Need to know
What is it? A traditional take on the 4X set on Frank Herbert’s fictional universe.
Expect to pay £29.50/$35
Developer Shiro Games
Publisher Funcom, Shiro Games
Reviewed on Radeon 5700 XT, i5-9600K, 16GB RAM
Steam Deck Unsupported
Link Official site
Arrakis, Frank Herbert’s inhospitable planet and the setting for Dune: Spice Wars, is arguably the single most famous celestial body in all of science fiction. It sprang tailor-made for strategy gaming with its murderous terrain, political intrigue, and a cluster of markedly differentiated factions vying for control of its priceless natural resource: the Spice Melange. That the foundations of the modern RTS were laid there in 1992 with Westwood’s Dune 2 was hardly a surprise.
Like Dune 2, Spice Wars is an RTS, but it’s also a 4X affair, and a remarkably traditional one at that. It lets you lead one of six rival groups that should be instantly recognisable to franchise fans (only House Ecaz’s intergalactic tourists are relatively obscure) locked in a constant struggle over Arrakis’s sandy expanse. Single scenarios and multiplayer battles are available, but the main draw is the 25-30 hour Conquest mode which unfolds over several missions, seeing me gradually tighten my grip on the planet.
The objectives in each of these missions vary, but progression tends to follow a typical trajectory: First, I would send out my ornithopter scouts to locate spice fields close to the starting base and annex neighbouring villages to expand my borders. Then I would start building essential infrastructure and researching new technologies (called Developments and divided in four area-specific trees: military, economic, and so on). And, finally, I would focus on specialising to prepare for my current mission’s endgame, whether that entailed developing my espionage network so I could assassinate rival leaders without engaging in open conflict, or acquiring enough clout within the Landsraad Council to trigger a political victory.
These are resource-juggling loops even genre novices should be well-acquainted with, and Dune: Spice Wars does not particularly care about either subverting or substantially embellishing them. There is diplomatic manoeuvring with opposing Houses, regional bonuses to organise your industrial growth around, and an army to raise and train for the inevitable moment a desperate enemy makes a lunge for your least-protected spice field. Barring a couple of nuances (like the precise effect of certain buildings), my overall feeling was one of cosy familiarity within the first couple of hours—a state not inherently unpleasant but not terribly exciting, either. Consequently, I mostly ironman’d Conquest on the first go (House Atreides, Medium difficulty), only needing to reload when the game threw a cheap curveball at me, usually near the end of a mission, like the time I realised I could not recruit mechanical units for reasons left unspecified, or whenever a randomly aroused sandworm would emerge and devour half my army.
The one concept that feels genuinely original is the CHOAM Market, a live stock exchange where each faction can purchase shares whose value is tied to spice production. Acquire enough of those and you may secure an economic victory. But even that innovation seems more indebted to the developers’ single-minded focus on sticking close to Dune’s literary and cinematic mythology rather than a desire to evolve the genre. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen asserts in David Lynch’s 1984 movie, and the CHOAM market seems a precise mechanical translation of that famous quote.
Indeed, almost every aspect of the game seems formulated toward meticulously mapping one-on-one correspondences with its inspiration’s rich lore. The way early expansion is curtailed by substantial water demands for desert travel; the hidden caves of the Fremen clans that can cause endless trouble for their enemies and turn the tide of war for their allies; the aides you enlist at the start of each mission to assist your cause with their special skills—many of them characters from the books. Most of all, the aesthetic style and moral outlook of each faction as reflected in their visual design and unique abilities, respectively: for example, the capacity for peaceful annexation by the Atreides and the Oppression policy employed by the Harkonnen to eke out every last drop of productivity from subjugated villages.
Occasionally, these correspondences may result in something akin to inspiration, like the way Fremen eschew air travel in favour of sandworms to zip around the desert, summoning the gargantuan creatures via the use of carefully-placed thumpers. But most of the time they merely serve as momentary flashes of recognition, a sort of “Huh, it’s smart how they incorporated that,” around otherwise mundane mechanics. Moreover, Shiro Games’ obsessiveness with transplanting the Duniverse’s minute details makes its failure to capture the sinister ambience of that world all the more glaring. Its Byzantine conspiracies and Shakespearean clashes between familial loyalty and personal drive are—unsurprisingly—missing from such a conservative approach to a genre inherently focused on tectonic shifts of power, not individual plotlines.
Nevertheless, as a game built around scattered fragments of backstory, Dune: Spice Wars remains a solid, if unexceptional, 4X. I enjoyed my first playthrough, despite the odd technical hiccup (it emphatically did not take a liking to my GPU), even though by the closing chapters some of its deeper flaws had started to become apparent. Most notable among them was the lack of a cohesive narrative to imbue some emotional resonance to the campaign and an eminently exploitable economy. Being able to buy plascrete (the material used for all construction on Arrakis) with Solari (the local currency) on an almost 1:1 ratio near the endgame, when the latter is plentiful and the former may be invaluable, is patently absurd. Doubly so when I can purchase it from the faction I’m currently at war with.
Dune: Spice Wars is a faithful homage to its inspiration and a fine entry point for 4X newcomers, but there’s not enough depth in its interlocking systems nor a compelling narrative hook to engage the genre veteran. I was happy to have conquered Arrakis once, but I’m unlikely to roam the dunes again anytime soon. After my initial excitement had passed, Herbert’s majestic world started to feel, shall we say, a little dry.