This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.
Dune: Spice Wars, is the latest title from Shiro Games, the team behind RTS sweetheart, Northgard. A mix of RTS and 4X elements bring Dune into the 2020s. Players coming in may see the words “early access” and assume they’re in for an unbalanced, unfinished mess, a valid concern in any situation. While some aspects still need work, Shiro comes out of the gate with a strong showing and a promising glimpse of the things to come.
At first glance, Dune: Spice Wars, looks like Northgard with a desert reskin and the addition of sandworms. The player’s territory is hex-based and can be scouted with Ornithopters that can’t be targeted and can be set to auto-scout. This expedites scouting, alleviating players from having to babysit their scouting units, a normal annoyance in RTS. Players will expand across Arrakis either by combat or annex. Unlike Northgard, combat doesn’t feel good at the moment. Winning a settlement in a combat scenario feels more like a numbers game in most situations and less about the units you are pitting against the enemy. Units across the factions all have a distinct look but all feel the same when it comes to combat. Players can build cannons and use abilities, called Operations, to buff their units and nerf enemy units. These can help shift battles, but again it just feels like a numbers game and less like winning a battle due to skill.
The four playable factions all come with unique abilities. The standout for me being the Fremen’s ability to ride the sandworms. This is honestly just to make up for the fact that they don’t have access to the airfields, which serve as the fast travel for the other three factions, but it’s fun to see the creative way the developer worked around the differences. Other differences include different levels of access to the council and information across the game. For example, the Harkonnen always know the influence flows of all factions, whereas the other factions would need to use agents to gather that information).
On Arrakis, resource management is key. One wrong choice and a deficit can leave you trying to play catch up the rest of the game. Resources are mainly gained by building structures in settlements. The most important resource of all, Spice, will drive your expansion as you work to pay your rising Imperial Spice Tax. Adding additional control, players can decide how much Spice they’ll stockpile for taxes and how much they’ll sell in the markets to build up some cash (Solari). This is a great addition that I wish was available for other resources, but at least players can trade resources with other teams, who all put different values on each resource.
There are enough diplomatic systems in Spice Wars to shake a stick at. When selecting one of the four factions, players will also choose two councilors that give additional buffs for their build. It’s fun to mix-and-match these and try to find the perfect blend. A personal favorite of mine was the ability to impose any treaty on any faction for just fifty influence; a great ability if things are getting a little hot and you need an short term ally.
Influence also works its way into council votes, with recurring resolutions that all teams vote on. The more influence you hold, the more votes you get, the easier it is for you to sway the vote on certain resolutions. These give players opportunities to nerf enemies for a short amount of time or gain an advantage in resources or combat.
For more long-term upgrades, there are four skill trees, known as developments. Each tree is catered to a specific faction, but players can mix and match the upgrades they want, which can also be sped up by collecting knowledge. This adds to the variety already presented by your choice of councilors. You can focus on powering up your already buffed stats and just be a powerhouse. You can also go the other way and try to even out your weaknesses. There will be optimized builds (they’re already on the internet, I’m sure) , but I never felt like diving down one skill tree left me at a disadvantage.
Adding more layers is the espionage system and the ability to hire agents (read spies) to infiltrate the different factions and organizations. Each agent comes with their own special ability, which can help determine the best place for them. With infiltration, players gain intel which can be used to complete operations and gain other resources. Infiltrating an enemy faction will give you all the information you need to know about an opposing team. What are their combat capabilities? Are they around another faction? Are they running a surplus or deficit? The answers to these will help you decide the best course of action when it comes to planning out your best route to victory. Just like Northgard, there are multiple paths to victory. These add to the already established variety.
In this early build of the game, only single player campaigns are available, with plans to add a story campaign, multiplayer, and rebalance factions sometime in the future. Love or hate roadmaps, Shiro has proved their games have legs down the road, Northgard just received its latest update back in October, over five years after release.
Early access leaves a bad taste in some players’ mouths. There are plenty of horror stories to be had. In its current state, Dune: Spice Wars is not one of those stories. Players coming in looking for a combat heavy experience or wanting to play with friends may be disappointed. Those looking for something a little closer to a 4X experience will find much more to like here. It might be a while until Shiro reaches 1.0, but this early access feels just like the tip of the iceberg for what Spice Wars could offer.