Developers: Larian Studios
Publishers: Larian Studios
Divinity: Dragon Commander is something a bit special. It's a game in which you must expand your empire across a tabletop map in the manner of Total War; wage pitched battles against enemy forces in real-time strategic style and vie for control of a battlefield's resources and manpower; keep your diverse array of diplomatic envoys happy through careful policy-making; and bring down the sky as a magical, jetpack-powered dragon.
It's utterly bonkers, and that's why I love it.
Larian's decision to become more fully independent and publish their own games has meant that the studio don't have to answer to anyone except themselves and their community. Unfettered by suits who know nothing of development, Larian have delivered a wildly ambitious game in which you can see the eager machinations of the development roundtable.
'Let's make a turn-based table top game!'
'Yes, but not everyone likes turn-based, so let's add in real-time strategic battle with an option for generals to run things if players so choose.'
'Yes, but we definitely need to have card decks and strategic powers.'
'Ok, but we should have some grand decisions to make too, after all people's lives don't just come to a standstill because of political change and war!'
'What about dragons? We should definitely have dragons.'
'What if the dragons had jetpacks?'
'What if you are the dragon and can play the game like Panzer Dragoon if you want to?'
'What if you were a jetpack-toting dragon emperor who needed to unite a whole bunch of disparate races under your banner through political and military means?'
And thus Dragon Commander was born. At least, that's how I imagine it went.
The game tells the story of a half-dragon, half-human bastard son of a king who'd slipped into his dotage, lost his mind, and thrown his empire into disarray. Now the former king is dead, his offspring are all vying for control of the throne, and it's up to you to unite the people's of the land under your banner, by force if you must. You're not alone is this quest, though, with your father's old friend, a powerful wizard named Maxos, there to help you along, and a compliment of generals and diplomats who'll set up camp on your command ship, the Raven. The command ship is the hub of the game, a series of screens that'll prove familiar to anyone who played a space sim in the 80s or 90s, allowing you to move between your war room and the various other chambers housing people of interest.
Your war room onboard the Raven is where the straightforward strategic gameplay unfolds. Territories spread out before you on a world map, much like the Total War games. Each faction on the map has a capital, and units can be picked up and plopped down with an easily accessible drag and drop system as you plan your turn. Once you've made the moves you want to, and right-clicked on territories to build what you want to build, the turn ends and your enemies' machinations come to the fore.
This tabletop element doesn't come anywhere near to providing the depth afforded to Total War players or Paradox Interactive fans, but territories can be given buildings to boost unit production or financial multipliers or war factories to create production lines. Moreover, each player has a deck of cards, some of which are applicable to the turn-based screen and these aforementioned buildings, others of which come into play when forces collide.
Ah yes, battles. Move your pieces into enemy territory or vice versa and a conflict shall arise. You can opt to have the army look after itself, or allow one of your generals to take the reins, or march your forces into battle in person. Only you're not going to march, you know, because you're a dragon.
Battles are predicated on a recruitment system. There's only ever a finite number of recruits in a given area, and everything from creating tanks to building turrets to transforming into your leathery, flying alter-ego costs recruits. In terms of building construction, you can only do so atop certain nodes with certain structures, so the battles tend to rage around these capture points. Lay waste to your enemy's recruitment centre and you'll deal them a huge blow. From a strategic standpoint the game isn't enormously deep, it must be said, particularly not at the start. But as you upgrade certain units to suit your style of play, it's possible to have lengthy skirmishes that can prove very challenging indeed. Online, some matches we've played have lasted for over an hour.
The big difference, however, between Dragon Commander and your usual RTS affair is that you can take direct control of a ridiculously-powered dragon for a jetpack joyride. They're strong, dominating creatures, but very well balanced indeed, and though their offensive capabilities are not to be sniffed at, the dragons are rather susceptible to damage. You can transform at any given moment provided you have enough recruits, but it's worth using dragons in short bursts and manually transforming back when you can because if you find yourself shot out of the sky, you'll have to wait a while before you can dragonify once again.
