Hot on the heels of 2021’s box office hit comes Dune: Spice Wars. When I saw Spice Wars on Early Access I was intrigued, mostly due to the weird memory of a game I didn’t particularly enjoy. I guess that got me thinking – maybe I was too young and impatient to play it? Maybe Spice Wars will be different.
If you are not familiar with the series, it has been around for over 50 years and has spawned an expansive multimedia library that includes dozens of books, films, tabletop games, video games – you name it. The original work, Dune, was first published in 1965, spawned by the mind of one Frank Herbert. It is arguably one of the most influential works in science fiction history. It is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time.
I went into this game with high expectations because of this. I have had exposure to a lot of Dune media over the course of my life, but at the time there were a lot of newer, more exciting and colorful universes coming up. Star Wars was a dominating force, particularly in the gaming space. Dune was largely considered dull, for the parents.
Story – The Classic Remains a Classic
Since this is a preview, I can’t go hard on the story. It’s been over 20 years since the last Dune RTS game, and Spice Wars is strongly supported by this legacy as well as the gargantuan library of novels and other media. It’s the classic tale of a struggle for power and resources, particularly Spice.
What Is Spice in Dune?
Spice, or Melange for it’s more technical in-universe name, is essentially a substance found in the sands of Arrakis that has medicinal properties and also enables interstellar travel, making it the most important and sought-after resource in the universe. It is also a powerful drug.
Control the Spice, control civilization. Or just get rich, if that’s what you want. Spice is attractive for anyone with ambition, and analogous to oil IRL you can only get it in the desert. In this case the desert planet of Arrakis.
The 4 currently playable factions are the honorable House Atreides, the vile Harkonnen, the opportunistic Smugglers and the native Fremen. They each have their own backstories and reasons for wanting to control Arrakis, and the entire game hinges around this.
To win the game, you can either eliminate all opponents for a Domination victory, hold Charter Dune Governorship for 45 days for a political victory or reach a total of 30000 Hegemony to win – Hegemony being a resource representing a factions overall power, gained for controlling regions, defeating enemies, building craft workshops, and a few other things.
No big surprises here – this is a fairly standard RTS setup tweaked to fit the Dune mythos, but in this the series history is not trivial, both in video games and other media. Dune truly is a Science Fiction staple as much as it is one of the fundamental series in RTS gaming history. It’s impossible to sum this all up in this preview.
Gameplay – The Original, Reimagined
Going into this game, I felt a strange sensation. I couldn’t really pick up what it was. It was as if certain neural pathways were being unlocked as I placed the little buildings. Something clicked with me, as I deployed my troops to take out a town and busied myself in the meanwhile with solving a resource deficit that was beginning to give me a little anxiety.
It might have been my first sandworm encounter, right as I was about to take control of a town. I was not used to the UI just yet – as familiar as it feels, there is always this annoying phase of an RTS where you are learning how to play it. You want to play it like this or that game, and eventually you get a glimpse of the true nature of the game.
Could that strange feeling be… nostalgia? Sure, I have a vague familiarity with the Dune series. Quite frankly, it just wasn’t as accessible as the quirky and often goofy Warcraft which also boasted much more stimulating visuals off the bat back in the day.
Strategically Precise Itch-Scratching
There are loads of RTS games out there, but few have evoked this feeling of late. Nostalgia may be an element, but I think the slower-paced, decidedly old-school RTS gameplay has its merits. This game is scratching an itch I didn’t even know I had anymore!
Nostalgia aside, it usually takes some time to get into a game like this and when compared to more modern titles, the slower pacing is a little jarring at first. You might be foolish enough to think that this is just a boring, run of the mill early-access game, but regardless of the sporadic release over the years of Dune strategy titles the name still carries weight.
It’s a slower burn. You’ll be idly clicking away, opening this or that menu and feeling like not much is happening. Before you know it, you’ll be neck deep in the glorious RTS experience of prioritizing your actions as best as possible.
You’ll have skirmishes happening on opposite ends of the map, sandworms trying to chow down on your harvesters, resources to constantly balance… it’s a great time, and honestly I have not experienced this flavor of RTS in a while. It’s simple and textbook, almost nauseatingly so, but seems to be well-grounded in Dune RTS history, borrowing this or that from more modern games to form what I find to be an alluring title.
Multiplayer for the Future
There was a moment that clued me in to the future of this game. I did not get to test the multiplayer, but the gameplay already takes me back to simpler times, sitting around a table at a LAN party, hunched over off-white keyboards amongst a tangle of wires, and that is something I can envision with Spice Wars, albeit in the modern setting of a Discord server.
