Spare a thought for game developers who adapt beloved franchises, for they have to do two jobs: please the fans and make a good game.
When Dune: Spice Wars entered Early Access, back in spring 2022, there were tentative hopes that they’d managed both. We gave this 4X / real-time strategy game a healthy four-star review, and were looking forward to seeing developer Shiro Games add both multiplayer and a campaign mode.
Now that Dune: Spice Wars has left Early Access and is a fully fledged 1.0 release, does it live up the hype? Have Shiro Games kept the fans happy? Maintained a good game? Or have they left their water scattered across the sands of Arrakis?
First things first. Shiro Games has delivered an enjoyable experience.
Is Dune: Spice Wars a good game?
We’ve already waxed lyrical about its visuals, music, and sound effects in our Early Access review of Dune: Spice Wars, so I won’t repeat that here. Suffice it to say that the game still looks and sounds as good as ever.
And the Dune: Spice Wars of today plays just as well as it did in Early Access, with marked improvements throughout many of its mechanisms. I went in with Dune II in mind—thinking it would be all mining spice and exterminating the enemy—however quickly realized, with the 4X elements, this game is much more complex than that!
As a result, there may be some fumbling around initially (I was too excited to notice the easily overlooked ‘tutorials’ button and the “tips” aren’t very illuminating), but you’ll soon figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and get on with having fun.
And it’s frenetic fun. This is a 4X/RTS game that rewards balanced play, keeping a dozen balls in the air, each of which affects the others. Avoid voting in the Landsraad councils and you’ll be hobbled by votes that didn’t go your way. Ignore the research tree and your hands are tied. Neglect to mine Arrakis for its riches and your coffers run dry—your troops’ stillsuits too! There are a variety of distinct resources to manage. And that’s just how it should be.
In my opinion, a marker of success for any Dune game is whether it makes you feel like you’re struggling. Arrakis is not a forgiving planet. Anyone on the surface is eking out a precarious existence, often with the forces of the universe against them.
And this is how Dune: Spice Wars makes you feel; like you’re barely keeping your head above water… or sand as it were.
Unremarkable Sandworms and Finicky AI
Regarding the game’s visuals, one aspect I’m still disappointed by is the sandworms. These are Dune centerpieces, but they’re blink-and-you-miss-them events in Dune: Spice Wars. And if you’re looking forward to seeing your brave Fedaykin ride the dunes atop Shai-Hulud, think again; that animation is little more than a moving lump under the sand before your Fremen warriors appear at their destination.
Likewise, brief mention needs to be made of the AI; it’s still wobbly. Left unattended, your forces will happily charge off and get slaughtered or stand around losing health to the deep desert. Your AI opponents are no better, voting against themselves in Landsraad councils or trading away the very resources they need to win. None of it is game-breaking, but it can be frustrating at times.
But if the AI hasn’t changed as much we’d hoped yet, there’s plenty that has.
What’s new in Dune: Spice Wars 1.0?
Since that first Early Access release, Shiro Games have been doing lots of balancing tweaks to make the game even more fun to play. In addition to previously-added House Corrino, the 1.0 release launched with inclusion of Dune: Spice Wars‘ sixth faction: House Ecaz, pulled from a few mentions in Dune and Brian Herbert’s prequel novels.
Adding factions is always tricky. You need to avoid breaking the game while creating something that feels fresh and unique. I’d argue that only the Future Pastimes team managed to truly differentiate various factions when they created their classic Dune board game.
Because, unfortunately, Shiro Games haven’t quite pulled it off. The Ecazi feel much like the other factions, their only distinguishing features being their British accents and their love of flowers. Tally ho, it’s off to Arrakis, pip pip!
Still, Shiro Games have been much more successful in adding online multiplayer. Huzzah!
They’ve also added more new ways to play. The game we’re used to playing from the beginning of Dune: Spice Wars Early Access is dubbed “Battle for Arrakis” and two different modes are now available alongside that: “Kanly Duel” and “Conquest”.
