Dragons with Jetpacks
Why? I have no idea, but it certainly makes for a catchy hook that causes you to want to learn more about this game from Larian Studios. Perhaps more surprising when you do so is the fact that it's not even the most standout or strange feature of the game.
Trying to categorise Divinity: Dragon Commander is an exercise in futility. Instead it joins a collection of titles that try to combine various different types of gameplay, from XCOM to Space Rangers and the like, with varying degrees of success. The game has a fantasy-steampunk setting and takes place in Rivellon, the same world as games in the rest of the more traditional fantasy aligned Divinity series. Dragons combine with magic, airships, propeller driven airplanes, tanks and jetpacks - technology alien to and more advanced than the other games, which are set later in the world time-line, however a reason for this is given during the course of the story. You play the role of a half-dragon prince, trying to conquer and thus unite a divided kingdom. To do so, you will occupy lands, build up resources, attack foes and command armies while also dealing with issues of governance via important decisions and trying to look after the egos and concerns of your advisors.
The Role playing Side
Much of the game takes place aboard the Raven, your command air-ship with its own dark secret. And it's a stunning place to be - you switch between beautifully animated, rendered (in real time) and musically-scored rooms via a StarCraft 2 style selection bar and can find characters waiting for your interaction in different locations. A bar hosts your generals, a throne room your advisors, the bridge your strategy/campaign map etc.
These interactions aren't just for flavour however. Decisions about governance directly affect both the wider strategy side of things (gold income, popularity with the various races who live on the lands you occupy etc.) and the relationships with the individuals aboard the Raven. As well as these governance decisions (which are resolved via majority decision if you chose to ignore them) there are a multitude of decisions that come up in individual conversations, often of the sort where you are choosing to agree with one general over another in a dispute for example. While these may have less obvious consequences in terms of your campaign, they progress and develop the stories of the characters around you and you will find yourself starting to care about some of the characters and eagerly wanting to see how events turn out. I really enjoyed the latter, helped by the really interesting character writing and excellent voice acting.
I was a little disappointed by some of the governance decisions - I really liked many of the ideas, but several seemed like they had been taken right out of the modern day tabloid press or a daytime TV show and put in the game with minimum translation to the setting, almost just for the sake of it. Why should I, fearsome half-dragon and emperor-to-be, be the one deciding whether breast-feeding in public is acceptable or not? And is discrimination against gender, sexuality or religion etc. even a topic for debate in any country that will be playing Dragon Commander these days? I can't tell if Larian are highlighting problems of the past in these cases or trying for some dark comedy (while ironically forcing you to play only as a male protagonist). Either way, it certainly makes for an unusual and entertaining mini-game.
The Campaign Side
The campaign is run via a Risk-style overview map. It looks, and plays, a lot like a board game. Each turn, countries you occupy generate resources: gold, and research points. You can place buildings on countries you own, which modify the resource generation, generate special cards, or from which you can buy military units. These cards (which can also be given to you by your advisors/generals as a result of your decisions) can be played for various effects, for example to prevent an enemy unit from moving, or to allow you to buy units at a discount that turn. This section of the game is really fun, and there are little touches like artwork on each country depicting how many resources the occupier gains each turn that really gives a nice lovingly-crafted feel to things. When any of your forces encounter an enemy unit on the same 'square', battle ensues... and it's here that the game loses some of its appeal in my eyes.
When battle is joined, you first get to choose who will lead your forces - the 'hands off' choices are either a generic 'army', or at the cost of some gold, one of your generals can lead, who each bring different bonuses to the battle. If you go for one of those options then the battle is resolved automatically based on the forces present on that square - of course, you can play cards to give yourself an advantage as well, for example ones hiring mercenaries to fight on your side. The other option, available once per turn, is more 'hands on', that is, to lead the battle yourself.
The RTS Side
In doing so, you will start the RTS part of the gameplay. All sides (there can be more than two fighting over an area) start at different edges of a map with some forces and your aim is to gain victory over the others. At various locations on the map there are fixed building sites where you can place factories to build more forces, or turrets. Now while forces on the campaign map are bought with gold, additional forces in the RTS map are bought with 'recruits'. Recruits are 'generated' from special recruitment citadel buildings - the more of these that you hold the faster your recruit generation - but there is a limited population of recruits in a country to be earned. Once this limit is reached you can no longer 'generate' recruits, and instead any 'unspent' recruits slowly defect to the commander with the most recruitment citadels. If you think that this gives you an incentive to get a move on you'd be right - RTS battles start at a breakneck pace as all sides rush to consolidate recruitment citadel locations as quickly as possible. The more forces you bring to the start of the battle (determined by your units on the square in the campaign map and the entrenchment level of any defending forces) the more able to you are to consolidate these, so it all ties in quite nicely, but it does limit the types of RTS play-style that are viable - specifically, if you like to turtle or play at a more considered pace you are out of luck - which is a little at odds with the turn based nature of the rest of the game.