There is room for expansion here, too – new factions and advisors can be added to give players more options, much like how Stellaris periodically gets a new species, Spice Wars is getting a new faction in the form of House Corrino. Those more familiar with the series might salivate at the thought of their favorite character or faction showing up in the game, and it certainly has made me a little more curious about other Dune media.
I also see the possibility of custom factions, where players will be able to make their own mark in the Dune universe – but at this time, this is only speculative on my part. What you should be taking from this thought pattern is this: Spice Wars has captured my imagination, and I see great possibilities for its future.
The Art of Balance
Ask any MOBA player and they will tell you how annoying it is when the developers rebalance the game. This often results in certain characters becoming overpowered, which means you will probably be facing off against that character in every other game as players take advantage of this.
It’s even more important in a faction-based strategy game to have this balance. MOBAs at least give you enough options that the balancing act is more forgiving, but when you only have 3 or 4 to choose from it’s going to be both annoying and obvious when one is more powerful.
For the most part, I found the balancing in Spice Wars to be quite good even in Early Access. The game becomes a little more predictable once you start understanding the mechanics, and this is where the strategy comes in.
Wheeling and Dealing
One of the most satisfying elements of Spice Wars is working out your resources. You might need Manpower, so you’ll build a recruitment center – this starts eating up your gold to elevate your Manpower levels. I found myself building and destroying buildings as I needed them. Once I have enough manpower for my needs, I’ll destroy that recruitment center to save any remaining gold.
Water sustains human life, and this is true in the Dune mythos as well. It might not be as sought-after as the illustrious Spice, but without it you won’t get very far. You’ll need a quantity of water to annex towns, but in some cases you can also pillage said town for gold if you don’t have enough. It will regenerate eventually, but you won’t be able to claim it until it does.
There are lots of other modifiers in play. You can vote no resolutions periodically that will affect all factions in some way. For example, you might know that an enemy has Wind Traps in each of their villages, so you might support a resolution that will impose a penalty for any positive water production. This will hurt them if it’s passed – they may even have to destroy several of their windtraps to get back in the red.
Just like the sands in the desert, the gameplay is constantly shifting this way and that. Even if you set up a few towns and have a stable income across the board, this can change at a moment’s notice. This isn’t like other RTS/Strategy games where you can relax once you have a positive balance ticking over and only respond to threats as they come up.
Sand Worms ‘n Storms
I’m not even a big fan of the series, and I know that no Dune title would be complete without sandworms. Spice Wars does not disappoint – Sand Worms are a constant threat, especially where Spice Harvesting operations are concerned. They will randomly attack your harvesters, and if you do not react in time and recall it, you are probably going to lose it.
Sand worms don’t only eat your harvesters, but your military units, too. This can be really inconvenient when responding to an attack on one of your important towns as the troops you deployed to defend it are swallowed up, leaving your town defenseless. Of course, they can also eat your enemies’ troops!
One of the faction-specific mechanics for the Fremen is the Thumper, which allows you to attract a sandworm to a place of your choosing (so long as it’s near one of your military units).
Graphics and Audio – Just Desserts
I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t expect much from the visuals. The world of Dune is intricate but let’s face the facts. A desert world might be an epic setting for a tale of survival amongst the sands, but it’s hardly the most inspiring setting for a strategy game. That, and you typically don’t play this type of game for the graphics in the first place.
Thankfully my concerns were unfounded for the most part. I cranked the graphical settings all the way up, and it did make my GPU pretty toasty but the results were pleasing. This type of game generally doesn’t suffer too much from lowering the graphics, since you’ll be zooming out to the point that your units and cities are merely icons.
What Was Once Old Is New Again
Zooming in to place your buildings and observe battles, I found the lighting effects to be striking, the moonlight shimmering off the desert sands at night quickly rebuffed any memories of the Dune titles of old – this isn’t your 90’s RTS, my good friend.
The animations are satisfying, from the movement of the troops to the sandstorms and perhaps most importantly the sand worms! Even the cities look better than they really need to. All these little touches elevate the entire experience.
I also tested the game on a dated old dual-core i5 laptop, and it ran OK on the integrated graphics with everything set to low. Obviously, your mileage may vary – this was on a fresh Windows installation, with expanded RAM.
Spice Wars is appropriately scored with a grand and atmospheric soundscape. The soundtrack certainly has a spacey quality that invokes a curiosity, swelling and receding like the tide as you play.
The characters and units are voiced adequately. Some might find the voicing sterile, but speaking from experience the wisecracking units are always cute at first but humor sometimes ages poorly, and I hate chatty advisors.
Notifications, instead, are simple chimes and tones that do the job of getting your attention as efficiently as possible. They may add more voicing, I expect scenarios and story events to be much more ambitious but this remains to be seen.
I previewed Dune: Spice Wars on PC. The game key was provided by ICO.