Dune: Spice Wars holds potential, but is a bit sparse right now
Shiro Games' 4X strategy title has a great base, but currently offers up a world as empty as you'd expect a desert planet to feel.
Dune is all the rage right now, or rather has been ever since Denis Villeneuve's cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's iconic science-fiction novel landed in theatres around the globe in October. The sandy world of Arrakis has been given a fresh coat of print on the global stage and has risen to such critical acclaim that it garnered six Oscars at the last Academy Awards (although you might have missed that thanks to the Smith-Rock debacle). With this being the case, it's not exactly surprising that we're starting to see Dune pop up in other forms of entertainment, and in the gaming space, the first on the scene is the 4X strategy title Dune: Spice Wars, which is entering Early Access on Steam tomorrow. I've had the chance to check out the game ahead of it becoming an official Early Access title, and now I have some thoughts.
First of all, as this is a 4X strategy game, the core idea isn't to follow the story of Paul Atreides (as is the case with the movie and novel). The idea is to lead one of four great factions (House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Smugglers, and the Fremen) to ultimate control over Arrakis - or Dune as the planet is alternatively known - and with this being the case, you are expected to scout and claim land, conquer villages, expand and enhance your dominion, all while staving off the opposing factions in a political and militaristic landscape.
To this end, it's sort of alike a toned-down version of a Civilization game. I say toned-down as there is far less content and fewer opportunities to check out and explore in Dune: Spice Wars as of the current moment (hence why it's an Early Access title). But, there are still various different systems that you have to manage, be it Solari (the currency of the Imperium, which is important for pretty much everything), manpower (crucial for the growth and maintenance of your army), water, influence (to push political agendas), knowledge (for research), and more. You have to keep tabs on all of these areas, as well as your resources, which are necessary for the growth of your faction and the construction of buildings in villages and settlements around the map. And if all of this isn't enough to manage, you have to add spice to that list as well, because the CHOAM (a corporation consisting of the Emperor, the Great Houses, the Bene Gesserit, and the Guild) will require regular spice payments to ensure you remain on their good sides.
This is an ad:
As you can probably tell by all of that, Dune: Spice Wars is quite heavily focussed on the more political side of strategy. Combat is present, and you'll need an army and soldiers to be able to head out into the sandy landscape, to conquer small villages to expand your empire, and to defend your borders when the armies of rival factions come knocking. But, before the game really kicks into gear as a military strategy title, you have to ensure you don't defeat yourself - because aggressive expansion or lack of growth across all fronts will soon see Arrakis chew you up and spit you out.
Whether it's having a lack of spice harvesters in the field meaning you're not hitting the mark on CHOAM payments, or instead don't have enough resources to support your faction, which leads to rebellions, or maybe even you are simply not making enough Solari and can't support yourself. You need to be constantly thinking like a great leader and always thinking ten steps ahead, because in an instant, a sandworm could come along a gobble up a spice harvester or a storm could hit and knock a couple of your surveying Ornithopters out of the sky, leaving you with a bleeding hole to fill, and not a lot of time to do it.
This is an ad:
My experience with Dune: Spice Wars so far has been mostly like this. I've found the Fremen to be a far more difficult faction to work with as they lack a lot of the passives and bonuses that the other factions have that allows them to excel on the political stage. The Fremen for example basically have zero influence at the Landsraad council, the place where the competing factions vote on legislation and how the next few turns would work. This is a crucial aspect of the game as one moment water could be 50% easier to earn, and then the next 30% more difficult, or armies could double in price to train, meaning you're going to be very strained when it comes to ensuring you have forces to defend your lands for a while. And I bring this up, because my time as House Atreides was vastly different, as the Duke Leto and his high-ranking officials have a far bigger influential position thanks to House Atreides' passive perks, meaning you can basically influence the outcome of the Landsraad votes as you please.
There's a lot going on in this game beneath the surface, and it can be difficult to keep tabs on everything. Between research, which is pretty much just choosing the next upgrade that benefits your strategy, and assigning spies to gather intel, there's a lot of passive details to master. But, at the same time, the more physical side of the gameplay, for example leading armies and exploring, is far less packed. The combat is very limited right now, and basically consists of you building a unit and then telling them to move to a point where they will attack an enemy force in range. It's very dull, and isn't helped by the fact that the AI is very dumb and will get glitched in map boundaries, and will fight in ways they are not supposed to - i.e. ranged units running headfirst into fights so that melee units can reach and strike them. As for exploration, this is pretty much a passive activity as well, as there are very few reasons to not have Ornithopters using auto-recon to discover new locations and villages.
The point is that there is a lot to love about this game and it does hold a lot of potential, but as of right now, the first day of Early Access, Dune: Spice Wars is quite a hollow strategy game. It looks great, plays incredibly well, really nails the atmosphere and aura of Arrakis and this unique science-fiction universe, and it's definitely a game that I'll be paying close attention to as Shiro Games continues to evolve and improve it over the course of its time as an Early Access experience.