Frank Herbert’s Dune is a masterwork of science fiction — an epic tale entwining war, politics, and religion as space-faring feudal houses compete for control of the planet Arakkis and its primary resource, the spice Melange.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe” goes the mantra.

Dune: Spice Wars puts the player at the head of one of those factions to scheme, slaughter and swap their way to planetary hegemony. It takes some basic ideas from the lore — the spice, giant sandworms, intergalactic taxes — and uses them as foundational components for a solid 4X strategy.

The game is still in early access but is currently in a very playable and polished state — base mechanics seem to all be in plac,e and I only encountered one bug in my 10-plus hours of play. 

The hustle goes like this — players use ornithopters to scout out new territories and villages to conquer, typically through military might, that can be used to construct buildings for the production of things like water, intel, or money. Any village will be fertile ground for construction, whereas only some territories will have spice fields for harvesting, giving the hallucinogenic narcotic the central importance one would expect.

This exploitation and extraction goes along with managing research along a tech tree, building a spy network and throwing influence around in the galactic parliament known as the Landsraat. 

Players can currently select from one of four factions — House Atreides, House Harkonnen, Smugglers, or Fremen — each with their own unique bonuses and mechanics. There are multiple avenues to victory, including ascending to governorship through the political spectrum or simply destroying the capitals of all opponents. The system is quite standard for a 4X, taking cues from Dune mostly in reference and only occasionally in mechanics, like how sandworms will attack harvesters, or can be used offensively by Fremen.

Apart from the theming, I think the real strength on display is how easy Dune: Spice Wars is to learn, relative to the genre. The game does not yet have an in-depth tutorial but I was able to pick up its major systems easily enough with a few prompts and some play. Developer Shiro Games should be lauded for crafting a user interface that makes all these many, many systems navigable.

I should also mention the combat for players who prefer kinetic action over a carefully-planned economy.

Although Spice Wars is ostensibly real time strategy — meaning that it’s not turn-based, but players can still hit pause on the clock — I would never mistake it for something like Starcraft or its own late ’90s predecessor, Dune 2000. Combat takes place on the main map, and while terrain does affect unit travel and different units will have different attack patterns (melee, ranged, etc.) engagements don’t really require the fine micro skills of a typical RTS. It is first and foremost a 4X with some RTS complications to keep players on their toes, and of course, watch out for sandworms.

With multiplayer dropping this summer and even more to come — I know the road map promises ships, heroes, and another faction — this is one that I’ll be checking in on as it progresses. But, even in its current state, Dune: Spice Wars should be a solid experience for genre gamers with just enough of the spice to appeal to hardcore Dunekopfs.

Dune: Spice Wars is currently in Early Access on the PC

— Stephen Cook

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