The major addition during Dune: Spice Wars‘ Early Access period is its multiplayer mode. You can choose to join or host Kanly Duels (two players) or Battles for Arrakis (four players). There’s no option to play the Conquest mode online, but that makes sense: even with the generally more aggressive play you see in multiplayer, Conquest matches would still take hours.
Personally, I can take or leave multiplayer, but for fans of this mode, you’ll be pleased to know it’s solid. Solid as Shai-Hulud’s carapace. I didn’t experience any lagging or dropped connections at all.
That said, there were a couple of occasions where my opponent disconnected. The AI takes over when this happens, but it was a little disappointing. One such occurrence was after I trounced them in combat, so I couldn’t be sure if it was a shoddy connection or if they were rage-quitting.
I was also a little disappointed that it was so hard to see the chat window. The first time I played online, I missed it entirely! Playing online feels just like playing a single player game; a testament to the solidity of Shiro Games’ work, but I would have liked a bit more interaction with my opponents or allies.
This is a nice 1v1 mode that pits you in a smaller map against a single opponent. It’s a good mode for when you want a quick game, and still brings in all the features of the wider game.
Things can get a bit weird at times. For example, when I played Fremen against the Harkonnens, Baron Vladimir kept proposing trades. Aren’t you supposed to be exterminating me, Vlad, not doing swapsies? Also, it feels pretty strange to be able to sign non-aggression pacts or even truces when there’s only one enemy.
But this a minor gripe. Of all three modes, Kanly Duel seemed to do best what it was designed to do; give me a chance for a quick hit of Dune: Spice Wars without investing the time needed for a Battle or Conquest. Or, indeed, a training ground to try out a new faction or a new stratagem. It’s a nice sandbox (ho ho!) for experimentation.
Finally, there’s the much-anticipated single-player campaign mode: Conquest.
Dune: Spice Wars’ Early Access didn’t feature a campaign mode, so this is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited new features of the full release. It is, unfortunately, a mixed bag.
My first complaint was I couldn’t play as the Fremen. Which is weird… Of all the factions bumping elbows on this sandy surface, surely it’s the Fremen who have the greatest motivation to conquer Arrakis?
Unlike games in Battle mode, you have a single set objective for winning. This removes the flexible victory conditions, but does force you to adopt different play styles. I did find myself enjoying these varying challenges.
For example, you might be challenged to become the Landsraad’s darling, leading you to curry political favor, influence votes, and get elected to charters. Your next game might set you the task of acquiring 30% of CHOAM shares, which I expected to be a bit boring.
And in this case it was, at times. Towards the end of that game, I found myself simply waiting for new shares to be released so I could buy them. A wait that was surprisingly tense. And when they dropped, I leapt to the CHOAM screen and watched the trading price as it fell, fell… will it keep falling? Is House Ecaz about to buy and send the price back up? Will they get to 30% ownership before me? Dare I buy yet?
At some point, my nerves would fail I would make a confident, tactical decision and buy all I could. Then I’d sell some spice to the Atreides or the Fremen to bulk up my coffers and wait for the next lot of shares to drop. But it was hardly an epic battle. And winning didn’t feel very meaningful.
There was a message that said “Victory” and it was onto the next mission… This was something of a letdown.
And this is the downfall of Conquest mode; it’s just one mission after another.
No Story, No Engagement
Dune: Spice Wars’ Conquest mode has no story. You won’t see any cut scenes nor cinematic moments, not even a characterful mission briefing. There’s nothing to make it feel like a real campaign with actual progress.
Say what you will about those cut scenes in Dune 2000 or Emperor: Battle for Dune. If you won’t, I will: they’re a little cheesy. The acting is a mixed bag, the stories could be a little strange, and they even stretched the lore at times. But, they gave us a sense that we were working towards something that mattered.
It’s even stranger considering how we do choose advisors before a battle in Dune: Spice Wars. Westwood Studios showed us how a Mentat/advisor mechanic could be used to deliver the story to us, so why didn’t Shiro Games explore something similar? Currently, advisors do nothing but deliver an in-game buff. It feels like there’s unrealized potential here.
