Hands-On: Divinity – Dragon Commander

By Adam Smith on March 4th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

Divinity: Dragon Commander contains two distinct components and in just over an hour of playing, I found much to like in both. I’m not entirely sure that the parts combine in a particularly meaningful way, but the total package managed to surprise me more times in that hour than many games do in a week of playing. You may well expect one side of the game, if a fast-paced RTS revolving around dragons wearing jetpacks is ever truly expected, but it’s the remainder that inspires the strongest response.

Before battle is met, Dragon Commander swiftly confronts players with a hippy elf and a skeleton princess. She is wearing lipstick, despite her rather obvious lip-lack. It’s skullstick, then, bonepaint that seems little more than a visual gag until the lady in question expresses her desire to return to life, clothed in flesh, inviting at least a modicum of sympathy. The management aspect of this strategy-RPG tells many stories and their branching political dialogues are designed to provoke reactions.

A sizable portion of the desired reaction is laughter, or at least a smile or groan, but Larian are seeking to apply pressure to more than the funny bone and are prepared to cut close to several other osseous masses. As representatives of the five ruling species crowd the player’s audience chamber, raising a new (random) issue at the beginning of each turn, they come to represent more than the clichés of the fantasy genre. They are broad containers for a collection of ideological viewpoints and arguments. I’d been playing for five minutes when the leader of the elves urged me to legalise gay marriage throughout my lands. I’d planned for dragons with jetpacks strapped to their backsides, but I hadn’t expected a skeleton to rebuke me for refusing to discriminate on grounds of gender and sexuality.

The viewpoints represented are capitalism (dwarves), libertarianism (lizard people), fundamentalism (undead), science-ism (imps) and liberalism (elves). At first glance, the characters offer gross exaggerations, played for laughs, which may come readily, uncomfortably or not at all depending on the topic and the player. Beneath the comic surface, there’s something more though.

“Every quote is pulled more or less directly from statements made by politicians or pundits about these issues.” Larian CEO Swen Vincke explained. The current press tour is the first time the game has been played by the gaming media and Vincke has since blogged about the nervous wait for the ‘flak’ that he believes is heading Larian’s way: “One thing that worries me a bit in particular is the discussion I’ve had with several journalists about the political and satirical topics in the game.”

The full blog post is worth reading, providing the kind of insight we rarely hear from the other side following a hands-on event. Judging from the limited number of encounters I arbitrated upon and other topics that I discussed with the team afterwards, I didn’t feel that Larian were attempting to court controversy but were, instead, interested in marrying direct concerns about society, science and morality with an otherwise conventional fantasy world. The dialogues engage with the player’s experiences and ideas outside the realm of dungeons and dragons, pushing buttons and teasing out reactions. Even within the cartoonish setting, I feel much more uncomfortable roleplaying a leader who spouts off like Glenn Beck’s wet dream than I do taking on the mantle of Horrible Necromancer #56.

It’s a bold move in a game for which the marketing has so far emphasised the gleefully ridiculous but I appreciate its inclusion, although it’s unclear how much of an impact the specifics of each conversation will have on the other parts of the game. At the moment, all that’s clear is that relationships with the races change for better or worse based on their reaction to the player’s own stance on the issues, and occasionally the player’s earns a card that provides bonuses such as one-off units or a boost to production speed.

Those paragraphs may seem like a great deal of noise about a small part of the game, but that’s not the case. The dialogue trees are time-consuming and extend beyond politics to personnel management, with different generals also reacting to the players’ decisions. I spent as much time exploring the conversations as I did suffering inglorious defeat in battle, and it’s through interactions with advisors and assistants that upgrades to both the dragon and units are undertaken as well.

The strategic map is simple and reminded me of Defender of the Crown. In fact, after playing I spent a good while talking to Vincke about the games I loved in my Amiga days, including the rarely mentioned Dragon’s Breath. Dragon Commander could have been plucked from that time – the sort multi-genre experimental compilation tape that lives long in the memory.

Army construction is simple – click on a territory and choose the units that it will produce – and movement is just as easy. Select an army, select a destination and click. Neutral territories don’t put up a fight but enemies, whether AI or human controlled, are also trying to dominate the map, and movement is simultaneous. You plot your construction and your manoeuvres, then commit, and live or die with the consequences.

When armies meet, the jetpacks come into play. And the nukes.

Every region has a specific population and while you’ll begin combat with the troops that you moved into place on the map, recruitment is essential to victory. All new armies are taken from the current population number, which means there’s a limited communal pool that both sides will want to drain as quickly as possible. To build units, strategic positions on the map must be captured, each allowing construction of a number of buildings, including recruitment centres, which increase the speed at which the population is siphoned into your hands, and the various types of factory and shipyard.

Certain units work well against others, although their position and any upgrades can have a powerful effect on the outcome of an encounter. The maps are small and the action is chaotic, made more so by the presence of the dragons. Yes, finally, here be dragons.

