Dune: Spice Wars – Preview
Follow Genre: Real Time Strategy
Developer: Shiro Games
Publisher: Shiro Games, Funcom
Platform: PC
Tested on: PC

Dune: Spice Wars – Preview

Good: Gameplay mechanics represent narrative themes really well
Bad: Tutorials are lacking
User Score
9.0
(1 votes)
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Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)

It’s a fantastic time to be a Dune fan. The hype around Denis Villeneuve’s first adaptation hasn’t yet died down, and fans can already look forward to part two, which is currently in production. If you’re looking for an Atreides-inspired fix to bridge the gap between the two films, you might want to take a look at Dune: Spice Wars, a 4X RTS game from Shiro Games, the studio behind Northgard and Wartales. Currently still in Early Access, Spice Wars lets players vie for control over Arakis, the desolate planet where spice is harvested. Is Spice Wars a cynical cash grab that wants to capitalize on the popularity of the recent film or is it one of those rare good adaptations of a beloved franchise?

As it stands, there isn’t a whole lot of story to be found in Spice Wars just yet, apart from a short opening cutscene that briefly introduces each faction’s motivation. The game is definitely evocative of the world that Frank Herbert created, but there is no narrative arc implemented. If you’re familiar with the books or any of the adaptations, you’ll recognize the factions and know what the featured characters are about, but anyone going in blind will be lost pretty much immediately from a narrative standpoint. Of course, we can’t imagine anyone picking this one up in Early Access will be unfamiliar with Dune in the first place, and those rare few that don’t know the lore should probably watch the film anyway.

While Spice Wars is an officially licensed game, it’s still based on the books rather than on Denis Villeneuve’s recent adaptation of the source material. This means that you won’t find the likenesses of Timothée Chalamet or Zendaya here, although the character portraits are at least somewhat inspired by the aesthetics of the recent film, more so than by David Lynch’s version. The desert planet of Arrakis looks great, with swirling sandstorms and accurate depictions of the harsh climate, and each of the four factions looks visually distinct as well.

Being a game that isn’t based on the film, Shiro Games wasn’t able to make use of Hans Zimmer’s impressive soundtrack, and instead had to resort to fairly generic orchestral music. It sounds fine, but forgettable overall. The same can be said about the sound effects. There is some voice acting present, but as the story hasn’t been fleshed out, there is not a whole lot that can be said about this either.

With a wide variety of factions, each with their own goals and distinct battlefield tactics, the Dune universe lends itself well to the RTS genre. Shiro Games has done a fantastic job with making each of the four currently available factions feel unique in a way that feels logical from a gameplay perspective as well as sticking close to the way they are depicted in the lore. The available factions are the opposing houses Atreides and Harkonnen, the native Fremen, and the Smugglers. The core of Spice Wars is built around classic RTS gameplay, though specific themes of Dune are implemented through specific mechanics. For example, you’ll need to keep an eye on your economics as well, as you’ll need to be able to pay the ever-increasing spice tax to the Emperor (or the spacing guild, depending on which faction you play). You also won’t be battling your enemies outright all the time either, and will be negotiating and trading with them. Winning Spice Wars isn’t necessarily about wiping out your foes through force -although this is an option, especially if you’re playing House Harkonnen- but about shaping Arrakis to fit your personal and political goals.

Combat is implemented elegantly, with a tech tree that allows you to gradually unlock more and better units in such a way that you can familiarise yourself with the available tools before you move on to more advanced ones. Most of the time, you’ll only have a handful of squads at your disposal, so you can’t simply overwhelm the enemy through sheer numbers, and instead, you’ll need to resort to tactical micromanaging. This ties into the way each faction plays. The most straightforward approach comes from House Atreides, who are an excellent all-rounder faction and probably the best starting point. If you’ve played RTS games before, the faction will feel instantly familiar in the way it is structured and how it fights. Meanwhile, the elusive Fremen employ guerilla tactics and take some trial and error before most people would be able to use them effectively.

No matter which faction you choose, the outcome of combat is never entirely certain, as the sounds of war may attract the attention of the massive sandworms that inhabit the planet, so you’re always at risk of seeing your soldiers turned into worm food. While this may not exactly seem fair, it’s definitely fitting of the source material. The worms don’t just appear during battle, but also while you’re attempting to harvest spice. They’re not the only threat that you have to keep in mind as you work towards a steady flow of spice either – Arrakis is a harsh place, and you’ll need to adapt your playstyle to suit the planetary conditions. Your military units will need the right provisions to ensure that they survive as they are exploring, for example, and certain parts of the planet are simply impossible to explore -unless you’re playing with the Fremen, who eventually unlock the ability to move through areas that other factions can’t. This is undoubtedly a tactical advantage, but it doesn’t come easy, and it’s a matter of deciding whether or not it’s worth dedicating a huge chunk of your time to meet the requirements to be able to outmanoeuvre your enemy.

Another tactical layer comes in the form of Intel, which is gathered through named characters. Using Intel, you can set up specific espionage operations to sabotage your opponents in less straightforward ways, such as by starting a rebellion in a settlement that they control. This system could use some adjusting, as right now, it feels a bit convoluted. There’s already a lot of micromanaging going on, and a more elegant approach to using Intel would go a long way, although these kinds of sneaky tactics do feel right at home in Dune. Still, it’s satisfying to see an Intel-based plot play out – as long as you’re not on the receiving end, that is, as these can really ruin your day.

Spice Wars would have been a promising RTS through the aforementioned mechanics already, but Shiro Games has gone a step beyond by bolting another system on top of what’s present in the form of the Landsraad. This is where Dune’s politics come into play, with a voting system that introduces specific resolutions that alter the way the game flows. It allows players to directly influence either the growth of their faction or to nerf other factions. While only the Harkonnen and Atreides houses are able to vote directly, the Fremen and the Smuggler factions are able to spend Influence points in order to bribe officials to vote their way. It’s a system that’s easy enough to understand, though it could use some balancing.

Essentially, as soon as a faction is voted to be Governors of Dune, the game is over -they will need to hold onto their governorship for a specific period of time but unless the vote comes up again, which is seemingly random, and another faction takes over this mantle, the only way to stop the governing faction to win the game is to wipe them out completely, but this is pretty much impossible. It’s unlikely that any of the factions is taken out of the game completely no matter the circumstances, which is why winning a Spice Wars match tends to involve achieving different goals.

Being an Early Access title, Spice Wars isn’t without its fair share of flaws, though these will be resolved eventually based on player feedback. There are the aforementioned balance issues regarding the voting system, but we’ve also had an instance where our cursor completely disappeared, forcing a restart, for example. The in-game tutorial is very brief, to the point where we had to resort to a video on YouTube to help us find our bearings before we were comfortable enough to start experimenting with what was presented to us, and even then certain systems, such as Hegemony, weren’t entirely clear. Ultimately, these are issues that we’re sure will be dealt with eventually when the game leaves Early Access.

Conclusion

Despite a few minor flaws, many of which are likely to be resolved over the coming months, Dune: Spice Wars is a promising RTS title. The main thing we’re looking forward to is the fleshing out of a narrative campaign, although we’re curious to see how the game plays against other people as well. At the time of writing, multiplayer hasn’t been implemented just yet. The game definitely feels unfinished at this point, but if what’s on display here is any indication, Spice Wars may just end up being a fantastic RTS.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)
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Dune: Spice Wars - Preview, 9.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating
SebastiaanRaats


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