Dune: Spice Wars
Developer: Shiro Games
Release Date:15 September, 2023
By Chris Picone, 24 September 2023
If you’re looking to play a sequel or remaster of Dune 2/2k, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dune: Spice Wars isn’t even an RTS, at least not in the sense that we usually think of it. It’s more of a 4X game, although I feel almost as uncomfortable trying to put it in that box. Grand Strategy, maybe? But realtime. Which brings me to probably my single biggest takeaway for this title: You need to set aside any expectations you might have and go in with an open mind.
Unfortunately, the story is one area where Dune: Spice Wars is really lacking. While the game does feature a conquest mode, it’s really only a collection of missions in a sequence with some campaign bonuses to tie it all together. There are tons of little opportunities throughout the game as each unit, building and mission all feature flavour text, and there are even random events that occur throughout the game that could easily lend themselves to story telling but none of these opportunities have been taken. For example, there’s a little mentor message at the start of each mission but at the start of my epic battle against Harkonnen capital fortress Carthag the mentor just says, “it’s a fortress but we’ve seen worse.” It’s a little disappointing, I won’t lie. Also worth mentioning is that Spice Wars’ lore seems to me most heavily inspired by the recent movie. Which makes sense if you’re trying to plug into its success and subsequent reinvigoration of the franchise, but it’s also my least favourite interpretation of this wonderful universe. Likewise, the team seem to have tossed any Dune 2/2k lore aside (this is possibly a licencing issue, however), so you won’t find trikes, quads, devastators, sonic tanks, or any of the cool vehicles from Dune 2/2k – but they haven’t really been replaced with anything either. The majority of my battles as Corrino were fought with conscript riflemen, swordsmen, warriors, troopers; how boring and generic can you get?
I feel like the graphics is another area where Dune: Spice Wars is lacking – in some ways, at least, although I suspect this is just me being a grumpy old bugger that doesn’t like change. To be clear, the graphics are high quality, they look good. And I really have to give the UI special credit. It’s laid out nicely, easy to read, and everything looks like it should and is clearly discernible and easy to find, even when the game gets a bit hectic. The cutscenes are very nice, also. And the sound’s also great quality – some kind of instrumental with a vaguely “desert” quality, and great voice acting for unit commands and so on. What I don’t like is the art direction. The team have opted for a cartoony style – the actual in-game units and buildings look fine but all the accompanying artwork and cutscenes seem really out of place to me, at odds with what is otherwise a serious and complex game. And, while high quality, in many areas the artwork feels soulless to me, uninspired by any of the original Jodorowsky, Ron Miller, or Giger concept art.
Thankfully, this is where Dune: Spice Wars shines. I’ll get into a bit more detail but I want to tell some of this story through my experiences with the game. It’ll give you a good feel for the style of game this is, and also how nuanced and complex the mechanics can be.
1st game: I jumped straight in, no tutorial. I’ve played tons of RTS games, it’ll be fine, right? Launched up a quick Battle for Arrakis map (4 player skirmish, multiple victory conditions), playing as Corrino. This is going to be sweet; after beating Imperial forces with their dreaded Sardakaur in Dune 2, I’ve always wanted to play as them. I see my Imperial Base and go to build a windtrap and refinery but – wait, I can’t use it until I hit 2,500 hegemony? Okay, build panel on the right. I can build ornithopters and conscripts. Weird and a little tasteless but okay, let’s do that. My ornithopter has found a village nearby, and a spice patch. You beauty. I can’t do anything though, looks like I need to capture the village first, so I send my warriors over. They beat the militia without too much fuss but I still can’t do anything. The battle plays out like when you attack a town in Civilization – not at all what I was expecting. Every now and then, “local” raiding parties attack my villages but otherwise nothing’s really happening. Unsure where to go from here, I send my soldiers out exploring, but after a few steps into the desert they mysteriously die. Every so often a Landsraad Council is held, where each faction votes on various outcomes but frankly it might as well be written in Dutch, I can’t make sense of any of it. Guess I need the tutorials after all.
2nd game: With the tutorials under my belt, I feel a little better about this. Let’s go for a Kanley Duel this time (1v1, small map), playing as Smugglers. Send my ornithopter out scouting right away, my warriors go and actually capture the village this time (after you beat the militia, some buttons appear – I didn’t see them the first time). Everything’s going smoothly; I’ve got plenty of water (which doubles as supplies for your troops to traverse the desert), cash is trickling in, and I’ve enough manpower to build an army. So I do, and go on the attack. Taking territory’s slow going because the authority cost to annex rises sharply and my income’s not keeping up with it, so I start pillaging instead. I reach Atreides’ territory and go on the attack. I beat them back one village at a time, until I reach their base, which launches missiles that wipe out my entire army in seconds, and I barely even dented its armour. I need to build another army but I spent everything and it’s going to take a long time to build my stores back up – and I need a better army, but not sure how to actually get that. I can see some vehicles in my build panel but I don’t meet the prerequisites – I have to research first, but that’s going incredibly slowly – it would be hours, real time, before I reach those goals. And there are some other clear gaps in my knowledge; while exploring your onithopters find artefacts. Sending troops to these yields a reward, but I can see an alternative reward offered if I use an agent on the artefact instead. But I have no idea what an agent even is. Guess the tutorials didn’t cover everything? It was kind of weird on the tutorial screen – five tutorial levels are available but under each was a blank square, like placeholders. Maybe the team planned to deliver ten tutorial levels but they haven’t been implemented yet?
