.
The Many Facets of a Conqueror
Move forward! That’s not always an option. Sometimes you have to work the system, go around it, under it, find a way to deal with the issue without using your military prowess. Deploy your agents to infiltrate the enemy network and sap their power, so that you can send in the cavalry (or in my case the Fedaykin). Think strategically about expansion and securing the resources required. Dune: Spice Wars demands tactical mindfulness of its players. Military application is but one facet of gameplay. To be a true leader, and to conquer successfully, you must utilize every avenue.
My recommendation… Spies. Dune: Spice Wars has an infiltration system that allows you to generate spies depending on your skill tree advancement or via other player driven constructs. You can then use these spies to infiltrate—at several levels—any of your opponents or the various non-player factions, like the Spacing Guild and the Landsraad. The player will obtain the ability to select from a number of different operations, or receive various additional benefits through the spy system, which will support their conquest of Arrakis.
But, don’t skip out on the many other features of the gameplay that will aid in victory. Domination via military control is certainly one of them. Voting in the Landsraad council for resolutions that can either aid you or harm your enemies; or by voting against decrees that will negatively impact you, is another integral aspect of the gameplay tool-belt. The calculated construction of infrastructure in the designated areas of economy, statecraft, or military, will improve faction strength. And there is of course, the use of the planet Arrakis itself—spreading your influence can bring about great wealth and prosperity.
Let’s not forget about the spice… He who controls it… Must use it properly, to control the universe. And watch out for sandworms (though there is an option to disable them).
All of these mechanics, and more, lend to particular themes of the original novel (like infiltration, politics, planetary adaption, etc…), which makes Dune: Spice Wars such a joy to play for fans of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But, the nuts and bolts of this video game also appeal to strategy enthusiasts who hope to engage with a multi-layered system that is not afraid to use the same techniques against the player. The strategy gameplay is one of the strongest aspects of Dune: Spice Wars, and as in-depth as it is, you will find a variety of different ways to gain the seat of power on Arrakis—or lose it.
Choose Your Faction Wisely
Maybe you’re like me and have a favorite Dune faction you’ve got your mind set on. In my case, it was House Harkonnen. But, as I learned the hard way, it might be better to select your group based on what they offer gameplay wise, and not by whether their leader wears a suspensor suit, or not.
The four factions in the early access version of Dune: Spice Wars are each unique. I’ve played every faction (though not using every available councilor combination) and they all play differently. For instance, if you’re having trouble crossing the deep desert sections on the map, or you grow tired of recalling spice harvesters every time a worm appears, the Fremen faction is a great option. If you want to hold more sway with the Landsraad council, and you’re not about sacking neutral villages, House Atreides is the side to choose. The strategical layer of the game begins when selecting your group, so choose wisely. Whichever leader you select, you also have the choice of two councilors which each provide different abilities and effects.
Selecting your faction and mixing up different councilors makes for a fresh start every time a new game is initiated. The variety of starting scenarios is vast, which adds to the already elaborate gameplay mechanics. Dune: Spice Wars accomplishes a rare feeling of excitement whenever you want to begin a new skirmish battle. For those players who love replayability, this game will satisfy that itch, and for those who enjoy perhaps only a few singular sessions, a lot can happen in a single playthrough. There are also several options players can adjust prior to beginning, which influence difficulty and help tailor a game to their preferences.
Art Style Over a High Graphical Bar
Whoever said that the desert was bland, barren, and boring, was wrong! How about beautiful, bountiful, and breathtaking. Dune: Spice Wars is among a few games making the point that an art style can be just as powerful as a highly realistic and graphically intense interactive property can be. Get the right angle and you will be stunned at just how good the desert planet of Arrakis looks. Whatever the consulting geologist contributed to Shiro Games’ art and design teams, shows in astounding fashion when scanning over Arrakis’ in-game map. It’s especially delightful when looking at the environments at night, seeing the cold, unforgiving desert carrying the lights of civilization in the distance.
In terms of buildings and units, a cartoonish style was implemented by the developers at Shiro Games. Which, concerning the capital cities of each faction, remains brilliantly designed. Though, it can be difficult to really see the designs of the faction units during play, and I felt the Fremen worm riding was also a little bit of a let down in terms of its visual depiction in-game. However, Dune: Spice Wars still manages to amaze me every time I boot up the game. It certainly does the Dune universe justice regarding the desert planet Arrakis and many of its elements (such as sandstorms, sietches, and when a sandworm devours an object).
Also, let me briefly add, the music shares elements of both science fiction and mystery, making for a sound that lives up to an otherworldly ideal. However, I’m hoping more music is developed for the future of the product, as it seems minimal at present. Sounds on the other hand are excellent and truly immerse players into the experience.
4X Real-Time Strategy
As Dune: Spice Wars is presented as a 4X/RTS video game, I’d like to briefly discuss its genre. For the most part, this game feels more like a 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) game and shares a lot of elements with well-known names in that category. Think of, for example, the Sid Meier’s Civilization series or Master of Orion.
It has fewer similarities when compared to popular RTS games, including the Dune strategy games of the past—however this game is still likely to appeal to fans of those classics, as one of our guest writers reflected upon alongside their Dune: Spice Wars first impressions. What makes this an RTS is the fact that the game can be played entirely in real time and, unlike many 4X games, is not turn based. Though, pro-tip, there is a pause button if you need to take your time with a decision.
Recommended for Fans and Gamers
What is a Dune fan looking for in a game representing the works of Frank Herbert? An immersive property that adequately resembles some or all aspects of this rich setting in the video game medium. Shiro Games’ Dune: Spice Wars emulates many of the aspects of Dune’s lore by representing the themes of politics, war, infiltration, desert ecology, and more from the universe, while at the same time respecting the story material in its characters and world.
What is a strategy gamer looking for in a game? Multiple options, to put it simply. They want to strategically lead their forces to victory through multi-layered, complex, and highly replayable gameplay that offers up challenging opponents to really test their tactics. Once again, Dune: Spice Wars accomplishes this through its differentiated routes to victory and strategic gameplay mechanics.
Dune: Spice Wars is an early access title. In this early stage, not all the modes are available. Currently, players can play a skirmish mode between the four factions. There are no campaign or multiplayer features available at this stage. As stated previously, however, there is enough variety and a slew of options which can amount to dozens of hours of gameplay.
The game is priced at $29.99 on Steam, which I’d say is a fair price for what you get now, and what will come in the future. Make no mistake, there is plenty of room for the already excellent core mechanics and game design to be improved upon moving forward. While I don’t want to make an argument on the benefits of early access; in terms of this interactive product, there is massive potential to rely on this combination of the developer’s expertise and the community’s feedback to fulfill the full promise of Dune: Spice Wars.
Thanks to Funcom for providing us with press copies of Dune: Spice Wars Early Access. For first impressions from other Dune News Net team members, check out our segment covering the game on Dune Talk show.