A much anticipated new entry into the highly acclaimed Divinity series takes the franchise in a much different direction. Stepping away from the isometric RPG genre or the third-person action-RPG setting of Divinity II, Larian Studios thrusts the franchise into a real-time strategy game with lots of innovations. The real question is whether Dragon Commander soars or if all of these changes have slain the mighty dragon.
30 Second Review
(+) Awesome strategic elements in the planning and battle phases
(+) Addictive “one more turn” allure
(+) You can summon a dragon with a jetpack; need I say more?
(-) A few more high-level unit types would have been nice
(-) Politics system completely breaks immersion and detracted from my overall experience
A Dragon’s Tale
I hate to draw comparisons, but Divinity seems to have taken a page from Star Wars by hearkening its lore back to a prequel where more advanced technology reigns. The sources, and ultimate demise, of Dragon Commander’s technology are cloaked in a bit more mystery to preserve the story elements of the game. You take the role of the fallen emperor’s son, born out of wedlock and now vying for his rightful position on the throne. It would seem that your siblings are all warring for the same place on the throne and have made “deals with the devil” that have brought all of this steampunk technology into the fantasy setting.
Aboard your command vessel, The Raven, you will have access to many advisors and generals, counselors from each of the races and the technological enhancements of the Imps at your disposal. Quarreling representatives will present you with many issues that need resolving, which will impact your popularity and resources in many aspects. The strategic map allows you to build units and structures in a familiar Risk or Civilization fashion. Any time those units on the strategic map clash, the real fun begins as a real-time battle decides the outcome and your jetpack-toting dragon is at your disposal. Other than the aforementioned dragon, all of the factions have the same units at their disposal, narrowing the rock-paper-scissors mechanics of the battles and allowing for exploration as to how to best utilize your dragon. My interpretation of the battles would be a Starcraft II battle where everyone plays Protoss and where build structures are captured rather than built, and the player has a wicked and powerful flying, fire breathing Zeratul at his or her disposal.
Tipping the Scales in Combat
As mentioned, there are two elements of combat in Divinity: Dragon Commander. One part is the strategic map where you build and move your units, and the other is the RTS battleground where confrontations are decided. As an alternative to manually playing these battles, you can hand them off to one of your generals in exchange for some gold. Each general has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and with the ability to summon your dragon in only one battle per turn, this option is a quite viable . The units you have in a particular region will carry over into the RTS battles, but you’ll also be able to build additional troops from predetermined structure locations on the battle map. Simplifying resource management, you need only control recruitment structures on the map to be able to build more units; the more structures you control, the more units you can recruit. There are structure locations for building barracks to recruit your different unit types, shipyards for naval unit building and defense structure locations, where turrets can be placed. All of these structures have their tactical advantages, like rolling your ground troops into a base and popping turrets up there to help your offense.
Being the half-dragon son of a former emperor has its benefits on the battlefield. At any point after an initial counter runs out you have the ability to summon your dragon, for a cost of 20 recruits, and then the real fun begins. Your dragon type is chosen at the beginning of the campaign or multiplayer match from three types. When summoned you have a variety of abilities to aid your dragon and many more to be unlocked through progression and research. Some are passive, like healing and offensive buffs, while many are activated during combat, providing higher buffs or deadly attacks. Using a jetpack to quickly traverse the battlefield and provide support for your troops can easily be the tipping point of any confrontation while not leaving you feeling overpowered. The dragons are easily countered with the right units and upgrades, and the enemy AI is well aware of this. Your dragon is best used as an aid, not a substitute, for the rest of your units in battle.
Last but not least, there is a bit of a card game mixed in with the other elements. You start with a random hand of cards that can be played during the strategic map phase of the game. These cards may aid your production or sabotage your enemy’s territories. You will also find cards that temporarily unlock dragon powers or unit building for 1 turn or battle. More valuable cards can be the ones that will grant you extra units on the battlefield or give extra damage or reduced production costs for a specific unit type. These can all be played prior to battle or saved for a more crucial point. Special buildings will increase the number of cards dropped, but story points and victories in battle will also add cards to your hand. The cards are most definitely valuable when used wisely in the campaign, but the importance of cards in co-op or multiplayer matches cannot be overstated.
