When I think about what’s cool in the Dune universe – what really sets it apart from other epic sci-fi – I think of a lot of the same things Shiro Games has chosen to focus on in Dune: Spice Wars. There’s the complex galactic politics, the smooth blend of the futuristic and the ancient, and the deadly, sweeping splendor of Arrakis. When I first reviewed it in Early Access, Spice Wars already felt like a reasonably complete RTS. And after a year and a half of additions and refinements, it gleams even brighter.
The core of each hour-ish-long fight for dominion over Dune is a well-paced real-time battle system that pulls off the difficult tightrope walk of being complex but not complicated. You can jump right into it and have a good time, but it really rewards understanding unit synergies, like the teamwork bonuses of the Atreides legions or the lone wolf, hit-and-run tactics of the Fremen. It’s just the right amount of micro for me, too, where a little bit of repositioning will go a long way, but you don’t need esports reflexes to get the most out of your army.
Dune: Spice Wars Screenshots
One shakeup to this formula since the Early Access launch is the addition of airships, which are expensive, late-game units that can really turn the tide if used correctly. Or… they can be a giant waste of money if the AI keeps dancing them in and out of my missile turret range. Tactically, I really have not been impressed with the AI so far. This can even apply to your own units if you get a big enough group of them, as they tend to wiggle around nonsensically if clustered too closely together. As an RTS veteran, I had to turn the difficulty up to Hard to feel decently challenged in combat. But don’t let its clumsiness on the battlefield make you complacent: the AI can be cunning and effective on the strategic level even on Normal, and will use the various diplomatic and espionage options to pull victory out from under you.
Feeding these flashy clashes is a clever, hands-on resource system in which you’re always having to decide when to sell and when to stockpile the ever-important spice based on changing exchange rates and a periodic Imperial tax that can levy punishing penalties on you if you don’t pay. Whether it’s manpower, political influence, or life-giving water, I never fell into a rut in this glimmering desert where I felt like I had enough of everything. Spice Wars always keeps you thirsty, which can lead to conflict even with a long-time ally if they just happen to beat you to that juicy spice field that’s critical to your plans.
The changes to how water works since Early Access launch have added a new strategic dimension, too. The supply system depletes the provisions of any ground unit crossing neutral or unfriendly territory, and they’ll start taking health damage if they run out. Particularly dangerous are the deep deserts, which divide up the map with deadly expanses that drain supplies three times as fast. Running a surplus of water, though, increases both the maximum supplies your units can carry and their recharge speed at friendly settlements, so keeping your industrial operations minimal translates into freer movement across the planet. In a very tangible way, living in harmony with Arrakis rather than trying to reshape it is rewarded.
The Fremen are the masters of the desert, being able to cross it more quickly and safely than other factions, as well as being able to gather spice without noisy harvesters that attract attention of the sandworm variety. Everyone else has to choose between setting up their harvesters to automatically evacuate at the first sign of a sandworm, which gives an ongoing debuff to their production, or be prepared to do so manually and swiftly when the interface warns you danger is coming. Sending ornithopters as escorts costs you a valuable scout but gives you an earlier warning to get the hell out, creating even more interesting trade-offs in the economic gameplay.
Of course, you can never actually remove the threat of the worms, so you have to learn to live with them. I really like how this reminds you that no matter how powerful you get, you still have to bow to Arrakis’ unforgiving rules. In this way, the planet comes alive and becomes a character of its own, supported by gleaming stretches of dunes in the daytime and an eerily quiet, almost meditative sea of twinkling blue at night. The look of the units and buildings is a bit cartoonishly stylized, but putting everything together, it’s gorgeous. The music and ambient sounds of wind and sand add to this skillfully.
Above the dusty surface, high-level strategy simmers as each faction jockeys for position in the cutthroat space senate, the Landsraad. The Houses Atreides, Harkonnen, Corino, and Ecaz are voting members with official representation, but all factions – including the unrecognized Fremen and Smugglers – can spend an Influence resource representing bribes and backroom deals to get what they’re after. It sounds complex, but the way it works is very easy to follow, with resolutions like increasing the upkeep on certain goods or giving a faction the ability to raise special Imperial armies coming to a vote periodically. It’s impressive how Spice Wars was able to bolt a fairly deep political system onto an already complex RTS without it feeling bloated, confusing, or unbalanced.
There’s even an assassination action that brings a great deal of tension to the espionage system. Collecting enough intel on a faction lets you launch an assassination attempt against their leader, the progress of which can be slowed down by the target devoting spies to counterespionage. If you’re targeted, you have to spend money on localized scans to find the assassin, who could be hiding anywhere on the map. If you can’t find them in time and send some units to arrest them, it’s game over. I lost to this a couple times, but I wasn’t frustrated by it. Win or lose, the race against the clock and having to divert my resources into a big detective game was exhilarating. And the costs to even attempt it mean foiling an assassination will put your would-be killer at a sudden disadvantage, so it feels balanced by risk.
It’s all handled by a UI that makes it relatively easy to keep up with. Since agents are one of the main ways you generate resources, a player who doesn’t focus on espionage will naturally unlock operations that support their playstyle even if they’re not actively engaging with it much. There’s even an operation that immediately stops rebellions at the cost of intel, which may as well have been directly targeted to solve two of my biggest, specific complaints from that earlier review. Spy traits, like settlement traits on the map, can be ignored without crippling yourself, but add a little extra layer of optimization for min-maxers that will pay dividends if you’re just a bit more meticulous.
Outside of the standard skirmish, there are two extra modes; Kanly Duel is a fast-paced 1v1 showdown on a much smaller map with many elements like technology sped up. It seems purpose-made for competitive play, or just getting in a quick grudge match with a buddy. The other, much more sweeping mode is Conquest, an in-depth campaign that takes around eight or nine missions – roughly 12 hours – to complete. You unlock perks and passive resource income by conquering sectors on the turn-based campaign map, with bonus rewards for taking on challenging, optional objectives like deliberately refusing to pay the Imperial spice tax.
Going into a mid-campaign mission with the off-map spice fields I conquered earlier created a meaningful sense of progression, as well as tactical escalation as factions with stronger starting income can build up bigger armies much faster. There’s also a Pressure mechanic that pushes back against inevitable snowballing when you get too powerful. Controlling a lot of territory makes it more likely that the rival houses will attack or even try to assassinate you.
Conquest does have its downsides, though. There are some maps, like the Volcanic Mountain Range, that don’t contain spice or sandworms – for valid lore reasons, to be fair. So you have to sell other resources, like fuel cells, to drive your economy. It’s kind of an interesting change of pace the first couple times, having to optimize settlements completely differently from how I was used to. But ultimately, Spice Wars just doesn’t work as well without the, you know, spice. Or the worms. Dune without sandworms? What are we even doing here? You also can’t play as the Smugglers or Fremen in Conquest, and as those are two of my favorite factions, that’s a bit disappointing.
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