If the camera is close to friendly units, a player can summon his dragon and fly around the battlefield dropping bombs, breathing fire, healing squads and generally being a disruptive git. My attempts to assist my troops lasted about twenty seconds, at which point the other player’s dragon jetted in behind me and burned me to a crisp. There’s a cool-down before dragons can fuel up and divebomb back into action, although it can be skipped at the cost of a few population units. The intervention of the creatures is devastating and with the correct upgrades they can completely turn the tide of battle, but without support from the ground they can’t win the war. Success will come from careful use of the dragon, I imagine, knowing the best moment to strike and the correct skill to use rather than blundering in repeatedly.

In the build we were shown, the combat AI isn’t in place so the troops that overran my defences were controlled by another player. There was a lot happening on screen and it was happening quickly, but there is an icon-based clarity stencilled atop the busy graphics and once attuned to the pace, I think even my slow, methodical chess-player’s wits will find the tactical considerations simple enough to manage in real-time. That said, the use of population as a shared resource does favour the commander who acts quickly.

As with the multi-genre games of the early nineties that Dragon Commander reminded me of, there’s a suspicion that each part may be entertaining but slight. Only more time with the combat, and experimentation with various units and upgrades, will reveal the extent of variety in approaches, and intriguing though the characters are, dialogues could well be elaborate performances without any significance beyond the adjustment of popularity sliders.

Dragon Commander is an engaging curiosity that may yet reveal unexpected depths, but even if that’s not the case, it’s an unusual proposition and one that I appreciate. When it first skipped onto the stage, I feared it had used all of its best material in the opening salvo, but there may be more surprises yet.

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48 Comments »

  1. SuperNashwanPower says:

    Are they simply representing political views, or is there also a sub text of value judgement? For example, making a particular ideology be an ‘ugly’ animal and another a ‘cute’ one? A potential issue arises if the developer’s own political biases are subtly encoded into the design.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      That’s art, dude. If the developer’s own political biases are NOT subtly encoded into the design they did it wrong.

      • Adam Smith says:

        It’s also satire of political point-winning and punditry and doesn’t necessarily need to show its own sentiments to succeed.

        • ReV_VAdAUL says:

          The author’s political opinions will likely shine through regarding what aspect they chose to mock of the various political caricatures they choose to put forward.

          It seems a pointlessly risky choice to mash political satire into a game ostensibly about strategically using jetpack dragons. Even if the politics of the author don’t poke through too much, doing good political satire, especially overtly, is very difficult.

          • Snargelfargen says:

            I get the impression that the satire is going to be relatively superficial. Quoting the more extreme pundits from any ideology normally isn’t representative of the actual state of discourse. Having their words come out of skeletons and lizard men highlights the absurdity of the debate. To put it another way, this sounds like meta-humour very similiar to that in shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

            Of course the developers could easily mess up and make one faction more sympathetic/vilified than another by design or by accident. They also won’t be able to screen their players; Some people will always insist on taking the message at face value.

            Personally I am more comfortable with satire that revels in its absurdity. It’s in overly serious games like Far Cry 3 where the satire becomes indistinguishable from the authors’ views.

      • smb says:

        Unless their artistic design is to NOT subtly encode their own political views into a video game. Because, you know, that’s art too.

        DEFINING ART IS FUN-FUN-FUN!

    • Adam Smith says:

      I’d say there’s no value judgement whatsoever, but that’s probably impossible to achieve. There’s certainly an attempt to avoid it and in the decisions I saw there are no good or bad characters. The comic angle works as a buffer against pushing bias because every character is presented as ridiculous, even when the topic is serious. They’re all essentially extremists of whatever stripe.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        Thanks Adam. Yeah I guess its hard for anyone to seem particularly serious when there are jetpack wearing dragons around. I think my main concern was the possibility of subtle indoctrination. I know its basically everywhere (e.g. “the enemy is always a Russian”) but I always feel leery of those times when an effort seems to have been made to sugar coat it or slip it under the radar, especially if the target audience is young.
         
        On the upside, maybe this will satisfy the dragon flying itch that Skyrim didn’t quite scratch…

    • pakoito says:

      The Libertarian Lizard is a racist too.

    • lofaszjoska says:

      I appreciate how forthcoming they are about it. You want cute elves? You’ll have to play it liberal then. I’d gladly play a game that promotes values opposed to mine, as long as I’m being told up ahead.

      It’s media that pretends to be neutral but keeps bombarding you with propaganda regardless that pisses me off.

  2. almightybooka says:

    I like the way you work it, no divinity.

  3. Ringwraith says:

    Larian, never stop making games the way you do, you completely insane people.
    They do make some of the funniest RPGs I’ve ever played, their writing is so spot-on I find.

    • RedViv says:

      Aye. They know that their scenarios are inherently rather ridiculous, and just have fun with it instead of going the way of grimification. And still the stories stay seriously interesting.

      So, yeah. Never stop, folks at Larian. Never.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      Agreed. I am so happy to see developers trying to innovate within the fantasy genre.

