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A Fremen leader in Dune: Spice Wars

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Dune: Spice Wars doesn’t bring anything new to the Dune table

The strategy game has entered early access, with uneven results

Image: Shiro Games/Funcom

An hour into Dune: Spice Wars, I felt a nostalgic pang for the old Westwood Dune games, when the graphics were fun, the writing was campy, and things were stylized away from the real-world gravity of Frank Herbert’s books. The original Dune’s vibrant jewel tones and awkward vibes made for an amusing translation of the 1984 David Lynch film adaptation. Dune II is widely considered the godfather of modern real-time strategy games, but it was also delightfully weird, and had a banging score by Frank Klepacki. 2001’s Emperor: Battle for Dune had great cutscenes starring Michael Dorn and Mike McShane, which elevated its delightfully gawky UI and visuals into a memorable part of early full-motion video game history.

These games didn’t really dig deep into the real-world ugliness of Dune, because playing up the franchise’s weirdness, especially using the idiosyncrasies of old-school graphics, helped to soften Arrakis into a fantastical escape. Spice Wars — at least in its current early access state — breaks away from this stylish legacy to make an uncomplicated 4X real-time strategy game with uneven results.

Generally speaking, Dune is a psychotic space parable full of god-worms, interstellar drugs, and neo-feudal brutality. Its most famous character, Paul Atreides, rises to power as a messianic icon, only to birth eons of tyranny. While many (including myself) consider Dune a cherished part of their youth, it doesn’t mean Herbert’s work is immune to a higher standard of criticism. For starters, Dune is often used as a lazy validation of alt-right viewpoints, sort of like fascists’ love of Warhammer 40k. With its story set around a coveted exotic resource — the spice melange, which powers interstellar travel — the Dune world seems a natural fit for a resource-mining game. But it also means replicating the same tedious structures and systems that define 4X games, driving the imperative to literally explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.

The leader selection screen in Dune: Spice Wars early access Image: Shiro Games/Funcom via Polygon

There’s also a whole lot of orientalism inherent in Dune. Critic Roxana Hadadi pointed out that the latest film’s Fremen have been flattened into generic brown people, divorced from their roots in MENA and Islamic culture. “Dune has always been about more than just the desert, but Villeneuve’s Part One can’t see past the sand,” she wrote for Vulture. Spice Wars seems to take a similarly flat approach, though it wouldn’t be a better solution to put brown people (as opposed to mostly white developers) in charge of pigeonholing themselves into a predetermined setting. For all its significance as a work of science fiction, Dune is ultimately a white man’s story about what he felt was important at the time — ecological issues, oil fiefdoms, faith, extremism. MENA and Muslim writers have other stories to tell beyond this western framework. Ultimately, Dune has a lot of cultural and historical baggage, and it’s odd to see the finer points of its narrative steamrolled in a genre that unironically uses colonial systems. A 4X Dune game in 2022 that follows a rote formula just isn’t that exciting, especially when it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Spice Wars’ main factions are House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Smugglers, and the Fremen. While many other Dune games had a bit of narrative preamble or conceit that directly characterized your actions on Arrakis as service to the Empire, Spice Wars gets straight down to business: start farming spice, or die trying. Every so often you’re presented with Landsraad business — the congress of Great Houses where House Atreides, ostensibly the house of velvet-gloved “diplomacy,” thrives. The idea is to amass as much Hegemony as possible — 30,000 is the standard mark — while paying the Imperial spice tax, voting on strategic resolutions, and fending off your neighbors.

4X games have fixed win conditions — for instance, Civilization games have scientific, cultural, diplomatic, and military victories that depend on the methods you use to hit certain criteria. Civ players who don’t want to fight can use insidious forms of cultural imperialism (music, art, and so on) to get a culture victory. There don’t seem to be direct parallels to these types of scenarios in Spice Wars, but it does have an espionage system that could potentially lead to a win. (I didn’t have the chance to find out.) It feels a little undercooked right now — each agent can have special traits (like “Psychologist”) but these didn’t seem to have a major effect. Nor did the difficulty levels between different spy operations (like resource theft, or weakening enemy units). I’m not sure what other win conditions there are besides the standard Hegemony victory, or taking over the entire map, which would ostensibly be a military victory; you can hire nomadic water sellers to spread propaganda for you, but that still rewards you with Hegemony.