3rd Game: Time to give Conquest mode a go! It features levels played in sequence, so hopefully – in lieu of effective tutorials – it will walk me through some of the mechanics I still don’t understand as they’re introduced in the campaign. I wanted to play as Fremen this time but they aren’t an option. Interestingly, only some factions are available to play in some game modes. None of the other factions appeal to me at the moment – where Dune 2/2k introduced the factions through mentat reports, background stories, and provocative imagery, Spice Wars only lists their mechanics, none of which I understand yet. So Corrino it is.
And here I have to say, wow! The first level saw me trying to establish a foothold, claiming an empty corner of territory by building hegemony. There’s a rush to 15,000 and whoever gets there first wins. While a little bit of combat against the other factions did feature, mostly we left each other alone, racing against each other in a sort of political & economical cold war, tinged with a sprinkling of good old fashioned colonialism. I learned a lot playing this level – capturing territory adds hegemony, but so do buildings like the monument in your Imperial Base and there are lots of other factors like your Landsraad standing and the amount of spice you pay to CHOAM – fundamental elements of the game I hadn’t even realised existed until now. Also, I now understand why you can’t play as Fremen in conquest mode. Throughout the level, I uncovered a number of sietches; Fremen bases. It took me a long time to work out the mechanics behind it, but basically you can trade with the Fremen directly. In the short term, you get whatever resource you’re trading for, but you also build a rapport with the sietch over time. As the rapport becomes more positive, the Fremen send less raiding parties against your villages. Eventually, you can form an alliance with the sietch, which has an impact on the overarching campaign map.
The second level was completely different. This time, I was pitted against Harkonnen in a contest of espionage. Hegemony was irrelevant this time, and while we could do battle against each other, it clearly wasn’t the way to win. This level really taught me how Spice Wars’ intelligence system works.
The third level was a straight battle of economy. Again, battle was possible, but with a secondary condition in place to avoid losses (for additional reward), it clearly wasn’t the way to win. No, this time the ticket to winning is to be the first to be a major owner (>30%) of shares in CHOAM. So the ticket is to try to collect as much spice as you can, as fast as you can, and to be efficient in your spending – every dollar spent on buildings or units is a dollar not spent buying shares. And share prices go up as less become available, so speed is of the essence – if you buy shares first, the price goes up, forcing your opponents to pay the steeper cost. I love how different each game feels as the win conditions change. When I finish conquest mode I’m going to have to go back for another Kanley Duel or battle, to see how I fare when multiple victory conditions are possible – for me and my opponents.
The fourth level was another race for hegemony, but after that the overarching campaign map started having a greater impact. My friendship with the Fremen is slowly growing, but as you collect more territories you’re also basically painting a target on yourself. My fifth level was a defence mission. The game starts with two imperial bases, a good distance apart, forcing you to use airfields to move your troops; the neighbouring villages are under control but no others. You get a few days to prepare your defences as best you can, and then wave after wave of raiders come at you. Hold out for a month until reserves arrive, and then revenge is yours. The sixth level saw me in another skirmish, this time a clandestine march into Harkonnen lands using only mercenaries. Another level had me doing some freelance work for the Spacing Guild, taking out Renegade bases in return for guild favours that could be used to buy air ships. The campaign pressed on, ending with a final and epic march against Harkonnen’s capital.
What really impressed me here wasn’t just the diversity of missions and victory conditions, it was the way each map had been tailored for those battles. For example, in the assassination mission, the Bene Gesserit sent agents to assist my cause and the battlefield was littered with crashed ornithopters and other artefacts; it was a race to collect these as a method of acquiring precious intel. Some maps were 1v1, others were free-for-all, and each map also came with its own special conditions – there were even some maps with no spice. Finally: A special mention to the sandworms and sand storms, which can play havoc with your spice collection and disrupt large troop movements – unless you’re Fremen, then you can ride them. It’s a nice touch of chaos.
Fun Factor / Replayability
Despite my initial misgivings, Dune: Spice Wars is a heck of a lot of fun and very absorbing in its own way. There really is a fantastic array of missions through the game, so you’ll never want for variety. And the campaign upgrades between each mission served to speed up some of the early game elements, preventing any feeling of tedium. And when you’re finished with conquest you can always go and play the battle or duel maps, with a range of factions to experiment with and plenty of customisation options so you can play exactly the sort of game you’re in the mood for.
After finishing the conquest game I did go back and play another Battle for Arrakis as Fremen, and it got pretty gnarly. Harkonnen surprised me by sending me an early non-agression agreement, but of course backstabbed me and tried to attack one of my villages a little later. I beat them back and started pushing toward their base but quickly had to enter panic mode as the smugglers, who I also had a non-aggression agreement with, were sending assassins after me (although I was winning, their success would have meant instant game over). I found their infiltration cells and was feeling comfortable again but suddenly Atreides were in line to win the game as the Landsraad had elected them Governor of Dune. Thankfully, I was close to the Hegemony victory (30,000 points), and managed to beat them to the win before they could hold the position for the 30 days. It was intense.
Although I’m not totally in love with the art direction and I’m bitterly disappointed with the lack of story (the almost total absence of even lore, not just the lack of a story campaign), I’ve got to say that I’m otherwise thoroughly impressed with Dune: Spice Wars. It allows you to explore the mechanics of Dune’s world – the CHOAM spice trading, the political machinations of the Space Guild and the Landsraad, diplomacy, spies, and assassinations – in a depth that could never be matched in an RTS. For all its quirks, it really is a top shelf grand strategic experience.