Developers: Larian Studios
Publishers: Larian Studios
It's such an utterly fantastic name , and it brings with it two immediate connotations that form the fundamental core of this game: 1) It features dragons - surely the most badass of all fantastical creatures. 2) You are, for all intents and purposes in this game, the dog's bollocks. The top of the pack. Remember, Bond was a commander.
Say it with me. Dragon Commander.
It's the sort of high concept name that one might feasibly dream could have belonged to an arcade mainstay back in the 80s. But Larian's Divinity spin-off is an incredibly modern sort of game, given its scale and ambitions. A genre-hopping leviathan that takes great inspiration from a number of classic games across a range of genres, and whilst it could be argued that Divinity: Original Sin is perhaps the big draw of the day, after another appointment ushered me elsewhere in London, an early conclusion led me back to Larian to put more of Dragon Commander in my face.
Part table-top, turn-based board game, part real-time, Supreme Commander-esque strategy title (with a dash of Panzer Dragoon), it's clear that Larian are attempting to target a broad audience with this game, although such genre-hopping is not without its dangers.
"Of course it's a risk," Larian CEO Swen Vincke told me. "But we think we've got something really special on our hands. We've been successful working within a hardcore RPG niche, but it's time to expand upon that. No publisher would ever have picked this up, but now we're in a position to create something truly independently, we can take these risks and be ambitious when it comes to design, and we think we have a great game on our hands."
Dragon Commander unfolds across three main areas: the tactical world map, the real-time battlefield where you rain fiery death down upon your foes and plot your immediate strategies from the back of a jetpack-powered dragon, and the various chambers aboard your command vessel. The first two combine to form a game not unlike those found in The Creative Assembly's Total War series. You construct units (all of which have a certain range of movement), deploy your forces across a world map divided up into regions, and then wait for your opponents to finish their movements for the next turn. When all are ready, the pieces of each faction move simultaneously, forcing you to try to think ahead of your opponents.
The regions you control can be used to advance your supply lines in time, meaning that you won't have to keep transporting troops from your capital. Cards can be deployed to change the conditions for the next turn, perhaps deactivating enemy constructs for a short amount of time. Neutral regions won't put up a fight, but when forces from opposing factions meet, it's showdown time. Much as in Total War, you can opt to have the battle resolved automatically, but with the human element counting for a lot in these games, it's really all about swooping onto the battlefield and taking matters into your own hands.
And it's here that we return to the phrase "jetpack-powered dragon".
Indeed, I was so enamoured with the concept of basically running things by spitting fire from the mouth of a gigantic flying lizard that I neglected to actually engage in any meaningful real-time strategy, and spectacularly lost the battle. An offensive powerhouse in the right hands (so, not mine in that first game), it doesn't take much firepower to knock your dragon out of the sky. Should that happen, you'll still be able to marshal your forces, but it'll take a minute or two before you can take to the skies once more directly.
Each map has a finite number of capture points and, crucially, recruits. You start off with whatever troops you brought into the region, and have the option of deploying mercenary cards (if you have them) to bolster your starting ranks. From there, it's important to secure neighbouring capture points, so you can construct buildings to boost your conscript number. The more recruits you have, the more units you can create, with barracks supplying infantry units, factories serving up land-based vehicles, harbours and airfields...well...you get the idea. The units are upgradable, as is your dragon, and you'll need to keep eyes on land sea, and air, as there's nothing worse than running out of anti-air units just as a handful of bombers appear on the horizon. Once the region has been milked of its manpower and the recruit number depleted, that's it. You have to fight on with the units that you have.
It's here that clever use of the dragon can make all of the difference. There are already plans in motion to have several different races of dragon, in order to appeal to the range of player approaches to the game. "We're keen to let the players express themselves the way that they want to in the game," explained Vincke, "so that's one thing we're looking at. When we've been touring the game, we've noticed the different styles of play that occur on the battlefield. So some players prefer the action, and want to spend as much time as possible trying to make the difference in dragon form, so one of the dragons might have boosted offensive capabilities. There were others who barely touched the dragon, so we might have one that takes on a much greater support role."