Dragon Politics, Where Right Wing and Left Wing Meet
One of the most controversial, and immersion breaking, elements can be the political system. During the planning and research phases of your game turns aboard the command ship, you will have the ability to talk to your generals and the advisors for each of the game’s races. Here is where the game broke down for me, for two reasons. First, it seemed more often than not the squabbling of your generals and counselors simply pulled you away from the more strategic elements of the game. Playing mediator to what constantly felt like teenage drama and the inability to get along felt more like I was playing dean of a high school than a would-be emperor. The second reason was that I didn’t like the real-world issues transferred into the game. They simply seemed to detract from the lore by failing to fit within the fantasy elements and setting of the game. I understand that the developers were trying to convey the difficult decisions associated with being a ruler, but pulling what seemed to be every hot-button topic from the last few years just came across as a little too forced and heavy handed. Sure, there were attempts at infusing humor and melding the issues with the fantasy races and characters, but it simply didn’t work for me. Some of the issues were clever and could affect the way things played out on the battlefield, but many of them, like the sexual preferences of one of my generals seemed to have very little relevance. The intent seemed to be illustrating to the player that less moral choices, like ignoring how your soldiers mistreated peasant women, could have beneficial short-term effects for a player willing to employ dictator-like tactics. The implementation most definitely made me very uncomfortable, but rather than make me carefully calculate my decisions, it really made me wonder why I was toiling with them or why they had been included. I also found some of the decisions were misleading and seemed to be referenced as something completely different from what I remembered when seen on my summary screens. Had this system contained less real-world issues, I would have had a much different outlook on the game as a whole.
Worth noting are the interesting complexities associated with taking a wife. At a set point in the game you are told you must marry and are presented with a suitor from each of the races, minus the Imps. All of these princesses have interesting and unique personalities, add their own issues that require attention and can put a very interesting spin on the direction of the story and character development of your would-be emperor.
Great Balls of Fire
The strategic elements and battles of the game are the perfect marriage of board game elements fought out with RTS battles. Having those special cards to play and the use of a dragon during said battles just made the game addicting and enjoyable. The RTS battles were a fantastic merger of card use prior to battle and unit management within battles. Of course, you can’t forget having the upper hand of a dragon on your side. Coordinating attacks between your units and your dragon provided a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t received in a strategy game in ages. Still, I wasn’t able to shake the less palatable flavor of the political system. I am the type of person that enjoys gaming for its escapism. I can’t help but wonder if social media and the all-too-familiar hot button socio-political arguments that play out over our Facebook and Twitter feeds only seemed to hurt the implementation of the political system. Would this mechanic have been as ill-received, say, 5 years ago? I can get on board with contending for the throne with a half-dragon, ill-conceived heir to the throne. Settling gay marriage, marijuana legalization, abortion or euthanasia issues are not things I want spilling into the games in which I choose to invest my time; it just pulls me out of them–like, for instance, a poorly-disguised gun control issue stemming from a criminal who used a magic-imbued sword to go on a killing spree. Really?
Co-op and multiplayer functionality of the game were brilliant. I could easily see revisiting skirmishes in single player or taking to the internet for co-op and competitive play. The AI was amazing at countering my tactics, making the campaign as much fun as competing against human players. As much as I was enjoying the strategic battles beforehand, having the benefit of a game session with one of the developers ignited a desire to delve deeper into the strategy mechanics and rock-paper-scissors counter-offensive system of the game.
There is definitely a lot to like within Dragon Commander, and for many it seems the good outweighs the bad. For my own tastes, the victories and adrenaline rushes of the strategic map and RTS battles were not enough to cleanse the discomfort and distraction I felt while managing the squabbling counselors and generals. If those portions won’t bother you, then I’d say give Divinity: Dragon Commander a chance; its launch price of $39.99 is definitely reasonable and would provide hours of enjoyment. If your gaming tastes are similar to mine, though, then you may understand why I’ve given Divinity: Dragon Commander only 6.5 fireballs out of ten.