A wide shot of Arrakis, and a new settlement in Dune: Spice Wars Image: Shiro Games/Funcom via Polygon

For my first foray into Arrakis, I chose the Smugglers, led by Esmar Tuek. The voice acting for some of the units is comically jarring — I recognized the desire to emulate the breathy tones of the Dune II voiceover lady, but my thopter pilot’s slight slurring just doesn’t work. The Smugglers’ abilities skew towards subterfuge and black market manipulation, and I ended up ditching them in search of a more immediately gratifying approach. Esmar Tuek is honestly not someone I’d have picked to head up a major faction — he’s always been somewhat aligned with the Atreides and offers no real sense of friction when pitted against them. I had a better time with the Fremen (and their tanky Fedaykin units), and a predictable time with the Atreides (lots of Harkonnen aggression and many, many more village rebellions than the Fremen).

Again, this is minor, but the voice acting, and small grammatical missteps (“Fremens” and “stuffs”), are all over the place, including some real out-of-pocket written dialogue where Baron Harkonnen talks about seeing your troops “roaming before [his] yard.” Ornithopter autopiloting also flatlines after a certain point — you have to repeatedly nudge them to investigate points of interest, and they don’t seem to act when new ones spawn over time. The informational trade windows could be tweaked for better legibility (especially since trade proposals from other factions are on a tight timer), and the UI doesn’t clearly display some key currencies or resources. It’s also not easy to keep track of “days” passing unless you monitor individual units, villages, and process wheels for ongoing objectives. (The time bar is set to the Dune AG calendar year system — “After Guild” — which is unintuitively difficult to read.) The game is in early access, though, and a lot of this could be patched.

Right now, Spice Wars offers no real narrative dressing tackling why you’re on Arrakis in the first place — possibly because it assumes you’re coming in hot from the films, or books, and don’t need exposition. Perhaps Shiro Games plans to add a contextual intro movie or the like, to set the tone for the campaigns (even Dune II’s intro had a few seconds of the Emperor to establish the imperial mandate). As of now, it won’t be immediately clear to the layperson why the Empire is cracking down on the planet — the game simply starts.

It is also perplexing how the Fremen — an indigenous people who have no canonical interest in space politics — must placate their oppressors using the same language and acquisitive attitudes that have taken hold of their planet. Playing with the Fremen means working within the same colonial design systems as House Atreides and House Harkonnen — grinding to pay Imperial taxes and voting in the Landsraad, even in a limited capacity, just doesn’t make sense. Not only is it the opposite of immersion, but it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of why the Fremen exist.

A map view of settlements on Arrakis in Dune: Spice Wars Image: Shiro Games/Funcom via Polygon

Dune is an infinite well of eccentricities, and every new project set in its universe has the exciting potential to get weird with the source material. Spice Wars misses out on all these creative opportunities to explore the more compelling parts of the Dune world. For every rote portrayal of an ambitious Great House which seeks spice and glory, we’re deprived of something new — perhaps a rogue branch of the Bene Gesserit, or an end-game scenario where the Fremen gain insurrectional abilities. This isn’t just a matter of reimagining win conditions, balancing the development (technology) trees, or improving faction characterization — it goes back to the wider, messier problem of how the developers approached the finer points of Dune.

I’m sure some of these issues can be solved with patches and DLC, and I hope that Shiro will continue to deepen mid- and late-game gameplay. Visually, the mid-00s cartoonish vibe sort of works — the environments and desert palettes are quite lovely, and I’m a fan of the easy zoom/scroll features on the map. It’s always fun to watch invaders get deleted by a sandstorm (or a sandworm). But on a wider thematic level, it’s difficult to imagine that the final product will be drastically different when it leaves early access, and it’s unreasonable to expect Spice Wars to get too experimental within the conventions of the 4X genre — most strategy fans are drawn to these kinds of games for the heady rush of conquest, with all its attendant struggles. (Tell me you enjoy losing at Civ, and I’ll call you a liar.) My biggest issue is that Spice Wars doesn’t really seem to understand why it’s a Dune game, or even what makes a Dune setting compelling in the first place.

Anyway, who plays 4X games for nuance? I’m here to watch Arrakis burn.

Dune: Spice Wars will be released in early access on April 26 on Windows PC. The game was played on Windows PC using a pre-release download code provided by Shiro Games and Funcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.