  4. Jorum says:

    I loved Dragons Breath. I remember making a proper book to record my potion experiments in, with diagrams and arcania and stuff.

  5. RedViv says:

    Libertarian lizard people? I hope they come from the faraway land of Icky-Eh.

  6. Dimonte says:

    Woah, so it’s like the I of the Dragon, but with non-shitty strategic layer? Do want.

  7. medwards says:

    The full blog post is actually pretty bad. It amounts a bunch of worries about how the press will receive the game, and that they included a gratuitous booby shot as some sort of statement on censorship. The comments thread is going mad with criticism and conservatist cries about over-wrought political correctness.

    EDIT: Later in the comments the developers claim that this boob shot occurs in the context of ‘selecting princesses’ in which there are multiple in-game voices critiquing this act of objectification. Which is interesting actually.

    • Kein says:

      Calm your tits, this is a personal blog. You do know what personal means, right? Author can and should post whatever he wants.

      Here is the official site you are probably looking for: http://www.divinitydragoncommander.com/

      • medwards says:

        Blog post was still bad. By the CEO. On a blog subtitled “A blog about successful independent game development.” In which he talked about a press event involving his game. And talked about the decision-making process behind public statements.

        But ultimately, none of that matters. The blog post was bad, it contains just enough data to be unnecessarily controversial but not enough to project any actual thoughtfulness about the controversies it raises. Whatever else the post or blog is, it is bad on those merits alone and I will judge it as such.

    • nearly says:

      you understand the concept of a blog, right?

  8. TsunamiWombat says:

    “I’d been playing for five minutes when the leader of the elves urged me to legalise gay marriage throughout my lands. I’d planned for dragons with jetpacks strapped to their backsides, but I hadn’t expected a skeleton to rebuke me for refusing to discriminate on grounds of gender and sexuality.”

    Annnnd Sold

    • Tssha says:

      Something tells me I’m not gonna get along with the undead faction. Though I do at least sympathize with their desire to be living, breathing beings, while simultaneously being “living challenged”. Still, they’re alive in that they have minds and can interact with the world. That’s something, right?

  9. squareking says:

    For some reason this is starting to remind me of Armed & Dangerous, which is a good thing.

  10. caddyB says:

    I’ve found some conversations and some quests in Ego Draconis / Dragon Knight Saga hilarious. I’m reasonably sure that they’ll pull it off.

  11. Ian says:

    All I wanted when I saw the jetpacks + dragons combo was that the game not be balls.

    That it seems they’re actually trying to make an interesting game is tremendous.

  12. MasterDex says:

    It looks and sounds like something I’d play. I’ve one question niggling away at the back of my mind however, one I’m sure will effect my overall enjoyment of the game – Why the hell does a Dragon need a jetpack? Surely it’s uneconomical. Not that I’m saying that Dragon’s shouldn’t be allowed to wear jetpacks, it just seems unnecessary. Some might say it even damages the integrity of other people’s jetpacks.

    • pakoito says:

      NOS

    • caddyB says:

      Because they need to go fast, duh!

    • Adam Smith says:

      Dragons with jetpacks can do a mean sideways thrust-dodge.

      • MasterDex says:

        Fair point, but can they do a barrel-roll?

        ….I’m sorry. I’m just going to go now.

    • Azhrarn says:

      Dragons aren’t exactly the fastest of flyers, they’re much better at gliding and roasting. So in order to expedite the movement of the dragon you strap a huge jetpack to it. :) That way it can provide meaningful intervention across a much larger combat arena.

      Also, note that Larian have plated the dragons tail in armour so it doesn’t get burned to a crisp by his own exhaust. :)

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      While I do see your point and concede its merit, I refute it thus: Dragons with jetpacks.

  13. Drake Sigar says:

    Playing that Choice of the Dragon text adventure made me realise how much I want to be a freakin’ dragon.

    • RedViv says:

      Oh, I enjoyed that. An all-out graphical dragon RPG would be absolutely grand.

    • lofaszjoska says:

      Nice of you to remind me of that. Still haven’t finished the other story, the one where you’re a navy captain.
      Here’s hoping I didn’t empty my box of cookies since then.

  14. Lemming says:

    Every time I see the screen shots of this the kid in me thinks “WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!” and then the adult in me thinks “Wouldn’t that jet pack rip the dragon’s unfurled wings off?

    • Azhrarn says:

      Except, that when you see the game in motion, the dragon folds his wings back every time it jets along. In other words, it’s protecting it’s wings from getting ripped off by reducing their surface area. :)

      • vecordae says:

        That’s good to hear. It really ruins my immersion when the laws of aerodynamics magically don’t apply to my giant jetpack dragon.

  15. slerbal says:

    Awesome. My interest is most definitely piqued.

  16. JoshuaMadoc says:

    Hm. I might actually give this a chance.

    Don’t disappoint me with Original Sin and its modding tools. I beg of you.

  17. akstro says:

    This is what the Dragonborn DLC for Skyrim should have been. I wonder if you can use mods to do that…