Disappointingly, Shiro Games have recently stated they have no plans to introduce a narrative in the future. The most you get is a dialog box at the start of the mission. This leaves Dune: Spice Wars’ Conquest mode feeling rather functional. You fight a battle. The map changes color. You do it again and again until there’s no more map to fight over. Finis.
And with no story to grab my attention, lore stuff I would have otherwise overlooked started to bother me. Like House Ecaz.
Poor House Ecaz. Those little space Brits were probably so excited to be in a Dune game they spilled Earl Grey down their stillsuit. But just what exactly are they doing here?
As I mentioned earlier, peel away the Britishness of Ecaz and there isn’t much left. Nearly every reference to Ecaz in the Dune appendices relates to plants in some way, so in Dune: Spice Wars House Ecaz has to ability to transform captured cities into “Garden Resorts.” Or, to put it another way, House Ecaz can turn Dune green.
Rings a bell, doesn’t it?
The introductory (and sole) cut scene in Dune: Spice Wars mentions that the Fremen dream of a green Arrakis. But, for some reason, it’s House Ecaz that get to plant the seeds? And all they get for it is a small in-game bonus.
Ecology is such a huge part of Frank Herbert’s Dune, yet it is profoundly absent from Dune: Spice Wars. In Cryo’s Dune, you could plant bulbs to turn Arrakis green, and doing so would destroy spice fields. It was a fantastic incorporation of the lore that could also be used as a weapon against the enemy. I find myself truly puzzled that Shiro Games didn’t include a similar tactic in Dune: Spice Wars. I’m even more puzzled how the one faction that can make anything green isn’t the Fremen.
It feels like a missed opportunity, and highlights how Ecaz really isn’t adding anything to this game. And the trouble with dropping the lore ball is that it highlights all the other little allowances you need to make for a game like this to work. Lore lovers need to ignore that the Landsraad would never stand for House Corrino attempting to conquer Arrakis for itself. Plus, we need to ignore the absurdity of the Fremen voting in Landsraad councils or buying CHOAM shares? And, why would Smugglers engage in open warfare anyway?
Nitpicks? Absolutely! But it goes to show how delicately a game’s developer needs to handle an existing IP. It’s tough to satisfy the fans. Everyone has different ideas of what Fremen are, what House Atreides would do, what’s in and out of character for Harkonnen. You can never please everyone.
But the honest truth is this: even with these nitpicks and lore questions, even without a story in the Conquest mode, I’m looking forward to playing more Dune: Spice Wars.
A Good Game Trumps All
Dune II is often referred to as one of the best Dune games ever made, and its creators have openly admitted they focused on first making a good RTS game and then draping the Dune franchise over it.
Shiro Games arguably made a bigger effort to incorporate the Dune lore. It was, ironically, perhaps a lack of determination that saw them fall short in that regard.
It would be easy to remove stars for Dune: Spice Wars‘ botched campaign mode. But, as of today, the game remains priced at $34.99 / £29.50 on Steam—that’s just $5 more than its Early Access offering. Consider that, over the past ~16 months, Shiro Games have added a great amount of new content and features.
And you know what? Thousands of us have played and replayed Dune II over and over, because they made a good game. And Shiro Games have made a good game too. Is Dune: Spice Wars a classic in the making like the former game? Perhaps or perhaps not. But I still have a good time playing it. And most of the time, that’s enough.
Finally, even though this is a PC game, Mac and Android gamers can also get in on all the fun since Dune: Spice Wars is fully compatible with GeForce Now. I got the game running on my MacBook Pro without any problems at all. Join us on Arrakis!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to kick the sand off House Ecaz’s stiff upper lip.
Dune: Spice Wars - 1.0 Release
Shiro Games delivers a satisfying successor to old 'Dune' RTS games, but have not quite lived up to expectations set by a strong Early Access release—namely lack of a narrative-driven campaign mode and incongruity in implementing 'Dune's rich lore. But with its good looks, great sound, diverse gameplay, and a solid multiplayer experience? You’ve got a game you can keep coming back to, again and again.
New game modes are great supplements to Early Access release