Truth be told, fantasy thematics and real-time strategic gameplay aren’t intertwined nearly as often as they should be. The Warcraft franchise set the bar high enough, with years down the line RTS games tend more toward historic backdrops and vaguely realistic science fiction alternatives rather than pitting dwarf against elf against the ever-frustrating humans. Dragon Commander, the latest entry in Larian Studios‘ Divinity series of games, is not afraid to set forth into the realm of fantastic strategy, and in doing so picks up several other game formats along the way.
They’re also not afraid to strap a jet pack to a dragon. So they definitely have that going for them.
Divinity: Dragon Commander serves as a prequel to the top-down hack-and-slash titles that make up the rest of the Divinity series. Fantasy and steampunk collide in an incredible world populated by hardy dwarves, arrogant reptilians, haughty elves, devout undead, a fusion of gnomish and goblin stereotypes referred to as imps. The player is thrust into the shoes (and/or claws) of the recently-assassinated emperor’s sole respectable heir. Bastard child of the land’s greatest warlord and a dragon in human guise, the newly appointed commander of the air fortress Raven is capable of transforming into a dragon at will when aiding his troops on the battlefield.
And, in case you forgot, he has a jet pack!
Divinity: Dragon Commander has a lot of things going on all at once. The core gameplay is that of a real-time-strategy game, as RTS skirmishes are the main attraction in single-player and multiplayer. Success on the battlefield spills over into the corralling of your cabinet and your reputation among the peoples of the world, which in turn affects the battles fought by yourself or left to the judgement of the generals serving you. Planning where to strike and what regions to subjugate takes the form of a board game played on the overworld map, with units of troops represented by small wooden figures you manually move in a turn based system to determine whether real-time battles are to take place. Further complicating battles are a number of different cards, which are placed by both you and your opponent to affect one another’s regions, establish additional combat support, or open access to combat abilities you have yet to research. Cabinet representatives demand your attention on votes affecting the populous and their representatives’ opinions of you, which in turn affects cards received and advantages when acting in lands held by a particular race. Separate tech trees allow you to enhance either your own powers in dragon form or the capabilities of your soldiers operating on land, at sea, and in the air. If all that weren’t enough, they threw some princesses in there to court as icing on the cake.
The massive amount of things going on in Dragon Commander makes the game not unlike an onion. Layer upon layer of gameplay come together in an implausible whole that tastes pretty good if you’re into it. However, like an onion, Dragon Commander doesn’t offer a flavor that appeals to everyone, especially raw. Those looking for a more straightforward experience are liable to cry.
That’s not to say the game has a steep learning curve. Far from it, actually. Divinity: Dragon Commander features a robust tutorial segment that goes through all the aspects of the core RTS feature and even allows you to muck around against minimal resistance to get a feel for the commands. The tutorial also repeats itself during your first battle in the campaign mode. The videos are entirely optional viewing, mind you, so the second go isn’t constantly interrupting your progress should you do the tutorial ahead of time, but having a pile of translucent notifications suddenly bombard you while you’re trying to stock transports and tell your troops where to go is disconcerting the first time.
Interactions aboard your mothership, The Raven, feature similar hint boxes early on that explain the mechanical function of your various shipmates in the midst of their expositionary ramblings. The storytelling is surprisingly rich for an RTS title, lending itself to long-windedness on several characters’ parts early on to bring the emperor-to-be up to speed. This gives way to shorter, more digestible bits of story progress once things truly get under-way and everyone of import is aboard the ship, making an extra bit of listening a small price to pay for progress.
Listening is quite worthwhile, as every character is fully voice acted and well-written. Distinct and memorable personalities surround you whether you prefer dealing with the mundanities of the civilian council, chatting up your motley crew of warlords, or keeping to your aged advisors, Maxos and Grumio. The variety of bodily animations assigned to each character seem a bit stilted from time to time, but the facial animations are lovingly detailed and fairly well-synced to the voices they represent. A few of the vocal choices feel a bit off for their characters, but even those performances maintain a consistency that makes this forgiveable.
