Dune is the universe that gave rise to the RTS. Dune II may not have been the first to experiment with the gameplay ideas, but it put down the foundation that an entire genre was built from. Several decades later, we return to the crossroad of Dune and strategy gaming and find a well made hybrid of real-time strategy and 4X. With four unique factions and a wealth of easy to learn mechanics, Dune: Spice Wars has something for both newcomers and veterans to the genre.
Faction diversity is strong in Spice Wars, with each of the four factions playing very differently. House Atreides is straight-forward, a natural choice for new players. They excel at group combat and balance offense and economy. The Smugglers have the strongest economy and are well designed for a macro focused player. The Fremen value stealth and asymmetrical combat, making them good for passive players. Lastly, the glorious and esteemed House Harkonen value aggressive play, allowing you to use your military to drive your economy.
An interesting mechanic is Arrakis itself being as much a foe as the enemy factions. Whether it is your units dying in the desert due to a lack of provisions, or sandworms eating your harvesters, the environment is a threat that cannot be ignored. The Fremen faction deals with these threats better than the others, but even they will find themselves cowed by Arrakis’ heat and sand.
Combat is more active than most 4X games but lacks the true micro focus of an RTS. Micro is still important, but macro is the name of the game and ensuring your army has the diversity necessary to defeat the enemy is going to win the day more often than careful maneuvering during conflict.
A surprisingly deep, if not somewhat imbalanced, diplomacy and political system allows all the factions some degree of controlling the politics of the empire. Even the Fremen and Smugglers can spend resources to influence the will of the Emperor and his realm, but House Harkonen and House Atriedes have more connections here due to being officially recognized houses. Each faction can also use spies to add additional depth of strategy to the political side of the game.
The game looks and sounds great. The interface and map is very readable, allowing the complexity of the game to be displayed in a way that is easy to digest while remaining informative. The animations are simple, and the poly counts are low, but the stylized art and focus on Arrakis’ stark beauty more than service the gameplay, theme, and ambience.
Overall, Dune: Spice Wars is a great strategy game that bucks the trend of underwhelming games based on non-game franchises. It finds a nice middle ground between accessibility and complexity that will allow fans of the movies and books to jump in beside fans of the genre and have fun in a genre that is often seen as overly niche.
~~S. W. Jackson~~