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

one hour in Dune: The Spice WarsI felt a twinge of nostalgia for the old Westwood Dune games, when the graphics were fun, the writing cheesy, and things were stylized away from the real gravity of the Frank Herbert books. the original DunesVibrant jewel tones and silly vibes created a playful translation of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation. Dune II it’s widely considered the godfather of modern real-time strategy games, but it was also delightfully weird and had an impressive Frank Klepacki score. 2001 Emperor: Battle for Dune it had some great scenes with Michael Dorn and Mike McShane, elevating its delightfully clunky UI and visuals into a memorable part of early motion video game history.

These games didn’t really delve into the actual ugliness of Dune, as playing into the franchise’s weirdness, especially using the idiosyncrasies of old-school graphics, helped soften Arrakis into a fantasy escapism. spice wars – at least in its current early access state – breaks away from that elegant legacy to create a straightforward 4X real-time strategy game with mixed results.

Generally speaking, Dune is a psychotic space parable filled with divine worms, interstellar drugs, and neo-feudal brutality. His most famous character, Paul Atreides, rises to power as a messianic icon, only to spawn eternities of tyranny. While many (including me) consider Dune a treasured part of his youth, that doesn’t mean Herbert’s work is immune to a higher level of criticism. For starters, Dune is often used as a lazy validation of far-right views, much like the fascist love of Warhammer 40k. With its story centered around a coveted exotic resource, the spice mix, fueling interstellar travel, the world of Dune seems like a perfect fit for a resource mining game. But it also means replicating the same tedious structures and systems that define 4X gaming, making it imperative to literally explore, expand, exploit and exterminate.

Image: Shiro Games/Funcom via Polygon

There is also a lot of orientalism inherent in Dune. Critic Roxana Hadadi noted that the Fremen in the latest film have become generic brown people, divorced from their roots in the MENA region and Islamic culture. “Dune has always been more than the desert, but the first part of Villeneuve can’t see beyond the sand,” she wrote for Vulture. spice wars seems to take a similarly flat approach, though putting people of color (as opposed to mostly white developers) in charge of classification within a predetermined framework wouldn’t be a better solution. For all its importance as a work of science fiction, Dune is ultimately a white man’s story about what he thought 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 strange to see the complexities of its narrative unfold in a genre that makes little ironic use of colonial systems. A 4X Dune game in 2022 that follows a rote formula isn’t all that exciting, especially when it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

spice warsThe main factions are House Atreides, House Harkonnen, Smugglers, and Fremen. While many other Dune games had a bit of narrative preamble or conceit that directly characterized your actions on Arrakis as a service to the Empire, spice wars Get straight to the point: start farming spices or die trying. From time to time he is presented with the affairs of the Landsraad, the congress of the Great Houses where House Atreides thrives, ostensibly the house of “diplomacy” with velvet gloves. 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 example, Civilization the games have scientific, cultural, diplomatic and military victories that depend on the methods you use to achieve certain criteria. civil players who don’t want to fight can use insidious forms of cultural imperialism (music, art, etc.) to achieve a cultural victory. There don’t seem to be any direct parallels with this type of scenario in spice war, but it has an espionage system that could potentially lead to a victory. (I haven’t had a chance to find out.) It seems a bit crude at the moment: each agent can have special traits (like “Psychologist”) but these don’t seem to have a major effect. Neither are the difficulty levels between different espionage operations (such as stealing resources or weakening enemy units). I don’t know what other victory conditions exist besides the standard hegemony victory, or taking control of the entire map, which would ostensibly be a military victory; you can hire nomadic water vendors to spread propaganda for you, but it still rewards you with hegemony.