Alas, the attention to graphical detail inherent to interactions aboard your ship seems to have come at the cost of the visuals in RTS mode. The landscapes where battles take place are all unique, frequently expansive and reflect their overworld map counterparts rather nicely, but lack any particularly arresting features. The models used for the troops themselves are fairly lackluster and are pretty much identical to the simple wooden figures representing them on the map board. All the troop types are modeled differently enough that they’re easy to tell apart, but that distinction is difficult to make after reaching a certain altitude with the camera or as a dragon and the indicator icons unique to each troop type aren’t much easier to see.
When it comes to gameplay, the RTS mode is a bit more impressive, or at least on par with other titles in the genre. A robust and extensive list of hotkeys are available to maximize actions per minute for die-hards and try-hards alike. Indicators of the hotkeys for unit types during construction and different building types are prominently displayed on their respective menus for those just learning or prone to forgetfulness. Construction is limited to set foundations you must first secure with troops of your own, but this makes for clearer objectives and less hoping your crazy, untried strategy and layout will actually work. Armchair commanders can sit back and let the game roll through battles for them by assigning decisions to one of the generals in your service or the soldiers’ basic AI themselves. A bar over the preparation screen for each battle weighs the likely outcome of that battle and adjusts as you assign different commanders or throw down some cards to sway fate in your favor.
Instead of commanding from the sidelines, if you decide to run and fight for yourself, thus morphing into dragon during a battle puts you in a role of simultaneous command and air support. Additional powers are assigned to the number keys in a fashion similar to an MMORPG, with more powers available as you research and unlock them. Similar research garners new unit types for production and grants them boons such as extended visual range and boosted durability. Commanding troops as a dragon is easier than expected and very well mapped to more hotkeys, though your dragon form is much better looking than anything he’s healing or burning to a crisp. Three different dragons are available from the start, bearing stats that are balanced, attack and brute force-oriented, or magically inclined with a dash of support depending on your favored play style. Each comes with different units unlocked from the get-go to better tailor an army to that dragon’s strengths.
Did I mention the jet pack? The one the dragon is wearing?
Planning these battles and acquiring neutral territory is done via a world-encompassing map that resembles a board game. Troop types are produced at structures similar to their strategy-phase counterparts and are limited to certain numbers of moves from region to region. When units from two warring factions end up in the same place, the fight is on, and the aforementioned choice of hands-on battle versus letting the computer do the heavy lifting is presented for each conflict. Hypothetically, a commander could get through the game without ever fighting themselves, but assigning people to lead your troops costs gold that is much easier to obtain when battling on your own.
If all of this seems like quite the jumble, well… it is. A lot of disparate elements come together to form Divinity: Dragon Commander, and while it’s all fairly functional, it feels at times like the game is suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Certain aspects of gameplay feature a degree of automation to lighten the mental and temporal burden on the player, but some of the aspects that could really use an option for autopilot lack as much. The campaign map in particular would have been much easier to deal with had their been a button to consult the computer for optimal manoeuvres and unit production, rather than having to futz with it alone and wait for the AI opponent to stop getting cards that put you at a disadvantage from the very start.
Drawbacks and the need for intensive multitasking aside, Larian Studios has ensured the game’s longevity through avenues for user created content and multiplayer options. Dragon Commander’s multiplayer offerings include co-op campaign play in addition to the requisite battle mode, and players can create their own campaign settings to traverse rather than relying on the story campaign and a few runs with different dragons on different difficulties.
Some aspects of Divinity: Dragon Commander suffer from Larian’s over-ambition. Any of the elements would do well in a combination of two or three, sacrificing just a bit of content for polish in other areas of presentation. Dragon Commander tries to be more than a little bit of everything, and in the end dulls some of the gleaming potential the game’s many layers have on their own. However, the multi-tiered assault on the senses and brain meats of the player make for an experience that’s more immersive than a lot of other modern game offerings and really makes you feel like you’re in the thick of things. Check out Divinity: Dragon Commander if you’re willing to lose yourself in an off-beat fantasy world for a bit and can forgive a game that ends up being okay at a lot of things rather than polishing a small handful of features.
Or if you can even begin to fathom how cool it is to be a dragon with a jet pack.
Divinity: Dragon Commander gets a 7.5 out of 10. Keep an eye out for it on August 6, 2013.