We spent ten hours with Shiro Games' upcoming RTS Dune: Spice Wars. Here's what we found out.
Dune: Spice Wars is a real-time strategy with 4x elements coming from the developers of Northgard, Shiro Games. It's not turn-based so if you're coming to the game expecting Civilisation, you're in for a disappointment. You get to build up cities, recruit armies, gather resources and of course fight for the land with other factions. Pretty basic strategy games stuff.
Developer Shiro games spiced things up by adding some interesting mechanics in the likes of politics and spying but does this ever gel together in this preview build of Dune: Spice Wars and is there something different about this strategy that we haven't seen before? Read on to find out.
Factions, Leaders and Councillors
Before starting, you get to choose one of four available playable factions who are battling for precious Spice on the sand planet of Arrakis - House Atreides, House Harkonen, Fremen and The Smugglers - all with their unique ideologies, faction bonuses, leaders and units. At least that's how it should work on paper.
Once you choose your preferred faction, you also get to pick two out of the four Councillors, who have additional bonuses that you can use to strengthen your faction even further or mitigate some of the weaknesses since every faction will also have at least one negative trait.
The Atreides have iconic characters such as Lady Jessica, best for political influence and Gurney Halleck who should be your pick if you're going for a strong military. Harkonnens have spy master Piter de Vries while Chani is one of the available characters of the Fremen faction.
In the preview build that I got to play there wasn't much story, basically, my build had a single-player mode where I got to choose one of the four playable factions. I spent a total of ten hours with the game, playing as House Atreides, House Harkonen and The Fremen to see if there are any differences between the factions, their units and special bonuses and whether these actually can change the way you play.
The preview build allowed access to all units that the developers revealed so far. In all three playthroughs, I established formidable armies and the largest economy, conquered cities and expanded my territory aggressively. I spied on the enemy and tried to use every mechanic that the game has to offer.
Spice, resources, economy and building
Dune: Spice Wars is quite an easy strategy game, since I was able to build a large army and expand fairly quickly. I was also fully successful in spying on my opponents and building the economy. It took me a couple of hours to pretty much max out some of the important resources like Manpower, and have a steady income of cash and Spice.
Speaking about resource management, once I learned how to build sustainable economic growth, the game became a cakewalk. Basically, I controlled several Spice fields, and constructed buildings to boost the Spice harvesting to the point where I was selling most of it to Choam in return for Solari, the official currency on Arrakis.
That seems to be the resource management loop in Dune: Spice Wars. Harvest as much as Spice you can, sell it and spend that money to build armies and buildings within cities that will help you save even more Solari and other precious materials.
The amount of Spice that you have to pay for your presence on Arakkis is negligible and will never cause you problems unless you seriously plan your moves wrong and end up spending money where you shouldn't be spending it.
I found that the best strategy is to generate as much as Plascrete and Solari as possible since those are the most important resources early in the game and then when you have enough of these, you can start constructing buildings that produce other resources like Fuel Cells which are needed for Orinhocopters and Harvesters.
But I never really felt like I need five or six Orinhocopters. Basically, you can use these to explore the map and points of interest that will reward you with a small number of materials. Two did the job for me fairly quickly since the map wasn't that big.
As for Harvesters, everything above three units with four members of vehicle operating staff will make you a Spice lord.
You should also keep an eye on the Water and Authority, which are important if you're looking for aggressive expansion since both are needed when capturing regions. Your base will passively generate Authority and you can speed up the process by building relations with people on Arrakis and using your Agents.
Water is easy to get since it only takes one cheap building in each city to start generating this precious substance. Keep an eye on the city wind level since a higher wind level means more water, at least until you start constructing Water Extractors.
A negative Water stock will lead to unrest among your villages and can result in a full rebellion.
The AI, conflicts and filthy rebels
Regarding, the AI factions and whether they pose any real threat, honestly, other than a bunch of failed siege attempts and one or two successful (but very short) captures, the AI factions did not cause me problems.
As soon as your cities are armed with militia units and missile launchers, most of the attempted takeovers will end up badly for them and the AI doesn't seem to be smart enough to understand that they are wasting their army and resources attempting to take your well-guarded strongholds.
Sometimes, they will send an army big enough to take your city despite the strong defences but while they're busy dealing with the local town militia and then spending a good two or three minutes capturing the city, you can send additional troops to the area and get the job done.
Another minor threat are the local rebel units which randomly spawn and start pillaging, reducing the production by 50 per cent. Despite their numbers, the rebel units are weak and you'll be able to quell the uprising with a couple of units of your own, without dropping a sweat.
Arrakis and Sandworms
To be honest, I was more annoyed by the Sandworms and the dangers of the Arrakis itself than the AI. Sandworms will often spawn randomly on the map and devour everything in their path. Your Harvesters are Sandworms' favourite food but you can eliminate the threat with the Auto redeploy option, which can be toggled on and off for each Harvester. This basically sends a Carryall to redeploy your harvester to safety as soon as the ground starts shaking.
