‘Dune: Spice Wars’ preview: death, sandworms and taxes

‘Spice Wars’’ early access launch delivers slow-burn strategy in a compelling setting, but isn’t taking full advantage of the Dune license yet

I guess anything taking place on the dusty desert world of Arrakis was going to be dry, but strategy game Dune: Spice Wars leaves me wanting a glass of water.

I’ve pushed this metaphor too far. This is the first time Frank Herbert’s Dune has appeared in video games since 2001, but as the license is inexplicably tied to the real-time strategy genre, this is a homecoming of sorts – a homecoming that probably isn’t hurt by the recent big-budget movie and impossibly beautiful Timmy Chalamet. Dune-mania is here, and for strategy gamers that can stomach Spice Wars complexity, I’ve never played a 4X in real-time before, and it’s every bit as compelling as Civilization’s “one more turn” pull.

Developers Shiro Games are perhaps best known for their strategy games Northgard and Wartales, both mechanically complex titles with interesting mechanics if you’re willing to push through a few levels of jank to get to the good stuff. Spice Wars is similar: each of the four factions that you can play as feels distinctly different, each having unique strengths and some crippling problems to overcome. The Fremen have limited ability to take advantage of the diplomatic advantages but can ally themselves with the desert raiders, while Atreides wants to do things above board and be everyone’s pal. Something that is undone by Harkonnen’s wide array of devious plots.

Dune: Spice Wars
Dune: Spice Wars. Credit: Shiro Games.

However, there are a few things that are universal: death and taxes. Taxes are the most irritating part of Spice Wars: I understand the major houses of Atreides or Harkonnen being tied into brutal taxation from the empire, but gathering spice as the Fremen and having to pay most of it for to a smuggling guild so they turn a blind eye to my operations seems a little silly, and leaves me feeling a bit salty that all of my hard-earned gains are being taxed by an off-world organisation that we’ve never wanted to interact with anyway.

Death is brutal and sudden on Arrakis and even watching your military units rolling around in the desert isn’t any guarantee you’ll be able to keep them safe. Several times troops “liberating” neutral villages would be inhaled without any hope of salvation by a huge sandworm – visually impressive until you think about how much of your cash and manpower that the worm just gobbled up like so many human-shaped M&M’s – and running out of supply in the desert is more preventable but equally certain to kill off your soldiers.

I’ve played two campaigns so far, one as House Atreides and one as the Fremen, and while both felt different, it felt like there could definitely be a little more Dune injected into things. Give me Gholas, Holtzman shields and no-chambers. This is a great game, it just doesn’t feel Dune enough just now.

Although I guess it is a great simulator of being ground into the Arrakis sand by a greater power you’ll never interact with and never benefit from… so I guess it’s pretty Dune after all.

Dune: Spice Wars is out now in Early Access on PC.

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