It's a bit fiddly at first, especially when it comes to getting used to trying to usher your troops where you want them to be and obliterating Hunter platoons with fiery death from your dragon's maw, but eventually things settle down. The AI can be a little inconsistent, and offline battles rather tend towards great big rolling hordes of units rather than especially tactical approaches, but online against human opponents, some of the matches can be truly epic, particularly when you start incorporating naval units with long range weapons into proceedings.
Back in campaign mode, however, and onboard the Raven, there's one final large chunk of gameplay yet to deal with: the art of ruling. You're crowned Emperor rather swiftly, and so the remainder of the game deals with balancing the socio-political requests of the diplomatic envoys of the game's races. Each diplomat has his or her idiosyncrasies and moral codes, so whatever decision you decide to make at any given time, you'll almost certainly please one faction, but it might come at the expense of pissing off a few others.
There are boons to be had from wooing certain races, of course. A favourable political standing in a region can lead to additional troops in battle, more gold for the taking when a turn ends, not to mention a handful of passive bonuses. But one must take care so as not to let one's political standing with other races deteriorate too much. Before you make any decision, be it on gay marriage or forced conscription or banking regulations, you'll be able to hit people up for their opinions. So it is that the fundamentalist Undead envoy will almost certainly always disagree with the environmentally-friendly, liberal Elves and the pro-science Imps. The Dwarves will always look towards economic interest above all else, the with Lizards proving to be relatively libertarian and highly in favour of logic and reason.
It's a daring move by Larian to present players with such topical issues, and very often the right answer for you might well prove tactically unsound. The decisions all have a bearing on what happens on the battlefield, but more often than not, we found ourselves deliberating hard over these weighty topics. It's here, as well as in the upgrades you can buy for your dragon, that the RPG pedigree (not to mention their flair for comedy) that Larian have always had shines through, and we really had to think hard about some of those decisions.
Dragon Commander, then, is really a testament to Larian's ability to keep a whole bunch of diverse balls in the air. There are some flaws here, mostly when it comes to the lack of depth in the strategic elements of the game when compared to the games of Relic and Paradox and The Creative Assembly. But Dragon Commander is more than a strategy game. We can't think of another game in which the proposition of marriage to an undead princess, aptly named Ophelia, her bony non-existent lips smeared with crimson, has made us howl so much with laughter. The Raven is stuffed with a range of superbly voiced characters, few (if any) of whom particularly like one another, and thus the potential for comedy, and no small amount of deftly handled satire, is rife.
In the end, we can forgive all of the game's little foibles, its clunky controls, debatable depth, steep learning curve, and its rather light approach to RPG mechanics. You get to romp around a field as a dragon general wearing a jetpack, before heading back to your ship to debate universal healthcare with a talking Lizard and a drunk cave-dweller. It might be the case that there are far better strategy games, RPGs, and action titles out there, but none of them combine all of these elements into one game. And it's fun. It's really, really fun. It's like when you raid the fridge, grab a whole bunch of leftovers, and create something massive and delicious, leaving the kitchen in a mess. Dragon Commander is a bit of a mess, something this ambitious nearly always is, but it's so damn easy to love.
- The Councillors are hilarious
- Political decision-making works very well
- Jetpack dragons!
- Ludicrously ambitious -- the very fact it exists and works and is wildly entertaining is brilliant
- The RTS battles are fun and engaging...
- ...If not enormously deep
- Clunky interface and dragon controls
- Turn-based game is somewhat lacking
The Short Version: Dragon Commander is, for me, this year's Dragon's Dogma: title that's not afraid to be enterprising and cross boundaries. It's a glorious, hulking leviathan of a game. Bits of it are a little scuffed, but somehow Larian have managed to create a chaotic sort of cohesion. A game that's both silly and yet thought-provoking, a little inconsistent yet wildly ambitious, Dragon Commander is guaranteed to leave you with a big smile on your face.