Arrakis being deadly should not come as a surprise if you read the novels or have seen the films. Sandstorms, cold and other hazards will often mean death for humans who find themselves in the open during such moments so try to avoid these by planning your moves accordingly.
Don't send your army on a long march outside of your borders without carefully checking the route they will be taking. It can be a recipe for disaster. Once your units are out of stamina, they'll start losing health and eventually drop dead.
Travelling across Arakis can be a pain at first since your units will have to walk massive distances until you build a vast network of Airfields which will then allow you to deploy your units much faster to the areas in need.
I've noticed that Fremen units are not affected by the harsh conditions of Arrakis as others, which is understandable, the desert is their home after all.
Having a decent military is important in Dune: Spice Wars since your enemies will come for your Spice mines on a regular basis. The game offers a fair variety of units, from long-range support scouts called Rangers to close combat, heavy armour elites named The Wardens, unique to House Atreides.
I found that the differences between units from House Atrides and House Harkonene are minimal. Harkonen's House Guards are pretty much a carbon copy of The Wardens, they even rock the same shields. Both houses also have access to heavy weapon units and swordsmen but the Harkonens get another melee unit named Vanguards instead of long-range troops, Rangers.
The lack of variety in the military units does come as a big disappointment. Yes, I liked some units better than others but overall, the feeling I got was that there's no true and meaningful difference between the two Houses that would force you to adapt your strategy or build on the strengths of these differences.
House Harkonen's units are cheaper and more expendable than the expensive army of House Atrides but other than that, there isn't much to separate them, sadly.
As for the other two factions, the Fremen seem to have the most unique army focusing on stealth but as soon as you start playing you'll notice that there isn't really anything that separates them from the rest of the pack.
On paper, the units have differences but it's really more of the same, which is a darn shame. One cool ability I must mention is the Sandworm summon, which is exclusive for Fremen. This allows you to tactically attract Sandworms who can devour the opponent's army.
Just like in real life, you can use your great political standing and army strength to make your opponents think twice before attacking you, unless you're dealing with Harkonnens, those guys will keep throwing units at you no matter how big your Landsraad Standing is.
Landsraad Standing is your political power within the Landsraad, where all major decisions are made. You and other factions on Arakkis get to vote on different policies that introduce bonuses or penalties. For example, army regulations can reduce the power of units or increase the cost of army upkeep for all factions or a single targeted faction.
This way, you can use your Influence points in the Landsraad to vote in your favour or against your biggest rivals. Regulations can be extremely helpful if you're preparing to invade - use your political power to vote for cheaper units and on top of that, make it tougher for the faction you're invading by voting for regulations that will reduce the power of their army.
The Landsraad voting is one of the mechanics I actually liked since it can impact the gameplay in a big way, especially if you're carefully planning your strategy against a certain faction.
Research and development
Tech research tree in Dune: Spice Wars has four additional subtrees, one for every area of power - economy, military, politics and logistics. As expected, researching tech within each tree is crucial for the development and power of your faction on Arrakis.
To speed up the research you need to generate Knowledge points by constructing certain buildings like Research Hub in your cities or Research Center in your main base.
Speaking about the Main Base, as you reach a higher Hegemony threshold, new upgrade slots will appear in the base, allowing you to greatly increase the resource gathering or the power of your army, among other things.
You increase the Hegemony score of your faction by controlling regions, defeating enemies, having a big say in Landsraad and paying Spice tax.
It's worth mentioning again that this was a preview build and that many management aspects of the game are not properly balanced. I expect things to change in the final release, which, in my opinion, should be more punishing and challenging.
On the technical side of things
For a preview build, I was surprised by how polished the game is. Basically, I encountered one major bug which duplicated the Warden units to the point where the game was practically unplayable due to the low frame rate.
I reported this issue to the dev team who released a patch to fix the bug in a speedy manner, which deserves every bit of praise.
As for the overall frame rate, it's a preview build so it would be a bit unfair to talk about it since it's expected that some frame rate drops and hiccups appear here and there. This was most notable when zooming in to big battles with many special effects flying around.
I played on PC, with Radeon 6800, Ryzen 3600 and 16 GB of RAM.
This preview build of Dune: Spice Wars did its job of keeping me interested in the final release of the game. I might not have enjoyed every second of it but there's a fun little strategy game here that Dune fans in particular might like.
I feel like the success of Dune: Spice Wars will depend on how much additional content will be there in the final game and proper balancing since I was able to power up quicker than I anticipated.
After the initial honeymoon period where I enjoyed every minute of the game, I've started to realise that there's no proper challenge on the planet of Arrakis for my army. Managing my troops and resources was too easy, while the AI didn't seem to care much about my aggressive expansion.
I sincerely hope that the final release will offer much more, otherwise, Dune: Spice Wars may bore and disappoint strategy fans who are expecting big things from Shiro Games' next title.
Dune: Spice Wars is entering Early Access on April 26, 2022.
A massive thank you to Renaissance PR for providing a preview key.