Playing with the balanced 'Human' dragon, we quickly outfitted it with a powerful nuke attack, and the ability to charm an offensive unit. Enormously powerful, but rather fragile, our dragon was best used in short, sharp bursts, supported well with a bit of ground-pounding. As long as you're close to friendly units, you can deploy your dragon at any point, swooping down, deploying a nuke, and then just as immediately snapping back into general mode before your stormbringer is felled.
It's difficult to get a handle on just how deep the RTS systems go after only couple of hours of hands-on time, but it's immediately engrossing, and there's certainly room for potential when it comes to the tech upgrades for units. Looking at the screens initially, I worried perhaps that Dragon Commander might prove a little impenetrable, but I needn't have worried, as the game's fundamental principals are really rather simple and straightforward to understand, with enough accessibility to reach out beyond a niche strategy audience towards a wider crowd. I punched the air after my first victory of the day in that third game, as the action wrapped up in breathless fashion, and I made sure I had time to return to the event later on after fulfilling some other commitments just so I could squeeze one more round in. At first glance, what the game lacks in patient depth on the battlefield, is more than made up for in requiring the player to be quick and decisive. Like the best RTS titles out there, games can turn on a knife edge, and it's how you roll with the punches in those moments that will determine your successes on the field. Of course, thanks to the well implemented turn-based overlay, preparation can also be absolutely key.
"We wanted to make a strategy game that might appeal to action fans, and an action game that might appeal to strategy fans, and we wanted to include RPG elements in there, and have you experience the consequences of your decisions in the same way that games like Wing Commander did," said Vincke. "And that's really how the game came about. We were discussing these games from the past, games that we loved playing such as Dragon's Breath and Command & Conquer and how older games took more risks, and weren't restricted or hampered by genre. So we stared out with this board game idea, and then we added the real-time strategy, and then we got reminiscing about Wing Commander and added in the diplomatic, on-ship sections, and then Panzer Dragoon came up and we decided that we wanted the player to be able to roam the battlefield on a dragon, and wouldn't it be cool if you could directly influence play. And then someone said, 'Well, what if the dragon had a jetpack?' and I sort of stepped in after that to stop it becoming too much to handle!" He laughs, but he returns to the point later on.
"So much of the time you find publishers looking for an audience before they even have a game, or specifically designing a game to suit a certain type of audience. But I've always made games that I would want to play. I think here in Europe you see more developers making games for themselves, and then working out how to sell that game And you might run into trouble commercially perhaps as a result of that, but it'll be a more honest, and probably better game because of it."
Larian have always made games with a slightly satirical slant, and Divinity is an RPG series that overflows with frequently spot-on, pithy, tongue-in-cheek writing, and that doesn't look set to change here. In fact, if anything, Larian have taken the opportunity to really ramp things up. The command ship hub is where you'll take on missions, organise your upgrades, and also fill time in between turns on the world map with narrative chunks and racial diplomacy.
Your war room presents you with the emissaries from five races, who'll constantly bring socio-political matters to your attention, with each race broadly reflecting (and parodying) a collection of ideological viewpoints and political perspectives, from the capitalist agenda of the dwarves to the broad liberalism of the elves. The developers collated dozens of political manifestos from around the world, taking policies directly from currently operational governments to feed into this system and present the player with a number of decisions, many of which will seem enormously familiar to anyone who's picked up a newspaper in the past few months, such as the gay marriage debate. The manner in which you respond will have a direct effect on allegiance strength between the races that make up your empire. Our response delighted the elves, but rather irritated the dwarven and undead ambassadors.
Again, it's tricky to ascertain whether or not the system is purely superficial or if those diplomatic bonds will be brought to bear at a crucial moment in the story part of the game, but if anything Dragon Commander looks like a game set up to allow players to get stuck in wherever they want, and breeze through the bits that they'd rather ignore. It makes for a thoroughly exciting prospect and, if you appreciate all three of the major ingredients in this genre-busting project, could potentially be the most satisfying game of the year. However, in order to do that, Dragon Commander will need to prove itself in the long-run to be more than a jack-of-all-trades, and provide depth on all fronts. If Larian can pull that off, then it could well be a truly masterful breath of fresh air.