The dragon’s the least of it, really. While it’s almost staggering under the weight of ‘wouldn’t it be great if?’ sub-games and features, at its heart Larian’s Divine Divinity fantasy battle spin-off plays like a love letter to the giants of real-time strategy. The campaign map of Total War, the battles of Total Annihilation, the air of silliness of Command & Conquer, the theme of Warcraft… It’s not that it’s shameless, really: it’s just picking and choosing what worked, what people loved, and putting it all together in a slightly strange, rather full-on but highly entertaining and tactical combination that winds up feeling like nothing else. The game seems to be having a whale of a time, and it’s infectious with it – while its humour might incline towards the ‘wacky’ end of the gag spectrum, it’s not grating as are the similarly fantasy-lampooning Majesty/Ardania games.
But while the broad political satire (e.g. elves are pro-medicinal drugs, but the Catholic-analogue undead consider it sinful – so will you legalise or outlaw it? One faction may withdraw their support based on your decision) of the between-battle state management is a bit of a giggle, what’s really standing out to me so far is the intensity of the battles. Sure, you can transform from floating camera into a bloody great dragon, but this is only ever an accompaniment to management of a wide variety of units across large maps with maxi-zoom, doing the rock, paper, scissors thing with a campaign-persistent expanding tech tree, fighting wars of attrition where each side has a sizeable finite number of reinforcements to call upon.
It’s proper strategy, like mama used to make – brutal push and pull, steadily advancing a front line amidst massed death and explosion. Commanding and conquering, yes, but the knowledge that, at some point, your reinforcements will run out, prevents cartoonish squandering. Build points are seized by proximity, even in the midst of pitched battle, so there’s a lot of suddenly dropping a turret or a war factory straight into the middle of things to sustain your push, or suddenly finding that the enemy’s managed to build a mortar right next to all your best stuff. Like Supreme Commander, there’s no sitting back and waiting for anything to happen here – it’s all go, all the time, and my jaw aches something rotten from pulling a Clint Eastwood expression all the while.