Though it was revealed just a short time ago, Dune: Spice Wars enters early access on STEAM this week and fans are definitely going to want to get in on it.
Dune: Spice Wars has been pretty high on my most-anticipated games list pretty much since it was revealed during last year’s The Game Awards. While there’s no word yet on a full release of the game, the title enters Early Access tomorrow, April 26th. Funcom and Shiro Games were kind enough to give this super fan even earlier access to the Early Access release and I’m definitely excited for what the future holds.
It’s important to remember early access doesn’t mean the game is finished. There’s quite a bit more the developers will be doing with the game, as well as making changes based on the feedback the early access players provide. As such, I can really only share my initial impressions on the game. So don’t take this as a hard and fast review.
For me, the announcement of Spice Wars was something I’ve been hoping to see for MANY years. Long before a new Dune movie was even announced (well, the latest one anyway). While Frank Herbert’s books have captivated audiences for decades, sparking multiple adaptations on screens big, and small, his works also serve as a crucial point in gaming history.
Namely, Dune II (which launched 30 years ago this year) is where the Real-Time Strategy genre as we know it was born. The game served as the building blocks for Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and pretty much everything else since. Considering those were among the first titles that got me into gaming, the genre holds a dear place in my heart.
Sadly, Dune games have been completely absent for over 20 years. When Funcom first revealed they were developing new games based on the Science Fiction franchise, the title they revealed was an open-world survival type game…So yeah, I was a little bummed. Thankfully, Funcom knew what they were doing and have unleashed Spice Wars.
The game takes its inspiration from the novels (though there are obvious influences from the new movie as well) with the ultimate goal being to control the most precious resource in the universe: Spice. You’ll take control of one of four factions in order to try and tame/survive the planet. There are more factions planned, but for now you’ll have your choice of campaigns where you play as House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Smugglers, and the native Fremen.
In my time with the game I played through a bit of both the Atreides and Fremen campaigns. Frankly, I love getting the chance to play as the desert warriors. One, because none of the previous games gave that option before (instead opting to use the Fremen as natural antagonists to deal with). Secondly, because they’re badass and have a story/culture worth experiencing and…you know, fuck colonialism.
The gameplay is an interesting blend of RTS mechanics and 4X strategy. It’s a combo that sounded really good on paper when it was first announced, though I was concerned how it would work in practice. Age of Empires seem to have mastered the approach, but it’s not a balance many similar titles have managed to achieve. Thankfully, my worries seem to be unfounded and the strategy blend is a blast.
Spice Wars does an excellent job of bringing the best of both genres together. You get the greater depth of control and battlefield awareness that comes with RTS, along with base-building fun. But it’s balanced by the “grand strategy” pieces such as an in-world game clock, the massive research tree, and myriad of choices you’ll have to make in many situations.
No matter which faction you go with, there are three different ways to win (victory conditions if you will). There’s domination, where you destroy the opposing faction completely/assassinate their leader. Then there’s Governorship, which is basically a diplomacy option where you rule so well everyone VOTES for you to be the leader. Lastly, there’s Hegemony which is a combination of things, some of which is entirely dependent on your faction.
There’s a bit of base-building involved with the game, like any RTS (and resource management is going to be super important), but I loved how it handles those aspects. You can’t just build new stuff all willy-nilly. Instead, exploration will prove vital. You’ll have to venture out to find settlements and other discoveries with your trusty Ornithopter. Through this you’ll be able to find rich patches of Spice to harvest, neutral villages, ancient ruins, and much more.
In order to expand your reach and build new stuff, you’ll need the research benefits provided by the things you discover, as well as the land. I loved this aspect, as there are multiple ways to deal with the things you find. Neutral villages can be conquered, by sending your soldiers in to eliminate the local militia OR you can take a different approach.
One of the cool things in playing as Atreides was my ability to negotiate. As a ruler known for his honor/benevolence there are more diplomatic options to utilize. Instead of taking a village by force, I was able to persuade them to my side. Each option comes with its own risk/reward. One is certainly quicker and may allow you the chance to loot places (replenishing lost supplies), while the other takes more time as you have to wait a certain amount of in-game days.
Once you get control of a village, however, then you’re able to build upon it and expand your resources in new ways. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are other discoveries to be made, sometimes in the form of valuable resources/intel that you’ll need to procure before your rivals do. You can use the same methods, but there are also times where you can use stealthy assassins to infiltrate and do things piece by piece under the noses of everyone.
On top of all that, every month or so you’ll have to pay a certain amount of Spice tax (so harvesting should really be your first priority), so you’ll have to take the current market price into account. Not only do you need to pay the quota required, you need enough profit to ensure you can protect your holdings and increase your standing in the Imperium. Oh, and you’ll have to make regular votes in the Lansraad (the ruling body) where you have to balance policies that benefit you and/or hurt your enemies, expanding influence in different ways, and dealing with the political warfare taking place underneath it all.
There’s a LOT going on here. It feels like there are no inconsequential choices and even a small misstep could spell disaster. In this way, Spice Wars manages to nail that desperate feeling from the Dune novels, where the Great Houses in the Imperium are always manipulating one another in a constant struggle.
All these aspects can certainly feel overwhelming, especially to someone who isn’t as versed in the Dune lore. Thankfully, when it comes to actually playing, it feels much more like an RTS title. The controls are easy to figure out, and if you have even passing familiarity with RTS games, it’s super easy/intuitive to get into.
This gameplay approach allows you the chance to get familiar with things before throwing you to the wolves with the deeper strategy aspects. It may seem too much when you’re reading about it, but getting started is a relatively smooth experience. It’s easy to get into, but you know it’ll take longer to truly master it; but you’ll have a ton of fun along the way.
Dune: Spice Wars is wonderful. I love RTS games, and the ability to control units to fight battles, explore, and conquer feels like hanging out with an old friend. The 4X elements, however, makes for a far more immersive Dune experience as that’s what the book really deals with. The combination is perfectly suited to the story fans know, while presenting awesome gameplay options just about anyone can enjoy.
There are certainly some kinks to work out. I’ve encountered a handful of bugs in my playtime. Nothing too terrible, though awfully annoying (like taking over ruins/settlements just NOT finishing and staying stuck on 91%). Some other niggling issues—why do I LOSE my forces when I send them to explore/excavate ruins or anything else?—are present, but considering its early access status, I’m not overly concerned.
Even in this unfinished state, Dune: Spice Wars is giving me the Dune video game I’ve been dreaming of for decades. It’s sucked me in so completely and I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. As much time as I’ve already lost to it, I feel many more hours on the horizon as they continue to improve.
If you love Dune, or just strategy/Sci-Fi games in general, there’s really no reason to skip out on Dune: Spice Wars. Even as it is worked on during Early Access, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun and promises even more great potential to come.
You can wishlist Dune: Spice Wars on STEAM right now, and get ready to play when it hits Early Access on April 26th.