But I haven't mentioned the party-piece, which is: at almost any time, you can switch from battlefield commander and into dragon form, at which point you suddenly appear above the battlefield in third-person perspective, with a jetpack strapped to your back. As a dragon you can fly around shooting at/casting spells on things together with a limited amount of army manipulation (generally selecting units in the area around you and telling them to attack/move to a location/enemy). It is kind of cool to move around the battlefield like this, and if you have managed to amass a large army then it's great fun to select them and then fly into battle with them at your heels, where you can rain destruction and pick off particularly vulnerable units etc. There are a few problems - I never felt particularly powerful in dragon form for instance. I can understand that you don't want to be invincible from a balance perspective, but it's just a bit less awe-inspiring than it could be when you are hanging there pew-pewing away with fairly ineffectual bolts of fire. Attacks, abilities, spells etc. as a dragon can be unlocked with the same research points that are used to unlock new units/unit abilities (ie in both cases the tech tree progression occurs on the Raven, not the battlefield), so you can decide whether to spend points on more things for your armies in general, or ones only for use in dragon form. You also have a choice of dragons (made at the start of the game), which unfortunately amounts to the physical one, the magical one, and the bit of both one, which determine which dragon abilities you start off already knowing. It might have been nice if the variety was based more on play styles so perhaps: offensive, defensive and support or something similar. Despite not feeling too powerful, it is possible to tip an otherwise fairly close battle in your favour with judicious use of dragon form. Indeed on several occasions it's possible to turn a battle that's supposedly very stacked against you, but doing so tends to be via taking advantage of poor AI decisions and feels a little cheap.
AI/pathing in general is not up to the standards of a dedicated RTS, so units need quite a lot of careful micromanagement (which you cannot do in dragon form), especially as non-auto-casting unit abilities quite quickly become very powerful and key to battle outcomes. Together with the slightly poor camera experience (it is more or less completely free-form, which while getting around problems like selecting things behind mountains doesn't give as usable an experience in the heat of battle as a more restricted choice might have) and the rush-based nature, it can make for quite a frustrating experience in the RTS sections. There are some annoying consequences too in trying to join up the RTS battles with the overall campaign - surviving original units return to the campaign map, while newly built units do not for example (perhaps understandable given the different resources used to manufacture them).
This campaign tie-in is probably responsible for the balance issues as well. In a traditional RTS it's easier for a developer to balance the forces arrayed so that the game is fun. In Dragon Commander it's all too easy to unknowingly make a bad start to the overall campaign, and only discover some 20+ turns later that you are facing impossible odds, by which time you are heavily invested in the on-going stories and decisions you've made outside of the battles so don't want to start over. The range of power differences is perhaps larger than you'd expect in an RTS, so sometimes battles are very easy, and sometimes they are very hard. This isn't a problem by itself, but it's also difficult to correctly assess how tricky a battle is likely to be.
Ultimately the RTS battles reminded me of the RTS sections in Space Rangers 2 - in that game you can opt to avoid them altogether, but in Dragon Commander I couldn't build overwhelming-enough forces to survive many battles on auto-complete, making them in all but a few cases for me an exercise in something to be endured before I could get back to the fun of the campaign map and ship-side conversations.
Technically, Dragon Commander punches above the weight expected of an independent studio. It's not fair to talk about bugs in a non-retail version, but art style and graphical detail is excellent throughout the game, especially on board the Raven. The audio is also of high quality, especially the music score and voice acting. The battle parts of the game aren't quite as graphically rich as the rest of the game, but the dragon form is particularly well designed and animated, and some of the backgrounds/area designs are very artistic. My i7 950 and HD7870 was able to run the game with every option enabled, including v-sync, at 1080p resolution and it was completely smooth throughout.
In conclusion it's a shame about the flaws, because Larian have made a game with a lot of charm here. Despite being seemingly made up of completely disparate elements, they have skilfully made sure that actions in each part of the game have some bearing on the others, and most of the game feels lovingly crafted and is so fun as to almost forgive the negatives. It doesn't quite hit the mark in all aspects of the gameplay, and it also doesn't seem quite sure of where it lies on the comic-serious scale (the background story cutscenes are narrated in a comedic style worthy of Cary Elwes, together with a Chaplin-esque honky-tonk accompaniment, yet some of the political themes are anything but comic), nonetheless, it remains a decent homage to older games that experimented with new forms of gameplay without being confined to one specific, defined, genre.
Information aboutDivinity: Dragon Commander
Developer: Larian Studios
SP/MP: Single + MP
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2013-08-06
· Publisher: Larian Studios
- Interesting and well-integrated blend of gameplay types
- Lovingly-realised board game-style campaign map
- Excellent NPC characterisation and dialogues
- Interesting choices and consequences
- RTS sections are disappointing
- Poor starts to the campaign create difficulty much later
- Some frivolous governance decisions don't integrate well