A wide shot of Arrakis and a new colony in Dune: Spice Wars

Image: Shiro Games/Funcom via Polygon

For my first foray onto Arrakis, I chose the Smugglers, led by Esmar Tuek. The voice acting of some of the units is comically jarring – I recognized the desire to mimic the breathy tones of the Dune II voiceover ma’am, but the slight difficulty of my thopter pilot just doesn’t work. Smuggler skills lean towards subterfuge and black market manipulation, and I ended up ditching them for a more immediately rewarding approach. Honestly, Esmar Tuek isn’t someone I’d pick to lead a major faction – he’s always been somewhat aligned with the Atreides and offers no real sense of friction when he goes up against them. I had a better time with the Fremen (and their fedaykin tank units), and a predictable time with the Atreides (lots of Harkonnen raids and many, many more village rebellions than the Fremen).

Again, it’s minor, but the dubbing and minor grammatical errors (“Fremens” and “things”) are everywhere, including the actual handwritten dialogue in which Baron Harkonnen talks about seeing his troops “wandering before [his] The ornithopters’ autopilot is also flat after a certain point: you have to push them repeatedly to investigate points of interest, and they don’t seem to act when new ones appear over time. information could be edited for readability (especially since trade proposals from other factions are timed tight), and the UI doesn’t clearly display some key coins or resources. It’s also not easy to keep track of the “days” that pass unless you’re monitoring individual units, villages, and process wheels for ongoing goals. (The time bar is set to Dune AG’s annual system calendar, “After Guild”, which is unintentionally difficult to read.) However, the game is in Early Access, and a lot of that could be fixed.

Right now, spice wars offers no real narrative dressing as to why you’re on Arrakis in the first place, perhaps because it assumes you’re from the movies or books and don’t need the exposition. Perhaps Shiro Games plans to add a pop-up intro movie or something similar, to set the tone for the campaigns (even the Dune II intro got a few seconds from the Emperor to establish the Imperial Mandate). From now on, the layman will not immediately understand why the Empire is rampant on the planet – the game has just begun.

It’s also puzzling how the Fremen, an indigenous people with no canon interest in space politics, have to appease their oppressors using the same language and acquisitive attitudes that have taken over their planet. Playing with the Fremen means working within the same colonial design systems as House Atreides and House Harkonnen: being ashamed to pay Imperial taxes and vote in the Landsraad, even with limited capacity, just doesn’t make sense. Not only is this the opposite of immersion, but it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Fremen purpose.

A map view of the Arrakis settlements in Dune: Spice Wars

Image: Shiro Games/Funcom via Polygon

Dune is an endless well of wackiness, and every new project set in its universe has the exciting potential to get weird with the source material. spice wars miss out on all those creative opportunities to explore the most fascinating parts of the Dune world. For every routine performance by an ambitious Great House seeking pizzazz and glory, we are deprived of something new, perhaps a rogue offshoot of the Bene Gesserit, or a final scenario where the Fremen gain powers. insurgent capabilities. It’s not just about re-imagining victory conditions, balancing development (tech) trees, or improving faction characterization – it goes back to the larger, more complicated issue of how the developers have tackled the finer points of Dune.

I’m sure some of these issues can be fixed with patches and DLC, and I hope Shiro continues to dig deeper into the mid and late game. Visually, the cartoonish mid-2000s vibe works: the desert environments and palettes are quite nice, and I’m a fan of the easy zoom/scroll features on the map. It’s always fun to watch a sandstorm (or sandworm) wipe out invaders. But on a broader thematic level, it’s hard to imagine that the final product will be radically different when it leaves early access, and it’s unreasonable to expect spice wars Being too experimental in the conventions of the 4X genre: Most strategy fans are drawn to this game genre for the heady rush of conquest, with all the fights that come with it. (Tell me that you like to lose in civiland I’ll call you a liar.) My biggest problem is that spice wars He doesn’t really seem to understand why it’s a Dune game, or even what makes a Dune setting compelling in the first place.

Who plays 4X games for nuance anyway? I’m here to watch Arrakis burn.

Dune: The Spice Wars It will launch in early access on April 26 on Windows PC. The game was played on a Windows PC using a pre-download code provided by Shiro Games and Funcom. Vox Media has affiliate associations. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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